An Open Letter to Joumana Haddad

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Dear Joumana,

I see you are preparing for the launch of your new book “I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman” by Saqi this September. Congratulations.

I am writing you this letter because I read through your interview in the Guardian last week and big keywords popped out of the page: Hezbollah, Lebanon, seaside, Scheherazade, Jasad, bigotry, Catholic, Arab, sex, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, flamboyant, hatred, femininity, war, suicide, DeSade, PhD, taboos, prominence, Beirut.

Big words.

I have many things I want to publicly discuss with you and I’m not quite sure where to start. What I know for sure is that I want to make this a constructive letter. It would be very easy for me to just roll my eyes and fill it with sarcasm and fun-poking, similar to what the Angry Arab has done. But I am trying to steer away from “maskhara activism.” I really want to communicate my ideas constructively because, at the end of the day, you and I are not very different. And part of me believes that the Lebanese people do need a voice like yours because it has a way of reaching them.

We are both advocates for sexual freedoms. You want to see an Arab culture that is not afraid to talk openly about sex, doesn’t judge people for having lots of sex, and celebrates what is usually considered taboo. So do I. You want women to be treated as equals to men. So do I. You want to write about all the things that anger you. So do I. You want to wear your own sexuality out on your sleeve, hide it from no one, at whatever cost and threat and judgment. So do I. And yet, we are fundamentally different in a number of ways: our experiences, our strategies, our goals, our audiences, our lives, and it is in these differences that I would like to build dialogue.

You have said numerous times that you are not a feminist. And I agree. You aren’t. But your work would benefit a lot if you grounded it in some feminist analysis – which doesn’t necessarily mean you have to self-identify as a feminist yourself. But your writing and your direction of Jasad magazine falls short of situating the work in a political framework. Since you edit the cultural section of An-Nahar, I imagine you think of your work as a cultural project that wants to contribute to Arab culture as a whole by breaking silences. But change is a political process, always. And when it comes to sex in particular, our expressions of and writings on sexuality that challenge the status quo, that seek to exist despite oppressions, are extremely political.

And so, if you were to frame your work politically, it would really help direct all the anger and resentment you feel towards our Arab cultures. I put an “s” after “culture” to emphasize that we not only live in diverse cultures but also form diverse cultures that could be attributed with “Arab.” I think it’s fine to use the term Arab when we want to talk about some commonality of language, history, geography, traditions, group mentality of sorts, etc. These are fluid, but also real attributes that we can identify when we talk about Arabs. We recognize them in each other. But you can see, thus, the huge problematic with statements like “The Arab mind is in crisis.”

What we also have in common (to whatever extent half a billion people can have something in common) is a shared colonial history and a process of having been “othered” by the intellectuals of the West. In other words, we have been lumped into a shared identity and we have embraced it. Needless to say, it has never been much of a cool identity, which is why many of us who live on the margins of our “cultures” have such trouble fitting in. Funnily enough, European thinkers have traditionally written about the Arabs as being decadent, sexually insatiable, and homosexual among other things. They thought our sexualities needed controlling and our minds needed cleansing. That’s why so much eroticism and exoticism surrounds traditions like belly dancing and veils and – well – Scheherazade, whom you want to kill.

Today, we are perceived quite differently by most of the world: as backwards, as repressed, as terrorists. You have every right to be outraged when that Swedish journalist was surprised that you could be both Arab & “liberated.” I get the same reaction when people know I am a queer activist. One German woman I met in Vienna once asked me if I was forced to wear a veil in Lebanon and took it off when I came to Europe. True story. Gets on your nerves, I can understand that. But the question we have to ask ourselves is this: who are we angry at exactly? At the West for being so ignorant? Or at our own Arab leaders for driving our dominant cultures into poverty and self-censorship and consumerism? It is an important distinction and we talk to these two audiences differently.

And so I look forward to reading I Killed Scheherazade to see if you’ve written it to mean that you’re destroying the Arab people’s traditional restrictions of womanhood or if you mean that you’re destroying the Orientalist perceptions of what it means to be an Arab woman. Or both perhaps?

Your country doesn’t hate you, Joumana, for talking about sex. Jasad Magazine is not as shocking as you make it out to be in your interviews. To be honest, I don’t think there is anything that could ever shock the Lebanese people – especially not sex. But I certainly think there is a big need for writings that Jasad publishes, articles and personal stories about sexuality and having sex. And I think it’s great that a woman spearheads this project. If it were a man, it would be a lot creepier. I love that you encourage women to liberate themselves sexually and that you situate that within a cultural project. But I don’t see how you can do all that and still think feminism is the opposite of femininity and that feminists hate all men and want to destroy them. There’s a gap here. It doesn’t make sense how both your mission and that statement can go together. If you don’t understand feminism, you can’t fully understand sexuality, and if you don’t fully understand sexuality, you can’t lead a sexual revolution that will liberate the “Arab mind.”

I have many more things I want to vocalize, so I don’t know how to finish this letter. I would like to invite you to a cup of tea – when you have more time after the launch of your book – if you are willing, so that we can have a discussion about culture, sex, and politics. I sincerely hope you’d accept my invitation.

An Open Letter to Joumana Haddad

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35 Responses to “An Open Letter to Joumana Haddad”

  1. zuzula

    Feb 15. 2011

    Thank you so much for this. I would love to see further vocalization.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Rash

    Nov 08. 2010

    J’AI TUÉ SCHÉHÉRAZADE- Joumana Haddad …..is out now …..and very interested

    Reply to this comment
  3. LZR

    Sep 07. 2010

    Great Nadz!

    Reply to this comment
  4. David

    Sep 05. 2010

    Third wave feminism is good, post-feminism is the future – yes, it requires post-patriarchic men. We are here. Let’s get going with the work.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Sherif

    Sep 04. 2010

    Thank you Nadz and Joumana for having a mature and intellectual debate about this. I found the article about Joumana to be very interesting. I am looking forward to the book and Nadz’ review!

    Reply to this comment
  6. علي

    Sep 03. 2010

    المقال رائع جدا
    والرد عادل
    شكرا عالنقاش الرائع و فخور فيكن

    Reply to this comment
  7. M.

    Sep 01. 2010

    اذا كان من امر جيد وراء نشر المقابلة المغثية في الغارديان, فهو ما اقرأه هنا

    شكراً لقلمك و عقلك ندز, بغض النظر عن نوع الحوار الذي سيدور بينك وبين جومانة حداد حول فنجان شاي, وربما لن نعرف تماماً ما ستقولانه, ولكن ما قرأته هنا_وان كنت اتمناه بالعربية_ هو بلا شك من افضل ما قرأته مؤخراً في النسوية و الجنسانية مروراً بلمحات من علم الاجتماع في العالم العربي

    ولو سمحت لي بالتعليق على تفصيلة صغيرة وربما غير متعلقة بالموضوع. انا لا ادعي اني نسوية او ضد النسوية, اؤيد الحرية الجنسية و اؤمن بحق اياً كان ان يمارس ما يحلو له من صنوف الجنس في غرفة نومه و دون اي حاجة لاشهار التفضيلات الجنسية بأي شكل او المطالبة باختزال شخصه الى احد اوجه الحياة وهو الجنس, ولكني تربوية, و احد اكبر المعضلات التي تواجهني حين افكر بموضوع الحريات هو كيف نطلق الحريات في مجتمعاتنا دون ان نقرنها بالمسؤولية؟
    مسؤولية الاختيار و التنفيذ و عدم استعداء المجتمع الذي نريده ان يتغير الى الافضل من وجهة نظرنا
    .وكيف يمكن ان نقارب موضوعاً كالجنس دون ان نخشى الفهم الخاطئ و التشكيك في الاهداف والدافعية؟
    بصراحة لا اعرف اجوبة عن تساؤلاتي بهذا الخصوص, ولكني اظن انه من المفيد ان ننخرط فعلياً في التفكير الجدي و النقاش و البحث العلمي في سبيل انتاج خطاب ينادي بالتربية الجنسية والحرية الجنسية كصنوان

    واظن ان هذا الخطاب المفتوح الى جمانة حداد, و الذي يمكن تفكيك نقاطه واحدة واحدة و العمل عليها باستقلالية وتنفنيدها لرأي عام يجب ان يعرف, خطوة مهمة واساسية لبناء وعي مجتمع و انساني افضل بأدوات معرفية لا غبار عليها

    مودتي مجدداً لهذا الموقع ولجرأتكمـ-ـن

    Reply to this comment
  8. alva

    Sep 01. 2010

    oh wow, this page was a good read.

    Reply to this comment
  9. Aphrodite

    Sep 01. 2010

    شكرا للرد جومانا، يبدو من كلامك أن ما يجمعنا أكثر مما يفرقنا، ويبدو أننا سنقرأ كتابك لنكتب عنه في أعدادنا المقبلة…لكن يلفتني دائما استخدامك تعبير “ما بعد نسوية”، لذا وددت القول أن هذا التعبير في مكان مثل لبنان، كمثل قول أحد وزرائنا أننا في عصر ما بعد الصناعة، فيما نحن ما زلنا نختبر حضور الكهرباء في منازلنا ساعتين في النهار.

    Reply to this comment
  10. dima

    Sep 01. 2010

    there can be no post-feminism without a post-patriarchy

    Reply to this comment
  11. Ninz

    Aug 31. 2010

    Wow, I love this debate, and although i agree on most points on both sides, it would be so enriching to attend a debate over this issue… Nadine, amazing as usual, and Joumana, looking forward to reading your book!

    Reply to this comment
  12. farah

    Aug 31. 2010

    I think we would all enjoy a public debate with ms. joumana after her book comes out. we, atleast me personally, would love to see both joumana and nadz debating in an-open questions sessions perhaps. i am intregued by what joumana calls post-feminism and would like to see how it can compare to what most of us have adopted as feminism, which nadz would represent.

    Reply to this comment
  13. N.C

    Aug 31. 2010

    Wow! I didn’t think she’d reply.

    Reply to this comment
  14. Joumana Haddad

    Aug 31. 2010

    Dear Nadz,
    First of all, thank you for your letter. I deeply appreciated your honesty and your capacity to build a dialogue with someone (you think) you don’t share many opinions and views of the world with. It is so rare these days to find someone who can say ‘I do not agree with you’ in a decent way. I am grateful for that.

    Just a few words, which I hope we can elaborate later on. Scheherazade is both an orientalist fetish I resent, and an image of negotiation and compromise I refuse. That is why I used her as a pretext (or a metaphor) to express some of my anger (s) in this new book. Angers addressed at the West’s persistent clichés, as much as at our auto-indulgence in many matters.
    You cannot judge a book by its cover, Nadz, nor can you judge a person from what the media wants him/her to be. I believe you can go beyond these traps. Or at least you can give them the benefit of the doubt, a currency much needed today.
    I did not say that my country hates me because I talk about sex (although, believe it or not, JASAD does shock many people in Lebanon, unlike what you and I would like to think)…
    That statement is actually taken from a chapter where I talk about the issue of belonging from my point of view, and my problematic relationship with my country, where, like you I suppose, i had to face death and fear and loss from childhood till now.
    Let me include here the rest of the excerpt:
    ——————————————-
    “Belonging? Thanks but no thanks. I grew up in a country that hates me, and that expressed this hatred in so many ugly ways.
    In fact, since my early days with writing, I have always felt that my city is an anti-inspiration. And I still feel that everything I do, everything I say, everything I write, I am doing and saying and writing ‘against’ her will. Our relationship is polite, appropriate, and cordial at most, but there is a vast degree of alienation between us. Beirut the queen of contradictions. Beirut the martyr and the whore. The veiled and the emancipated. The ambiguous and the obvious. The treacherous and the loyal. The money lover and the artist. The Oriental and the Occidental. The seductress and the pilgrim …
    The city where living is similar to acting in a TV soap opera;
    where you can’t help but feel you are “sleeping with the enemy” every time you go to bed. And that this enemy is you;
    where anarchy is considered order, and the notion of honour is strictly linked to what’s between a girl’s thighs;
    where all politicians are continuously quarrelling over power as chicken quarrel over a few crumbs of bread, but almost none of whom is paying attention to our need for a civil, cultured and aware society;
    where religious authorities are still the ultimate decision makers on people’s private and public concerns;
    where women don’t even enjoy the right to pass their nationality to their children, were they married to a foreigner, among many other discriminative regulations, but do benefit from a special bank loan to get their boobs blown up and their noses sized down;
    where homosexuals have to hide as if they represent a deadly plague;
    where movies can be censored in the blink of an eye if they tackle ‘delicate’ issues (like sex and religion);
    where girls from ‘good families’ are still expected to be virgins on their wedding night;
    where guys are still looking for virgin girls from ‘good families’ to marry;
    where many bookshops are dying away, and several publishers are struggling to stay alive;
    I could go on forever about our faults, deficiencies and mishaps. I know that this might come as a surprise to many, since the reputation of Beirut is that of a ‘different’ Arab city. More open, more cosmopolitan, more egalitarian. And Beirut is indeed different. But exaggerating its particularities in the region would make us fall into the anti-cliché trap: the one that indulges itself by pretending that everything is going perfectly well in the best of all possible worlds. Well, it is not. Quite the contrary: many things are going dangerously wrong in our ‘brave old world’.

    I realise that this must seem rather harsh and ruthless, but I can’t allow myself to criticise the Arab world without criticising, even more harshly, my own country, which is a part of it. Plus, I am convinced that patriotism is an expression of candid romanticism. And therefore it is unacceptable to me. Patriotism makes you blind. Patriotism makes you self-deceiving. Patriotism puts you in a constant state of denial. If we are not harsh in criticising ourselves, and in trying to improve, then we are allowed no expectations. I believe that most Lebanese unfortunately have a certain talent for self indulgence. If we can’t blame the war, we blame the political situation. If we can’t blame the political situation, we blame the debts. If we can’t blame the debts, we blame the foreign powers. If we can’t blame the foreign powers, we blame the neighbouring ones. And so on and so forth. The only thing that we haven’t blamed yet for our misfortunes is the weather, and we might get to that very soon, because we are running out of arguments, and global warming seems like a very good and serious one.

    That is why I feel that everything I do, everything I say, everything I write, I am doing and saying and writing to defeat this perfidious mother, to crush her crushing influence over me. Like a monster that needs to be stabbed in the heart, or else it will keep on devouring a new piece of me every day until there is nothing left.
    I would certainly not want to belong to such a place.
    Would you?”
    ————————————-

    I am convinced we are on the same side, Nadz. Not being a feminist does not mean being an anti-feminist. I am sure that someone with your sensibility and culture can capture the difference. I consider myself as a post feminist. I do have a critical stand of some of the positions and discourses that part of the feminist movement has promoted, though. We can talk more about this at a later stage.
    At this point, I really think you should read my book before we can take this discussion further. I’d be honoured if you do. And i believe you’d find it more things that you share than what you think.
    … And i’d love to have that cup of tea with you.
    Again, thank you. And I greatly admire your own battle Nadz.
    Best,
    joumana

    Reply to this comment
  15. Mir

    Aug 31. 2010

    Thank you Nadz, i love it
    I really hope that she accepts your invitation

    Reply to this comment
  16. team

    Aug 31. 2010

    Lara, here’s the link to the interview: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2010/aug/21/joumana-haddad-interview (it’s also in the 2nd paragraph of the letter).

    Reply to this comment
  17. lara

    Aug 31. 2010

    excellent letter. Where can we find the interview on-line? any links? keep us updated of what happens next.

    Reply to this comment
  18. Hasan

    Aug 31. 2010

    Let us know how the “cup of tea” tastes.

    Reply to this comment
  19. Angela D.

    Aug 31. 2010

    “If you don’t understand feminism, you can’t fully understand sexuality, and if you don’t fully understand sexuality, you can’t lead a sexual revolution that will liberate the /Arab mind/.”

    Simply genius. What a sharp and unpretentious letter. Other academics, (including myself) would settle for arrogant mockery, but you seek to build a dialogue. That is probably what is most beautiful about this team that writes for this magazine. You are such kind people, despite how cruel everyone is to you. Your kindness comes through in your writing. And by doing so, you are not only fighting for sexual liberties, that might be your main focus, but you are also setting the example for an entire generation that has forgotten how to be kind.

    Reply to this comment
  20. Yahya

    Aug 31. 2010

    This letter should equally be sent to many men and women of Middle-Eastern backgrounds, in the west further asserting the brown peoples’ needs of the white man; brown women saved by white men from brown men, as Spivak puts it.

    I am, however, disturbed by one sentence: “If it were a man, it would be a lot creepier”? This could be a joke, I understand. But, is it? Should such progressive projects be exclusively spearheaded by women? What is so creepy about a man being behind such projects?

    Reply to this comment
  21. A. Assaf

    Aug 31. 2010

    Dear Nadz,
    This is brilliantly articulated. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it, and for making it an open letter. Shukran, friend.
    In Solidarity, A2

    Reply to this comment
  22. sairita

    Aug 31. 2010

    bravvvvvvvvvvvvvvo

    Reply to this comment
  23. Na!

    Aug 31. 2010

    Very well said

    Reply to this comment
  24. Alissar

    Aug 30. 2010

    Nads, That is a great letter. I read the article myself and I had very similar thoughts and concerns. I look forward to reading the book just to see if she looks at homosexuality at all.
    Your invitation for a cup of tea and a discussion is a good idea, maybe even a forum with feminists an FF I could say.
    Best of luck, keep up the good work, in Solidarity with the sisterhood
    A

    Reply to this comment
  25. dima

    Aug 30. 2010

    a much needed response, thanks for writing Nadz – you offered a wonderful antidote to that horrible guardian article. now i can sleep.

    Reply to this comment
  26. Aphrodite

    Aug 30. 2010

    Amen to that Nadz. I wish she accepts your invitation. She needs it.

    Reply to this comment
  27. Emcee

    Aug 30. 2010

    “…change is a political process, always. And when it comes to sex in particular, our expressions of and writings on sexuality that challenge the status quo, that seek to exist despite oppressions, are extremely political.”
    miyye bil miyye!
    It would be very interesting to actually invite her to engage in such a discourse…

    Reply to this comment
  28. smr

    Aug 30. 2010

    Etel Adnan writes that “it takes Genius to attain such radical freedom” and Adnan is known for feminist, shall we say at least woman-centred scholarship. Weird.

    Reply to this comment
  29. Lynn

    Aug 30. 2010

    It’s a fine line which separates much-needed internal criticism from the adoption of orientalist and essentialist images to describe one gigantic (imagined) evil and uncivilized Arab body.

    Seriously, Joumana Haddad, shwayit awareness on politics of location would not hurt. Read this: http://www.medmedia.org/review/numero2/en/art3.htm and good luck.

    Great post Nadz!

    Reply to this comment
  30. Razan

    Aug 30. 2010

    This is beautiful. I enjoyed reading it. I wish I can articulate my thoughts this way without offending anyone.

    Reply to this comment
  31. shoofs

    Aug 30. 2010

    Amazing Nadz… I love it

    Reply to this comment
  32. Nayrouz

    Aug 30. 2010

    Excellent.
    Nadz, thanks for sharing.

    Reply to this comment

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