Monday, July 9, 2012

Interview with Joumana Haddad

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon. A version also appeared at The Aspen Institute]

To the annoyance of her many critics, Joumana Haddad is fast becoming one of Lebanon’s most recognized authors on the international circuit. Two years after the release of I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman, Haddad is set to release her second book – Superman is an Arab: On God, marriage, macho men and other disastrous inventions – this September. NOW Lebanon met with the polemicist, poet and publisher at her office in downtown Beirut’s An-Nahar building.

Apart from writing the new book, what have you been up to since Scheherazade?

Joumana Haddad: I published a children’s book in Italian, and I’ve been working on the new issue of the magazine Jasad [“Body”], which I’m publishing this summer. And mainly I’ve been travelling to talk about Scheherazade because working on the book doesn’t finish with the writing; there’s a whole new life to it, which is meeting people and getting feedback, and I love doing that. I enjoy this interaction with the readers.

I understand that Jasad has run into advertising difficulties.

Haddad: Can you believe it? I worked with three advertising agencies and none has managed to find me clients. All of them said it’s too daring, and I thought, “What the hell? We’re in Beirut!” Walk down the street and tell me what’s daring in Jasad that isn’t out there. It’s continued mainly because of the sales, but after two years you can’t go on without ads. I don’t want to make money out of it, but it deserves to survive.

So, Superman is an Arab. Explain.

Haddad: I thought there was a need to tackle manhood, not only womanhood, because, as you might know I’m a third-wave feminist, which means I don’t believe in women’s solidarity; I believe in human solidarity. I believe in partnership between men and women, and if our suffering is going to change it won’t be by women alone.

And it hit me that in the Superman story I always preferred Clark Kent, because he’s real. And I think many of our leaders and religious representatives here in the Middle East think of themselves as invincible supermen.

But why an Arab? I expect this will offend some people.

Haddad: That’s the least of my worries! I hope they get offended because even though I’m not writing to offend, I don’t mind provoking when it can push people to do something about it.

I’m sure that when it comes out, people will tell me, “He’s Italian too because we have such people in Italy,” and so on. But to me he’s an Arab because I belong to the Arab world, and I’m seeing so many supermen around, whether they’re people next door or people I work with. And what can you say about someone like [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah? He thinks of himself as Superman – at a minimum.

And God is a superman – that’s my first enemy, the monotheist God. That’s the first Superman we need to get rid of.

As in Scheherazade, religion gets a lot of attention in Superman. Why?

Haddad: I’m a person who believes in human rights, in equality between men and women, in a non-discriminatory world. That alone means I can’t believe in a monotheistic religion. Because if you go back to the texts and practices of Christianity, Islam and Judaism you find misogyny, very patriarchal systems and values, terror and blood, all in the name of a God who lectures about mercy and love but has nothing to do with either of them.

One chapter is called “The disastrous invention of marriage.” This is new.

Haddad: No it’s not! [Laughs] The way it’s practiced now I think this institution cannot survive. In countries where divorce is easy, the number of divorces is increasing. In countries where it’s difficult, the number of affairs is increasing. So this needs to be re-thought, and again, the influence that religion wields over this and the amount of money and power it gets from it is also something for us to ponder.

Why do you think you provoke such a hostile reaction from women?

Haddad: I think you should ask them! At first it used to sadden me, to tell you the truth. But now I’ve stopped measuring myself by the approval of others. What’s important for me is that I’m convinced about what I’m doing. It’s very liberating, because though approval feels good, it can also be poisoning.

And like I said in Scheherazade, women are often their own worst enemies. My fiercest critics are women.

Another chapter is called “The disastrous invention of getting old.”

Haddad: Well I’m 41. I wanted to talk about this misinformed quest for youth and beauty we have. It’s about facing my grey hairs, which I like. People should be happy with themselves, though I know it’s not easy.

Is this especially true in Lebanon?

Haddad: I think so, because of this culture of the image. People here only pretend to live. If you see them and think they look happy and rich and cool, you’ve made their day. They don’t care whether they’re really happy inside. It’s the culture of seeming good rather than feeling good, which is a very suicidal way to live.

Why is Lebanon so different from, say, Syria or Jordan in this respect?

Haddad: Lebanon has always been freer in some ways. But all these women who think they’re liberated don’t have their rights respected at the level of laws. It’s terrible how much women are discriminated against here; they’re second-class citizens. So they are pushed toward these cheap liberties – you can wear what you want! You can dance till four in the morning! – to distract from the real struggle: the laws on violence, marital rape and numberless others.

Some critics accuse you of writing for a Western audience.

Haddad: This is horrible, because I try to defend human rights, secularism, women’s rights, sexuality, and these people say these are “Western” values, which means Arabs don’t believe in these things. I say these are universal things; I don’t think we should give the West the monopoly on them.

Do you take an interest in Lebanese politics? Are you March 14, March 8, etc.?

Haddad: I’m against the herd syndrome. Nobody represents me but myself. I am definitely against March 8, but I’m very critical of March 14, too. I think we have lost a big momentum. I was one of those [on March 14, 2005] who marched to Beirut – from Jounieh – and that was the first time in my life I did anything like that. Now I don’t regret that because I believed in that moment, but there’s been an inability to deal with such a historic moment.

So I’m an independent. I don’t want to have to choose between a terrorist Iranian regime and a backward Wahhabi one, either with Hezbollah or the Salafists, with one stupid, corrupt criminal against another. This is against being a responsible, thinking human being.

Do you support any Lebanese activist movements?

Haddad: Yes, but for example when I support the secularists, or a women’s march, I’m more interested in the civil laws aspect. There should be one law of personal affairs for every citizen. We can’t call ourselves a republic or a democracy until this is the case. Some secularists prefer to start on the political front – i.e. changing the balance of power – but we can’t do that until people stop thinking of themselves as Christians, Sunnis, Shia, etc.

Superman Is An Arab will be published in English by Westbourne Press on September 1.

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