If Jasad, the erotic magazine published by Joumana Haddad was “to create a cultural body for our Arab bodies and to inquire intellectually into the consciousness of the body and into its unconsciousness”, then the book I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman is purposefully about the freedom and the liberation of the Arab mind that is “in crisis” – or, at least, according to Haddad.
In fact, she does not waste time on pleasantries or niceties, beginning the first chapter by the strong indictment and condemnation of the Arab culture, psychologically diagnosing it and its people with a core schizophrenia and an advanced level of hypocrisy, all down to the religious and political elements that repress and oppress any form of novel expression or creativity, that she herself won’t suffer.
But I would, playing devil’s advocate, go as far as to extend her metaphor and challenge that if, truly the general Arab is schizophrenic, then the Middle East must be the bigger or greater asylum, where the insane happen to rule and the sane can easily go mad. Are we Arabs then all committed in this way? I believe that Haddad would very happily reply yes to this question.
To further quote: “The Arab majority depends upon a web of comforting lies and illusions. It means that your life and your stories must be repressed, clamped down and encoded; rewritten to suit the vestal guardians of Arab chastity, so that the latter can rest assured that the delicate Arab ‘hymen’ has been protected from sin, shame, dishonour or flaw.”
For Haddad is not just “angry,” but “livid” I would say, at not just the Arab man and his total but by the Arab woman herself (and her total) who is often times “her own best adversary, often a conspirator against her sex. . and (who) is excellent at innovating ways to humiliate the woman, to frustrate her and annul her own identity and role.” And why should the artistic voice be silenced, whichever sex? – “Is there a more whorish act than depriving an Author of his or her words?” Haddad herself won’t bow down to any censor or pressure.
The book is then structured parallel to Haddad’s journey, from childhood days – when at the age of twelve she first began her love affair with Literature, reading all of the philosophic Western texts in French – to her love-hate relationship with Beirut, Lebanon and its war days, onto becoming a poet, a woman and her provocation of Allah, as well as the real reasons for starting and continuing with Jasad.
The writing itself is very raw and passionate and, of course, seductively confessional. Her main upset though – and to reiterate – is on the subject of being an Arab woman and on being an Arab writer and intellect, living and breathing within the confines of an Arab country, where there is still – I would say – the incidental philosophic pleasure and the circumstance of having to undergo an adventure to remain true to one’s authentic self and to realise one’s existential potential.
But that is where I felt that Haddad perhaps doesn’t acknowledge how privileged an entity she really is and that she would never be the norm in any culture. For to have come to her autonomous position, one must have already had access to and interest in the complicated texts that permeate her verse and the ideas, theories and concepts that to a general Arab audience are still most likely to fall on deaf or dumb ears, purely for the fact that they are of a Western disposition and of a politically liberal and secular temperament.
Not that I don’t applaud her efforts to call for change or her attempts to come clean with very brave private admissions. Would I recommend this book? Absolutely! For your copy, you can contact Saqi book publishers.
Note: Article first published circa September 2010