JOUNIEH, Lebanon -A new high-brow literary journal looks through the eyes of voyeurs, clerics and foot fetish experts. This mix of gonzo reporting, scholarly study and old-school Playboy is fueling the ire of religious and women’s groups, but its editor doesn’t flinch: ’We have to stop condescending to the Arab reader’
As quick as the pulse of lovers entwined in a storm, the first two issues of a new magazine boldly addressing sex and the body in Arabic sold out on Lebanese newsstands and around the Middle East, sending the moral rhetoric of the largely conservative Arab world into a tailspin. The first such species in the Middle East, the quarterly cultural magazine ’Jasad’, meaning body in Arabic, focuses on the art, literature and science of the body. And its editor-in-chief isn’t pulling any punches, above or below the belt.
Joumana Haddad, an internationally acclaimed poet and the culture editor at Lebanese daily An Nahar, returned last week from conferences about her magazine in London and Bologna. Taken with the body as a main subject of her writing since the age of 12, she said she is likely to include almost anything in the magazine related to artists’ expression of the body. "And I can tell you that my limits are very wide," she told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in her home north of Beirut.
The inaugural December issue of ’Jasad’ heralded a siren-red cover of a naked woman lying beneath a silky red drape. With a cover story on the penis in the current issue, content features a section called "My First Time" and articles on masturbation and homosexuality. Reviews and interviews written by Arab writers mix with art by Western and Eastern artists who have pioneered erotic art or made it mainstream. For $10, the March issue quickly sold out 4,000 copies, delving into foot fetishes and cannibalism as well as battered men and women, transsexuals and the Kama Sutra. Only on newsstands in Lebanon, there are hundreds of subscribers throughout the Middle East.
The might of a movement
With more than 100 contributors, Haddad doesn’t seem ahead of herself when she calls ’Jasad’ "a movement, in a sense". A Danish woman recently sent a link to an Iraqi journalist to cover an exhibit in Europe for ’Jasad’. While Arab artists and writers figure prominently in the magazine, Haddad said that including translations of their Western and other contemporaries is a way to open up the Arab world. "’Jasad’ has a certain guiding or educational function," she added.
The magazine doesn’t allow contributors to use pseudonyms. Freedom of expression doesn’t come in doses, she said. "Either you have it or you don’t."
Surprisingly delicate in gesture and tone, she sipped Arabic coffee in her formal living room that was offset by pieces of contemporary art. "Taboos around the body are very much a part of the religious oppression and fanaticism of our time," said Haddad, recipient of the Arab Press Prize and administrator of the IPAF literary prize, the Arab equivalent of the Booker Prize.
For centuries artistic expression of the body has been a way of life, and Arab literature is no exception. Citing ’Thousand and One Nights’ and ’The Perfumed Garden’ among others, she pointed to an encyclopedia ’Sex in Arab Literature from before the 10th century’, as forms of protection. Leyla Baalbaki was free to create erotic works the 1950s, she noted. "This is why it’s very strange and frustrating to reach this point where the Arab culture and language have become entangled with taboo," she said.
Separating hundreds of emails into ’Compliments’ and ’Insults’ folders, she said the praise far outweighed the rest. Nevertheless ’Jasad’s’ Web site has frequently been hacked into and blanketed with phrases including "God will punish you." When people accuse her of pornography or succumbing to an occidental way of life, she said her only response is "to go back to your books and to your heritage."
Part Paris Review, part Playboy in its pre-airbrush heyday of contributors such as James Baldwin and Hunter S. Thompson, the high-gloss production is no jumble of vulgarity and charm. According to its non-manifesto, it’s not a lot of things: It is not a woman’s magazine; it is not pornography; and it does not "consist of a motley mix of art aimed exclusively at the feminist public (God protect us!)."
What ’Jasad’ does declare, though, is its attempt to give voice to those people who aren’t part of the religious and political mainstream. In Lebanon traditional Christian and Muslim authorities are equally oppressive, Haddad said. "The combination of religious power, how people live their daily lives and view their bodies Ğ all of it falls under the power of authorities." In Lebanon where no civil marriage is permitted, she calls the law in Christian divorce courts "an atrocity".
She argued that under these authorities, women are "nobodies". "Divorced ten years, I am the sole provider for my children financially and morally. Yet, if I want to travel anywhere with them I have to provide a legal document with signed permission from their father."
In a country that sets itself apart from the Middle East, girls do whatever they want sexually and "get sewn up before their wedding days", she said. "Religious people don’t want to let go of their power over people."
But Haddad doesn’t take religion out of the body’s context. In the third issue due out in June, a Christian priest will comment in a regular section on the spirituality of sexuality and the body. Also a university professor, he contacted Haddad to congratulate her and told her that he recommends the magazine to students in his philosophy class.
Someone else’s ’moral values’
Detractors, too, come from a number of directions: Aman Kabbara Shaarani, head of the Lebanese Council of Women told Agence France Press, "Subjects that teach our youngsters how to make love do not fit in with our moral values and civic education." She said they were considering taking ’Jasad’ to the courts to have it banned.
This is condescending to the Arab reader, Haddad said plainly, "as if you have to give him things in doses." She said the Arab world is as prepared to be exposed to such topics as any other reader or society. "We have to stop treating the Arab reader this way."
Lebanese authorities appear to be on the permissive side of free expression for now. "I don’t know if this lucky star will continue," Haddad said, referring to the too-close-to-call national elections in June. She said she doesn’t want to impose the magazine on anyone and wraps it in a plastic seal that states clearly, ’Adults only’. "I don’t want to expose minors to it." At the same time, she prefers the magazine’s perspective to the crude alternatives her own son can see online. "I would love for my 17-year-old to have an education from a cultural point of view instead of going to porn sites a click away."
The demand and positive response has differed from her friends’ and family’s expectations. "They told me I was crazy, [and] to wait," she said. "But you have to invent the moment."
Excerpt from ’My FIrst TIme’ In the March Issue
'Your lips', he said, so I closed my eyes, hoping he'd steal them; he was five years older than me, and what he did showed me what he'd learnt in that extra time he'd dedicated to the exact science of two tongues and some spit. My eloquent lover convinced me that I was his flower, and that flowers shed tears of wine
when they are cut, quenching the thirst of the cosmos.
With my wine, the wine from my pearl, I quenched the thirst of the cosmos and I got it drunk that evening, sobbing in silence. My boyfriend held me, rocked me, calmed my terror and dried my tears of anxiety and fear, assuring me that he was embracing a woman from paradiseÉ Excerpt from ’Me and my Neighbour’ in the March issue of ’Jasad’ by Hajer Saleh, Palestine My neighbour doesn’t know that I harbor bad intentions towards her. That’s how blond women are Ğ in an oblivious trance. My neighbor has a bath, and then throws her towel onto a submissive chair. The argumentativeness of a coastal body, which doesn’t know how to hide itself behind a fig leaf...
To preview the magazine, visit www.jasadmag.com.