With her erotic cultural magazine "Jasad" ("Body"), Lebanese poet and journalist Joumana Haddad deliberately breaks taboos in a society that likes to draw a veil over the human body – both literally and figuratively. Susanne Schanda spoke with the woman behind the magazine
Why do you choose to provoke the Arab world with the subject of the body?
Joumana Haddad: The first time I read a poem, it felt like someone was scratching me with their fingernails. I was 12 at the time and I knew that this was exactly the effect I wanted to achieve with my writing.
My body is the universe in which my poetic expression unfolds. For me, writing is a very physical process. I always say that I write with my fingernails, on my own skin, on my body. I want to scratch away the surface. To do so, I use my nails and my body – those are my tools. Eroticism is the pulse of life and is what most gives me the feeling of being alive. Even though eroticism is very closely related to the experience of death.
Does the close connection you feel between eroticism and death have anything to do with your life in Lebanon – a country that is marked by war and violence and yet on the other is extraordinarily vital, energetic and creative?
Haddad: When the civil war began in Lebanon, I was four years old; when it ended, I was 21. Violence is still present to this day. I don't know if it's appropriate to say that I'm grateful for all the horrible things I experienced and saw, but they did make me the person I am today.
I never give up. I keep trying new things, seeking to move forward, to really live. And all of that has something to do with seeing and experiencing death. I always seek out new challenges; it's like an addiction.
Your latest challenge is "Jasad", the erotic magazine that first came out in December 2008. How did this magazine come about?
Haddad: I had always written about the body and eroticism, causing myself plenty of problems. So why not push the boundaries even further and publish a cultural magazine about the body? I founded my own small publishing house in order to remain independent, developed the concept and looked for freelance staff for the first issue.
How do you finance the magazine?
Haddad: Unfortunately, I can't pay very high fees, but I do pay the freelancers for their contributions. Anyone writing for this magazine must write in Arabic and under his or her own name. I invested my own money in the magazine and sales are going very well. The magazine costs ten dollars. I started with a print run of 3,000 and today the circulation is 6,000.
How is the magazine sold?
Haddad: It can be purchased all over Lebanon. It comes in a sealed plastic wrapper marked "For adults only". In the rest of the world it is sent by mail to subscribers. In Europe it is available at one bookstore in Paris and one in London.
Normally, erotic magazines are for men. Do you take a female, or a feminist, approach?
Haddad: "Jasad" is a magazine about the body. Eroticism naturally exerts a strong presence. But the magazine treats more than just erotic themes. It is a cultural magazine that also touches on eroticism in philosophy, religion and all its other forms. It is not "Playboy". I'm not the Hugh Hefner (founder of "Playboy") of the Arab world. I'm much more dangerous.
In what way?
Haddad: Because I'm a woman and an Arab and because I don't put out a magazine designed for men to masturbate to. My magazine contributes to reflecting on the many taboos we have today in the Arab world – and which we didn't have 1,000 years ago.
What was different back then?
Haddad: In our cultural legacy from the 9th and 10th centuries one finds immense freedom of expression, displaying sensuousness, eroticism and bluntness on a scale that has now disappeared.
Why is that?
Haddad: There are many reasons. One of them is religious extremism. Another is our defensive reaction to anything that could be construed as the invasion of Western values. The Arabs are trying to protect their own values. But the more one tries to protect what one has, the more introverted, close-minded, insular and frustrated one becomes. That is sad.
How have the religious authorities reacted to "Jasad"?
Haddad: Religious and non-religious authorities alike are annoyed by the magazine and are trying to stop it. Fortunately, two key figures in the government, the information minister and the minister of the interior, are open-minded, sensible intellectuals. They have the power to ban the magazine, and I would be able to do nothing to stop them. But both have stood up to the pressure so far.
Your magazine asks women and men to tell about their first sexual experience. Isn't it difficult to find people willing to write openly about this, signing with their own name?
Haddad: It's hard work persuading people to write about these things under their own name. A month ago I received a beautiful erotic story from a woman about a couple who filmed each other during sex. But the author wanted to publish it under a pseudonym.
I refused. Then I kept writing her emails every few days challenging her to take a risk, to muster her courage for this lovely story. Finally, she agreed to have the story published under her name. That's a major triumph for me. I believe in taking small steps toward changing society.
Then you still have quite a few steps ahead of you. In the West we see ourselves confronted today with growing Muslim communities that cut themselves off from society with their backward-looking religious ideologies. Where does this tendency come from?
Haddad: I've just written a book about the clichés circulating in the West regarding Arab women. The frustrated, veiled, subservient woman. The majority of Arab women are in fact like that.
But what makes me angry and sad is that the minority of Arab women who are not like that, and who deserve to be seen, recognised and discussed because they embody the hope for change, are ignored.
An Arab woman who looks and dresses like a Western one is no longer perceived as Arab. That's why the traditional model is the only one present in the Western mind. It's a vicious circle. The more Europeans see these defensive radical immigrants, the more they tend to be fearful of and hostile to Arabs. And the more hostile they are to Arabs, the more radical the Arabs become.
Conservative Muslims cover even little girls' heads with scarves to shield them from the ostensibly lustful male gaze. Why is the body regarded as so dangerous?
Haddad: It didn't used to be that way. The Arabs once wrote about sexuality and eroticism in a spontaneous, natural way – without inhibitions and shame.
Today, a double standard and a kind of schizophrenia prevail. On the one hand, girls are taught to behave decently, but on the other, 13-year-old girls are married off. That is institutionalised paedophilia. There are even laws that allow a man to marry a baby.
Can a magazine like "Jasad" resolve this schizophrenia?
Haddad: It can help. But it is only one small step of many that still need to be taken. I decided to focus on the theme of the body. Others fight in other arenas. If we all stand up for what we believe in, we can change things and make the world a better place for all of us.
© Qantara.de 2009
Joumana Haddad is a Lebanese poet, journalist and culture editor of the daily paper "An-Nahar" in Beirut. With "Jasad" (Arabic for "Body"), she is now publishing the Arab world's first erotic glossy. The magazine debuted in December 2008 and is published quarterly. Joumana Haddad has written five volumes of poetry, which have been translated into numerous languages, including English. The author speaks seven languages and has translated several books. In 2006 she received the "Arab Press Prize".