I love Joumana Haddad’s honnesty, she wrote the great book « Superman is arab » and is the founder of the very controversial Jasad Magazine (Body Magazine). Writing and fighting for secularism, human dignity, women’s rights and sexual freedom in the Arab world, she’s one of my favourite female arab authors. Here’s an article she wrote in a journal that I find very thought provoking and quite accurate on so many levels. She speaks about how sexuality is viewed by our Arabic language and most especially in Lebanon, but not only, it also applies in other Arab countries like Morocco. Read ahead and share with us your view on the topic in the comment section down bellow.
“Censor the body and you’d be simultaneously censoring breath and speech. Your body must be heard”- Helene Cixous
“There are countless names for the penis and for the vulva in the Arabic language. You would think our only problem is to decide which one to use. Well, think again. Our problem is that we do NOT use them. So much so that the majority of these words has become obsolete.
We are a culture of estrangement. Most lebanese would agree that whenever they discuss sexuality, whether orally or in writing, they feel much more comfortable doing it in French or in English. Many readers told me, when I first published Jasad Magazine: “You would have shocked people much less if it weren’t in Arabic.”
In a culture that has such a rich erotic tradition, we have come to a point of alienation between what we live and experience, and what we say and express. Crude, direct terms in Arabic are reserved for insults, which has contributed to downgrading the vocabulary of sex and its rejection by people. You’d be labeled as impudent, insolent and provocative if you employed those words in a conversation. Yet the visuals are a different matter. The amount of sexuality displayed on billboards in Beirut shows that while we are reluctant to speak, we are not too shy to stare-and stare, and then stare some more.
We are a culture of cowardise. The prevention of shock is not the only reason for our hiding behind another language when talking about sex. This “easy”choice shows, first and foremost, a great amount of spinelessness and fear. Fear of confrontation, that is. Fear of truth. Fear of reality. And when some people do use Arabic to discuss sexuality, many of them exploit an endless list of sugary terms and convoluted metaphors. In fact, the Arabic language takes pride in the richness of its allegories, symbols and synonyms. So why handle the risk of saying “breast” when you can go on and on about hills and mountains (depending on the size of the bra)…
We are a culture lost in translation. You’d be astounded, for example, by the quality of the Arabic subtitles of Western movies. Actors seldom “have sex”; they “spend the night together”. Actresses are not flattered for their “glorious breasts” but rather for their geographical “slopes”. In short: there is a tragicomic re-writing of terms and facts, and a pathetic dissociation of the translation from the original.
We are a culture of double standards. For in our dear old Arab world, men ar allowed to talk rather ureservedly about their genitalia (not to mention use them unreservedly as well). They are allowed to talk about women’s genitalia too, as a free bonus. As for the woman, she has to content herself with being the blessed “receiver” of male words, the passive subkect of the male texts. For she was not born to express. Rather, to BE expressed. To cite but one example, critics generally use the word “daring” to describe women writers exclusively; if a woman transgresses the sex taboo, she is “daring”. If a man transgresses iit, this is orginary and does not raise as many eyebrows.
We are a culture of duplicity. “We want something yet we spit on it”, as the famous Lebanese saying goes. We constantly think about sex, but dare not talk about it, ubnder the mischievous spell of religious extremism and obscurantist/repressive political regimes that force us to fight for what should be our simple rights as human beings. We live in the Bermuda triangle of sex, religion and politics. Our linguistic prusishness has reached such levels that you’d think that most Arabs, if not all of them, are ethereal and unearthly, immaterial beings that somehow, are born and grow up without bodies, without sexual organs, needs, impulses, fantasies, vices or transgressions, and without secret naughty habits – or public ones either.
We are a culture of ostriches, quite determined on sticking our heads in the sand. We live in a world where costly taxtes are imposed on freedom of speech, and where those who decide what should be censored or not are often a bunch of ifnorants with power. Who are these people to decide what we can or can’t say, what we can print or can not print, what we can or can not show ? Who and what gave them the right to choose on our behalf ? Why should we accept to be treated as minor human beings ?
We are a culture of self-castration. Among the many penis names in Arabic, we can find Aln’aas i.e the sleepy one. When I read it I could not help but think: That is exactly what our language suffers from: a sleepy dick. Arousing it gently will not do. Ask any doctor: in terminal cases, Viagra is a must.”