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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