Joumana Haddad or the Myth Unmasked

By: Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

As is proper in good journalism, I did research prior to this interview, reading news and reviews, and looking at pictures and videos. Even so, and I don’t know why, despite the evidence collected during my research, I clung to an image of a distraught, quiet, and suspicious woman that formed as soon as I knew I would be interviewing a female Arab writer and polyglot who had risked becoming a feminist. After all, how else could she be, living in the Arab world, considered by the condescending eyes of the West to be one of the most misogynistic regions in the world?

So, while walking down the hotel hallway to her suite, I adopted a doleful attitude, preparing myself for a long lament about the misfortunes of being a woman in the Middle East, taking silent delight in the pretense that we Westerners treat our fellow man with greater justice. My indulgent mirage began to vanish as soon as the woman answered the door. Essentially feminine, she appeared calm, confident, and more surprisingly, dressed completely unlike my expectations of how an Arab woman would be dressed. But Joumana Haddad breaks all the molds, and without even trying.

Many would assume that, being Arabic, Joumana must be Muslim. Completely wrong. “I’m not Muslim; I was born and raised Catholic,” she replies. “That’s the problem with generalizations made about the Arab world. Not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arabs. There are many Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Asia who are not Arabs, and there are Christian Arabs in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, for example.”

And so we focused our interview on misogyny and women’s struggles for emancipation, not as an Islamic problem, but one linked to religion in general and, in particular, to monotheistic religions, transcending the Arab world.

“Every time I travel to a country with a strong Catholic presence, for example, women tell me they have the same problems. Why? These women are not Muslim. I explain in the book how the Catholic Church has evolved and discovered hypocritical means to discriminate and oppress that are no less oppressive than the methods of Islam and Judaism,” said Haddad.

The book she mentions is I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman, recently translated into Spanish, which was presented at the 2013 International Book Fair in Panama. Joumana was born on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital of Beirut in the late 1970s. The sequel to this book, Superman is an Arab, has just been translated into Spanish; it is the latest link in a chain of transgressions (at least when viewed from the perspective of religious fundamentalism) that began with the poems in Time for a Dream, her first published work, released in 1995.

From that point on, she began publishing intensely and prolifically, though never in a hurry. Her works translated into the language of Cervantes alone include: Where the River Catches Fire (2005), When I Became Fruit (2006), The Return of Lilith (2007), Mirrors of the Fugitives (2010), The Nine Lives of Luca (Children’s Literature, 2011), and Lovers Should Only Wear Loafers (Erotic literature, 2011). The sensory perceptions of her body and the bodies of others, as well as eroticism, have marked much of her poetry. She is, in fact, editor-in-chief of Jasad (“body” in Arabic), a magazine specializing in literature and body arts. The publication wouldn’t raise a stir in the West, but in the Arab world it has generated constant controversy since it was first published in 2008.

“We are all sensing and sensual beings, but there are people, hypocrites perhaps, who don’t want to believe this, who are afraid of their bodies and riddled with complexes. They have an unhealthy relationship with their bodies and therefore decide it’s not an important part of life. This creates problems in all aspects of life, not only in relationships between men and women, but in a person’s relationship with him or herself. In the Arab world, the relationship with one’s body is unhealthy, fearful, ignorant, and machismo runs rampant, which means that a woman’s body is not her own, but belongs to the man, who can therefore do with it what he will.”

Joumana had an early introduction to erotic poetry. “I discovered it through reading. I read a lot, everything I could find in my father’s library, like the Marquis de Sade, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin, from the time I was eleven or twelve,” she says. In any case, Arabic literature enjoyed a similar approach until some two centuries ago. What happened to change that? “I have books from the tenth and eleventh centuries, written in Arabic, that speak of eroticism and sexuality in a wonderful, natural way, without fear or complexes, in very true fashion. But in Islam in particular, we need to understand that the power of religion in the Arab world grew very strong in the twentieth century, when many of the secular regimes transformed into dictatorships, like in Egypt and Syria. People grew disappointed and frustrated. Religious leaders have used this frustration to gain sympathy and power. This was apparent in the revolutions in all these countries in which people voted for Islamists.”

So is there no room for democracy in the Arab world? “Not yet: we have to wait. The Arab Spring may happen in a generation. It was inevitable in a region like the Arab world that change would include a period of Islamic power. You might say it is a necessary purgatory. People will understand later on that it’s not the future they need and deserve. We can already feel some of that in Egypt for example, where people have resisted the Islamists. Unfortunately, this resistance has required support from the military. Which leads us into a vicious circle.”

Careful! Here we’re in danger of falling back into our Western complacency, but Joumana notes that although it may rain in the Middle East, in the West it pours. “There’s a vicious circle in Europe evident in the awakening of the near-Nazi Christian Right, who oppose Muslim immigrants. Islamic people there may not have been religious extremists in their own countries, but this type of opposition leads them to look for proof of their identity, culture, history, and traditions in religion.”

Still, the writer recognizes differences in the way socio-religious coexistence is handled in both cultures. “There is a difference of five hundred years between Islam and Christianity. In Europe, especially in France and the Scandinavian countries, for example, it has been possible to separate Christian religion and the state. I haven’t seen this separation in Latin America. Islam may be able to achieve it in five hundred years, but I don’t want to wait five hundred years and I don’t want my children to have to wait this long. It’s absurd.”

Social transformations are complex and unpredictable. In any case, Joumana Haddad knows what she wants for herself, her children, the Arab region, and the world at large, and how she can help to achieve it. “Each of us has one thing to do. As a writer, I have a passion for saying out loud what many are afraid to say. When I receive an email from a man or woman, who says: “Thank you for expressing what I cannot express,” I believe I am participating in my own way. Others do it by other means, but each of us has a responsibility.”