JOUMANA HADDAD announced a full-scale revolt against traditional notions of Arab femininity with her 2010 essay collection, I Killed Scheherazade, referring to the titular crafty storyteller of The Arabian Nights. She also spared no critique of Middle Eastern men — of all religions — for what she believed were patriarchal and backward attitudes toward sex and marriage.
It was not the first time she upset traditionalists — her Arabic-language magazine Jasad had been previously pushing norms with frank discussions of the body and its erotics. Haddad has taken her activism beyond the printed page, running for election for a seat in the Lebanese parliament last year. The unsuccessful outcome came amid irregularities that her supporters perceived as fraud.
She is the author of 16 works of poetry, essays, and nonfiction, and a leading voice in contemporary popular Arab literature. She met with LARB in the cafe of Le Gray Hotel in downtown Beirut.
TOM ZOELLNER: Some would look at Scheherazade as a feminist character. She was able to preserve her life through her own cleverness at telling stories, and you are also a woman telling stories. Why title your book as you did?
JOUMANA HADDAD: Because the difference between me and her is that I would like to see women telling their own stories for their own pleasure and not because they want to get away with something. In the case of Scheherazade, it was because she had to stay alive. To me, that’s a compromise. We shouldn’t have to negotiate over basic rights. This is why I say there are many Scheherazades all over the world: women who try to negotiate with men or outsmart male authority to get what they want. To me, this is not real power. To me, real power is looking someone in the eye and saying, “This is what I want, and I’m going to take it.”
How did the Arabic translation fare?
It’s still a best seller in Arabic. A lot of people, especially women, but also men found themselves in that book. But sometimes that confrontation makes you feel uncomfortable. The sad thing is people always tell me this book is still relevant even after eight years. I would love it for sometime during my lifetime to be a book of history and not current affairs.
Is there a tradition of Arabic literature of the body?
Immense. There is a beautiful rich heritage of erotica. There was a manual for lovers called The Perfumed Garden. Many other books that deal with sexuality and pleasure, and accepted pleasure as a means to procreate, like the way the hypocrites want to portray it, but also as a means of getting pleasure and giving pleasure. We had a huge tradition. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to tackle the subject. We have to understand what happened.
What did happen?
A mixture of many factors. One of them, in the 19th and early 20th century, people turned to religion more and more because they were disappointed with the regimes in the Arab world. The more religious you become, the less space you give to earthly pleasures. A second reason would be the increased linking between Arabic and the sacred. We all know it as the language of the Qur’an, but it has only become more associated with the sacred. So the vocabulary we used to have has been lost. When I say some of those words in Arabic related to the penis, to the breasts, orgasm, some young people don’t know what I’m talking about. They know it in English, not in Arabic. The so-called religious leaders have come to interpret religion to have more leverage and control over people. It’s been used in a Machiavellian way — the notion of sex as a sin outside the bond of marriage.
What is the role of anger in the creation of literature?
I’m fueled by it, but it’s the good kind, not the destructive kind. I would say more outrage against the injustices and the double standards I see around me. I was raised during a war that could not leave you indifferent. You could either surrender or be outraged. Anger always drove me to challenge my circumstances. It’s become the manner through which I confront life. It makes me want to contribute.
At the height of the war, you were 12 years old. How did the war inform your sense of men and women?
I would need a therapist, but certainly the war affected me deeply. I always used words related to war — explosions, killing, struggle — in a metaphorical way. The first years of your life you have a different kind of awareness. But all around me there has been war. What saved me from becoming crazy was books. At 12, I read the Marquis de Sade. This is not something an adolescent would read. There is a sense of urgency in me. However much I trained myself to overcome, it is always there. I always have a sense of not having done enough because I could disappear at any second. I always dreamed of doing impossible things.
You’re from a Roman Catholic family. Is it controversial to issue criticisms of Islam from this perspective?
Well, I’m definitely not Christian. I’m an atheist. Even so, people ask, “What kind of atheist are you, a Christian atheist or a Muslim atheist?” Because it makes a difference. There is an obsession with keeping a balance in Lebanon. If you criticize Muslims, you have to criticize Christians and Druze. I don’t give a lot of attention to that. I just say what I want.
But the Muslim world is so diverse. Is it fair to call it an oppressive patriarchy across the board without taking into account the many, many different forms it takes?
I never claim to generalize. Many people from Muslim backgrounds tell me that it is representative. They tell me what I say is true, but incomplete. You cannot write a “complete.” Even when I was running for election, everything I wrote in my books was used against me. People didn’t realize my program was based on what I had written before. Those values I defined — freedom and secularism — were the reasons I ran.
Do writers have a direct role in politics?
I did not run in a direct capacity as a writer. I’ve been a journalist and activist for human rights for more than 15 years, especially for equality, women’s issues, LGBT, freedom of expression, and secularism, and these values are where a decent Lebanon should start. We have this illusion that we’re a democracy and open, but when you scratch the surface, all the shit begins to appear. I considered myself to be one of the few voices who talk about these things out loud. My advisors told me to tone it down on delicate matters, but I did my whole program on those issues. Writers in politics? It would be good if people of education and intellect took on a public role instead of this vicious cycle of politicians endlessly reproducing themselves.
You got married at 19.
The first time. I’m a serial marrier. I wanted to be my own boss. Can you imagine running away from your own parents and into a marriage? I had a horrible traditional father. He is like a rock. Nothing changes him. I decided the only way I could be my own boss was to get married.
Not everyone has that experience in a marriage.
I know. But you have to choose well. Even at 19, you can choose well. Even though it ended, it was a good marriage.
You mention the superficiality of Beirut’s liberalism. But aren’t you in one of the best cities in the Arab world to have freedom of expression and some agency?
Regarding freedom of expression, you’re not far from the truth. But Tunisia’s record on human rights is much better than Lebanon’s. The status of women is much better. And why should we always compare ourselves to the worst? We should compare to the best, because there is this Lebanese chauvinism that likes to think of itself as the best in the Arab world. Just because the majority of women don’t wear hijabs, where is the economic independence? We are citizens of a second degree because we still have religious status laws. Even if I don’t believe, everything that rules my affairs is the religion I was born to, and religious laws favor men over women.
Do you see your role as that of a deliberate provocateur?
Definitely not deliberate. Why? Whatever provocation I do is collateral damage. Had I been born in any other Western country, I would be average. Just because I have a big mouth and like to say things how they are doesn’t mean I want to sugarcoat anything. I’m just expressing myself, my truth.
But there is a role in Western literature of the deliberately inflammatory document. Portions of your memoir recalled the over-the-top style of Émile Zola’s “J’Accuse.” Do you agree with that characterization?
There are two ways of shaking things up. There are those who like to do it a small step at a time. And there are those who are more direct. I’m always drawn to those who do it like a volcano, like de Sade, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, the French writers who are very free. It is not deliberate in that it is not forced.
Does US feminism get it right?
Feminisms. I don’t think we should use the singular. The main point of interest for me in the debate is the basic sentence: “Equality in rights and opportunities,” and that’s it. There are lots of forms of feminism that I don’t approve of. There is a form of colonial feminism that I truly despise: those who consider that in the name of cultural relativism, we need to accept that a woman can wear the niqab or a man should have four wives. This is not feminism. Human dignity is universal. If a woman is forced to hide herself completely when she goes out, that is wrong. I do not approve of the feminism that considers men the enemy. There are lots of patriarchal women, just as there are lots of feminist men, and we should start understanding the difference. I followed the #MeToo movement, of course, as did everyone on the planet, and it wasn’t big here because it is still taboo to talk about cases of harassment at work. Even if you are beaten up by your husband, in many cases the police will tell you to go back to your husband. To talk about men putting your hand on your shoulder in a certain way is a little too much for us to tackle.
How does The Seamstress’s Daughter fit in with the rest of your work?
It is my first novel. It starts with my maternal grandmother, who was Armenian and three years old at the time of the genocide, and she lost her parents and had a miserable life, but survived and she came to Beirut and has her family here. She committed suicide when I was seven, and I was the one who found her. I have always been intrigued by her. In one hundred years, four women in our family survived four wars. It is as if we are doomed to survive, but not live.
Simon J. Reilly is a Dublin-born painter living in Los Angeles. You can see more of his work at www.simonreilly.net.