The Guardian journalist who interviewed her still hasn’t gotten over her “electric blue mini-dress” and her “aggressive heels.” Joumana Haddad, poet, translator and editor of An Nahar‘s cultural pages, undoubtedly performed a marketing coup with her latest opus I killed Scheherazade, which called the attention of all major Western media. From Le Monde to the BBC, the anti-niqab anti-terrorism Western world was stirred by the boldness of the Arab author. Boldness, really? Or bling-bling feminism following the example of the Sex and the City heroins?
You spit on your people, your people applaud, your former oppressors laurel you.
Derek Walcott, Caribbean poet
Besides the sensationalist title and the subtitle, Confessions of an angry Arab woman — on the verge of plagiarism (The Angry Arab News Service is one of the most popular blogs in Lebanon and the region) – several factors assured Joumana Haddad a genuine success overseas. First and foremost, the multilingual author conveniently chose to write her hybrid essay in English, not in Arabic. More global, and undoubtedly more accessible to the audience targeted. Because the target is no secret at all: I killed Scheherazade starts with the very words “Dear Westerner.”
I spoke to Joumana Haddad during Beirut’s latest French Book Fair in October 2010 and asked her why she didn’t write I killed Scheherazade in Arabic: “The decision of writing the book in English wasn’t an actual choice,” she said. “It was just how the idea first entered my mind, and I always write in the language in which the idea initially takes shape.” Sure, but then why was the Arabic version not scheduled for the same time as the release of the seven other translations? “It’s important for me to write it in Arabic myself. It would be absurd to be translated by someone else.”
Then, if The Guardian praised Haddad’s book to the skies, that might well be because the author declares herself NOT an Arab woman. Rather, Haddad says she is a “so-called Arab woman.” Who also looks so much like any Western woman that it’s irrelevant, according to Haddad, to discuss “so-called” cultural differences. “Yes, we look a lot like you, and our lives don’t vary much from yours” the author writes at the beginning of her essay. “We don’t live under a marquee … we have a very dynamic professional life and earn wages much higher than many of our acquaintances — both Westerners and Arab women.” ‘Who the hell is she talking about?’ the disoriented reader might ask at this stage. About the Beiruti bourgeois upper crust to which Haddad belongs? That is, roughly a few thousands of privileged women in the Arab world? And what a message! Since when is looking like a Westerner the key to emancipation? And becoming emancipated necessarily implying being well-off?
In the end, there’s nothing like a local who criticize locals. In words that Bush Jr. himself could have uttered, the Lebanese Carrie Bradshaw outlines a very odd portrait of the Arab World: “Obscurantists abound like mildew in the Arab culture. Their task consists of deforming and destroying any kind of freedom, creativity and beauty having escaped their hypocrisy and shallowness … Yes, obscurantism abounds like mildew, generating tons of threats, aggressions, demagogy and charlatanism.”
Edward Said brilliantly demonstrated how the work of V.S. Naipaul, the multi-awarded Indian writer, was founded on defaming his own country. “Naipaul thinks that Islam is the greatest disaster that ever happened to India and his book only reflects on this pathology.” Same goes for Haddad’s theories, which clearly reflect some pathology regarding the Arab woman. Edward Said used to call this kind of authors the ‘native informers.’
In a perfectly contradictory statement, Haddad defends both the idea that “most Arab women look like Western women” and that a majority of them live a very obedient lifestyle, compliant to the needs of their husbands. “From Yemen to Egypt, from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, you will find a religious power, an indifferent political system, a patriarchal society and an Arab woman very skilled in inventing new modes of humiliation, frustration and annihilation of women.” She is so undecided about the question of Arab women that in the last pages of her essay, she asks: “Is there really an existing entity called ‘Arab woman’? Does this apply to all individuals of the feminine gender in our region?” At this point, the reader him — or herself — starts to doubt.
“A femininity fanatic”
Besides the clichés that run through Haddad’s text, and her ability to contradict herself in the same sentence (“I earn the wages of a successful business woman but I hate to have to pay the bill when I’m invited at the restaurant by a man”), what’s truly problematic in I killed Scheherazade is its dire lack of content. When Haddad attempts to define femininity, she writes: “If I had to choose one example that sums up femininity to me, I would take Sonia Rykiel’s shop in Paris: beautiful, stylish, sexy outfits and books mingled together.”
To get back to a more elevated debate on feminism, it’s worth having a look at Salwa al-Neimi’s essay The proof of the honey. From this piece, written in Arabic, Haddad stole the idea that the Arabic language has been castrated and the reference to the fifteenth-century erotic work The Perfumed Garden by Sheikh al-Nafzawi. The al-Neimi essay of course didn’t have a chance to provoke a buzz as big as Haddad’s in the Western media. Maybe because the Syrian author boldly writes that Arabic is the language of sex? Far less interesting as a message than Haddad’s: “I’m entitled to wear high heels, especially if I can afford it!”