Saturday, May 28, 2011

Candide, or Realism: A review of 'I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions Of An Angry Arab Woman', by Joumana Haddad

“The first reason for my immunity [to threats of violence] was that I’m the sort of person who refuses to be bullied. This might seem self-congratulatory […]”, writes Joumana Haddad, the author of this peculiar and protean (part polemic; part memoir; part poem) exploration of the Arab woman identity. As it happens, I didn’t find this particular claim to be self-congratulatory at all – that this book could have been written in the first place is evidence enough of a certain resilience of character, to say the least – but the compound word had found its way into my marginal scribblings from literally the first page, and in fact the very first paragraph:

Dear Westerner,

Allow me to warn you right from the start: I am not known for making lives any easier.

Well, neither was Edward Said in 1978, when he distilled and engraved the “Orientalist views” that Haddad scorns in the next sentence and throughout the ensuing pages, but leafing through my copy of that well-known text I don’t find him congratulating himself quite so warmly for it at the time. Thus begins the protracted throat-clearing of Scheherazade’s opening pages, which set about to break the shocking news to the “Occidental” reader that there exist some Arab women whose literacy exceeds that of a five-day-old bat; whose brothers do on occasion spare them the daily group sodomy routine and whose husbands have been known to take breaks from the fist-and-jackboot regime from time to time. It’s unfortunate that Haddad chooses to begin by insulting her reader (a crime for which she does apologise later on, saying perhaps too generously that “we Arabs generalise about Westerners even more than they generalise about us”), and I found myself forgiving her for this and other further discourtesies only on the grounds that she cannot possibly mean some of the things she says (such as, for example, alluding to the writing of The Satanic Verses, a Booker-shortlisted work of fiction, as a “violent provocation of Islam”. A what provocation of Islam? A violent what of Islam?).

Similarly, I find myself disbelieving that Haddad in reality can be as solipsistic as she sometimes reads on the page. We are told in the first chapter that the book is a “modest” reflection on the question of the Arab woman. If this claim survives scrutiny, it is not without strain. The young Haddad, in her own words, was a “precocious” and “unstoppably curious” girl whose “whirlwind of mental activity” could only be sated by the “devouring” of “thick books that were inappropriate for my age”. She saw through the inanity of John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Woman are from Venus “despite being in my early twenties at the time”. The first editions of her magazine, JASAD, were the product of “sitting tirelessly for hours and hours in front of my laptop” (as opposed to, say, in front of her fax machine, or her microwave). She isn’t even sure, apparently, that she isn’t “crazy”, a question that she “often” asks herself. Understatement, in other words, is not her trade.

Stylistic shortcomings of this sort can be overlooked only on the grounds of content. Haddad is able to rescue Scheherazade by the strength of her actual analysis, the fortitude of which derives from the candour and mercilessness with which she turns her critical eye, and pen, on her own, contemporary Arab society:

Being an Arab today means you need to be a hypocrite. It means you cannot live and think what you really want to live and think honestly, spontaneously and candidly. It means you are split in two, forbidden from speaking the blunt truth (and the truth IS blunt; such is its role, and this is its power), because 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 the latter can rest assured that the Arab ‘hymen’ has been protected from sin, shame, dishonour or flaw.

(Jasad, the name of her magazine, means ‘body’ in Arabic, and that ‘hymen’ above is an instance of her talent for deploying the body as a metaphor: the same trope, of course, which is the hallmark of her poetry.)

To her city of residence, Beirut, she is especially callous:

I grew up in a country that hates me, and that expressed this hatred in so many ugly ways. I do not want to belong to a place like that. No, I definitely do not belong to Beirut: I just live in it. The thought of belonging to such a monstrous, murderous womb terrifies me.

Her description of the city that was once dubbed ‘the Paris of the Orient’ as a place “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” calls to mind Azar Nafisi’s description of living in Tehran being like “sleeping with someone you loathe”. I must admit, as a long-term resident of Dubai with a good number of Lebanese friends, to great surprise at Haddad’s sangfroid. The Lebanese are a tremendously and enviably heterogeneous and diverse people but the one point upon which I thought they were all unanimously agreed was that not even the most concerted and ingenious efforts of human civilisation could in a million years produce a city that was the equal of Beirut. But then, none of my Lebanese friends is in the business of writing erotic poetry.

And Scheherazade is in large part a book about writing, or better say literature in general. At age twelve Haddad read the Marquis de Sade’s Justine “in a mixture of panic and disbelief, both hypnotized and in a numb fright, like someone who is afraid, yet fatally attracted to the object of her fear”, an experience to which she refers as her “baptism by subversion”. Then came Nabokov (the Nafisi connection again); Dostoevsky; Flaubert; and all the other aforementioned “thick books”, and a literature junkie was born. An underlying, - perhaps the underlying – theme of Scheherazade is the connection between literature and freedom, not only in the personal sense (on being a loner: “Amidst all those wonderful things to read, dream and write about, I profoundly enjoyed my own company, deeply convinced that each person is a crowd by him/herself”) but also in the political (“And I am convinced that reading is one of the most important tools of liberation that any human being, and a contemporary Arab woman in particular, can exploit”). She is contemptuous of the “young [Lebanese] women” who would rather “shop” or “waste a whole day tanning in the sun” than “devote one hour to reading a few pages of a good book (while they could do both perfectly easily)”. (I would argue that this criticism applies at least as well to Westerners, and at least as well to young men.) And she cites statistics of reading in the Arab world that could sober a hardened dipsomaniac:

According to [The First Arab Report on Cultural Development, published by the Arab Thought Foundation in 2008], I live in a region where fewer than 0.1% of its 270 million people read; where merely 40% of that depressing 0.1% read books; and where 9% of the 40% of that initial 0.1% actually read poetry.

That puts the total number of Arab poetry readers at 9,720, or 0.0036% of the total of 270 million. With such a microscopic readership, some might ask, why bother becoming a poet at all? “We write poetry to be free”, is Haddad’s simple answer. Fittingly, her first poem, written at age twelve, was entitled ‘Ma liberté’.

Literature; erotica; censorship; and the liberation of Middle Eastern women… well, we know where this is heading. Haddad at one point describes herself as an “Epicurean poet”. It has always been a pleasant irony, for those of us who take pleasure from ironies, that the Orthodox Jewish term for ‘apostate’ is ‘apikoros’, which translates simply as ‘Epicurean’. And since at least the burning of the books of the Jews and Greeks of Ephesus in Acts 19, there have been no greater foes of literature than the benighted and barbarous parties of god. The subtitle of Scheherazade promises us an ‘angry’ Arab woman, and Haddad does not disappoint in her most polemical (and estimable) chapter, ‘A Woman Unafraid of Provoking Allah’. I could have given you more or less any paragraph, but the following is perhaps the tersest summary of Haddad’s position:

This is how I have come to think of it: with all due respect to people who believe in fairy tales (and need them), what could paradise be other than a wonderful illusion invented by a few geniuses […] in order to control the masses, promising them in return a reward that they will never be able to grant? Or, at least, a reward with no guarantee of delivery? Can you imagine an easier, yet more Machiavellian trick pulled on millions and millions of minds, eager to be comforted in their fears and doubts and day-to-day challenges and cries? Do you really want to bet your life, and principles, and behaviour, and choices, on THAT? [Italics mine.]

Deftly anticipating the Christian chauvinist reader who assumes that by “paradise” she alludes only to the grotesque Islamic saturnalia, Haddad is scrupulous in her equal condemnation of Christianity, citing the misogyny of St Paul; the doctrines of eternal damnation and original sin; and the proscription of abortion, divorce and birth control (to which one could add the craven and contemptible commandment to love one’s enemy; the moral bankruptcy of vicarious redemption; the absurdity of ‘taking no thought for the morrow’; Christ’s Talmudic racism against Gentiles in general and Canaanites in particular; and the utter totalitarianism of his forbidding even the thought of adultery; inter alia) to argue that there is no “authentic, significant, definitive difference between the situation of the Muslim and the Christian Arab woman”: that “the injustice, double standards and prejudices are just more obvious and visible with the first one”.

Now might be the time to mention the courage of Joumana Haddad. It is controversial enough being an outspoken atheist in the West, even (or especially) in the most secular republic on earth, the United States. But to print the above words in Lebanon - a country where, according to the CIA World Factbook, 99% of the population is either Muslim or Christian; where law and order are maintained only at the permission of a theocratic Shia militia literally named the ‘Party of God’; and where a state visit to the capital city by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can draw crowds of thousands of jubilant supporters - is to risk something rather worse than ignominy or alienation. Haddad’s ferocious defence of the Enlightenment principles, in the face of the unimaginable horror of threats of acid throwing, puts to shame the tepid and fatuous notion of the ‘militant’ or ‘fundamentalist’ secularist propagated by Western critics of atheism (who, it goes without saying, have never had to spend a day of their lives worrying about freedom of conscience or expression), just as it annihilates the even more foolish argument that secularism has led to a ‘spiritual vacuum’ in the West, the filling of which can only be accomplished by ‘faith’. Haddad ennobles the rejection of religion in her life, as much as in her work. After all, dear reader, ask yourself which of the following poses the greater threat to our civilisation: Arab poets for atheism, or American politicians for Jesus?

An ‘angry’ Arab woman indeed then, and not without reason. Yet it would be in error to describe Scheherazade as a diatribe. Haddad’s is by no means a cold heart, and her prose glows with arresting tendresse as often as it sizzles with belligerence. Even if she does stray too far into saccharine and sentimental territory at times, in her vacillations between the two extremes she sketches for us a tantalising chiaroscuro:

I do not want to live my present life thinking of the afterlife. This is it for me, folks. This is all there is, these forty or fifty or maybe ninety years on this earth, with all the small joys and disappointments that come with them.

As for the errors I make, the only punishment I acknowledge for having made them is my awareness of those errors, and having to live with it: there is, there should be, no heavier penalty on a person’s soul, mind and heart.

And the only reward I want for my ‘good deeds’, if and when I do any, is to know that I’ve done them without expecting anything in return: no pat on the back, no bravos, no Saint Peter handing me the keys of the blessed kingdom. I am convinced that no recompense is sweeter.

Quietly beautiful passages such as these are worth more than all the ‘holy’ texts put together. This is the morality that cannot be found in religion: the morality that comes only from taking a long, cold stare into the abyss, and confronting the fear and loneliness that come with doing so. In short, it is the morality of an adult. 

As with the anatomical imagery, this facility for the moral is of course consanguineous with her gift for poetry, but I suspect it might also have something to do with her femininity. Femininity, indeed, is ever audible in Haddad’s prose. (Scheherazade is not an erotic book, but when Haddad writes of the “power” of her breasts “under a tight shirt”, or of her incessant teenage masturbation, or of “the little pieces of flesh torn from men’s backs”, she knows the male – and, I suppose, the female - reader is feeling a frisson of sorts.) Above all else, Scheherazade is an unapologetic assertion of womanhood. If any chapter outshines ‘An Arab Woman Unafraid of Provoking Allah’, it is the one that precedes it, ‘An Arab Woman Redefining Her Womanhood’.

Not so much a feminist as a post-feminist, Haddad reassuringly has no time for the “oily hair, messy clothes and hairy armpits” breed of man-hater, dismissing as “insulting” the presumption that she would support the presidential campaigns of Ségolène Royal and Hillary Clinton “just because all three of us wear bras before leaving the house in the morning”. Similarly, she decries the intellectual indolence of women “who rush to blame men for all their problems” without conceding that “the oppression and hardship a woman faces are sometimes her own responsibility as well”:

Plus, who said that men are women’s worst enemy? I’ve met women who hate women, ally against them and fight them harder than any man would – mothers who remain silent in front of a rapist father; who are eager to find husbands for their thirteen year-old daughters; who leave them without a proper education because ‘they are predestined for marriage anyway, so why bother?’; who raise their sons to be even more discriminative and disrespectful towards women than their fathers.

Of course, it would be disastrous to make too much of this point (and Haddad doesn’t). In a region in which the vast majority of the population practices an openly misogynistic religion – a religion whose penal code is in most cases enforced by the state – the hypothesis that women’s suffering is self-imposed is problematic at best. Nevertheless, it’s a further testament to Haddad’s refreshing intellectual candour that she refuses to pull punches or shy from criticism, even when that criticism may play into the hands of her real worst enemy.

And therein lies the strength of Scheherazade. For though at times Haddad may, as I have said, be slightly too quick to award herself a pat on the back, she is never at any moment self-pitying. Despite her clumsy “Dear Westerner” opener, the bulk of the ‘anger’ in the book is directed inwardly, at her fellow Arabs (astonishingly, for a writer whose childhood and adolescence were so blackened by the wars in Lebanon, she makes not a single mention of Israel). By obstinately sticking to her scruples, even at the risk of alienating the friends she may need most, Haddad sets an example to intellectuals the world over, and produces a work that warrants attention from non-Arabs at least as much as from their Arab counterparts.

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