Cover of Jasad, a new Lebanon-based quarterly magazine that presents risqué content with a veneer of intellectualism.
The Middle East, it’s all about sex and violence. OK, the violent part is easy to understand, we’re all too familiar with that. But the sex, where is that coming from? Out of the overheated imaginations of Western commentators, it seems, helped along by a few people in the Arab world who are taking often overrated baby-steps towards a more open attitude towards sexuality.
Still not convinced by the sex part? Just have a look what’s being said about the latest art extravaganza organised by Charles Saatchi in his Chelsea gallery, a review of contemporary Middle Eastern Art called Unveiled. The Guardian bills it as “kitsch prostitutes and ghostly praying women”. Other reviews make sure to mention terms such as sensuality, sexuality or even better “repressed sexuality”. But judging from the content sex is only a very small, and at that a not very interesting, part of the exhibition.
Books and articles about Middle Eastern sexuality have abounded in recent years, whether from Westerners, when the subject was homosexuality for example, or from local writers. There’s even the mildly absurd and underwhelmingly titillating genre that imitates the raunchier Western ‘confession’ novels such as those of Catherine Millet and the Sicilian Melissa Panarello. Think Girls of Riyadh. Such books on women’s role in society, relationships or sexuality cause a ruckus that’s disproportionate to their quality.
The same mechanism is at work when the fact that the Vagina Monologues are adapted into Arabic at all becomes more important than the omissions and changes that were made to placate Arab tastes or taboos. In Lebanon, even the name was beyond the pale and it had to make do with the lame title of Women’s Talk. Ironically, it was still widely hailed as “taboo-breaking”.
Sure, sex sells but there is something glib and pandering about the way that many in the West start salivating the moment sexuality in the Arab world is mentioned. It reminds me of a colleague who started his book on the Middle East with the faux-naïve anecdote about how surprised he was on his first visit to the region that Arabs also tell jokes. Uhm, yes, Arabs also have sex, just look at the exploding population numbers. Yes, there is an issue with the role of women in Arab society and yes, it’s often a deeply conservative society where open expressions and discussions of sexuality are taboo.
But too often we in the West welcome any small sign of openness or a different attitude as we might the burning bush. The problem is not that we should not be interested in genuinely daring and progressive developments in the field of sexuality in the region but that too often we seize on and slobber over timid, sloppy or insincere efforts.
Sadly, there is a huge absence of courage in confronting sensitive issues in Arab society. It may be dangerous or socially and financially risky but that is not an excuse for the tepid nature of challenges to established norms. It’s not as if in the West these things happened by themselves and as if some people did not pay the price, from Oscar Wilde to Larry Flynt.
In this twilight zone operates Lebanon’s Joumana Hadad, a writer, poet and art critic who at the beginning of this year started publishing a new quarterly magazine “on the body”, Jasad. The Western reaction to her magazine was “predictable”, she said, apparently referring to the West’s fascination with anything to do with sex coming out of the region. Of course Jasad has been billed as this fantastic new phenomenon in the Arab world, which does not displease Hadad. The West may have its misguided views of sexuality in the Middle East, she said but, “it is the fault of both sides when there is such a misunderstanding.”
True as that may be, Jasad is still sailing too close to the much ado about nothing winds. It may be remarkable that the magazine is published in Lebanon, in Arabic and that it shows explicit pictures and deals with explicit sexual and physical subjects. And yes, the magazine so enraged the fundamentalist Hezbollah movement that it tried to take close its stand at last year’s book fair in Beirut, reported the Guardian.
But Hadad is covering it all with a veneer of art and intellectualism and insists it’s about ‘the body’ not about eroticism or sexuality, even though the large majority of articles deals with those subjects. It seems as if it’s too risqué to admit that that’s what the magazine is about. Also, even though the content is provided by Arab writers, most of the pieces focus on the West, not on the body or sex in the Arab world. And to explain the magazine Hadad harks back to the Arabs’ illustrious past when they celebrated sensuality in explicit versions of 1001 Nights, “at a time when sex was taboo in Europe.” A remarkably defensive attitude.
Jasad may or may not become a daring, worthwhile publication on sexuality in and for the Arab world. But for that to happen my guess is that it and its publisher will have to become even more outspoken, direct and courageous. Especially in Lebanon, where emulating the West is a way of life for many, there is a lot of room that can be eked out in society, if people are only willing to push. Much too often, they are simply not willing.
Pages from Jasad, a new Lebanon-based quarterly, 'on the body'.