There aren’t many books which mention masturbation in the first paragraph.
But the brave opening of I Killed Scheherezade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman (Saqi Books) sets the scene for the whole book: Joumana Haddad writes about who she is, and what she is, in a compelling and bold manner.
Haddad lived through the Lebanese civil war, hiding out in Beirut shelters with a book to keep her company. And later, she went on to launch the magazine JASAD (‘body’ in Arabic) – receiving death threats along the way from the conservative and misogynistic in her own community. The personal is political.
Haddad is angry at many things: mostly, at the generalisations across the Western world about Arabs, and particularly Arab women. She addresses ‘Dear Westerner’, and goes on to innumerate the ways in which she, as an Arab woman, is not like the stereotypes we have in our heads. However she doesn’t deny that the stereotypical religious, subservient, undereducated, silent character exists. In fact, she gives us facts that would cheer the Islamaphobic no end e.g. ‘Every Arab reads a quarter of a page annually [on average]’. But she denounces the inability of people to see past this model.
She is at her most interesting when discussing her childhood. Through her dad’s library she found freedom and ideas, and her story, which would be striking from any author, lays the groundwork for understanding her future life and career: in poetry, and at the critical margins of her society.
Sexuality in particular, and how it’s dealt with in Arab culture brought her to an early revelation regarding the double standards contained in some conservative Islamic thinking: the absurdity of upholding strict linguistic taboos around sexuality in the media, whilst at the same time routinely permitting girls as young as 14 to marry.
Scheherezade provides a useful way-in for those who wish to understand the diversity of cultural and religious practice in Lebanon, and (by Haddad’s own extension) the Arab world, which she teaches us is neither homogenous, nor worthy of any of the lazy stereotypes many non-Arab people use to describe it.
Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking this book tells us more about the author than the subject it purports to explore. I’d like to read another missive from an ‘Arab, woman, author’ (how she describes herself) – this might give me a better lens through which to view Haddad’s work.
In spite of this mild narcissism however, she remains likeable and admirable. Anyone who gets emails reading ‘We pray someone throws acid at you’ as a response to her latest edition of JASAD and goes on printing, deserves respect.
Images from ikilledschezerade.com.