Lebanese poet Joumana Haddad has a mission. She’s hell bent on dismantling the prevailing image of an Arab woman as a powerless, subjugated figure hidden beneath a burqa, chador or hijab. The kind of woman who is, in Western eyes,
“….not allowed to think, speak or work for herself; who is only able to talk when she is told to, and is largely humiliated and ignored when she does speak; a woman, in short, who has no place and no dignity in humanity.”
It’s a portrayal that angers Haddad because it hides the reality that there are many Arab women who are “rebellious, independent, modern, free-thinking, unconventional, highly educated, self sufficient” who prefer miniskirts and sleeveless tops to enveloping cloaks and headscarves. In short, people like Haddad herself.
I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman is a series of essays in which she explores what it means to be an Arab woman in the twenty-first century and the development of her own attitudes. Her opening chapter reflects on one of the formative influences on her life; the liberating effect of literature which began when she read Marquis de Sade; Nabokov and Balzac at the age of 12. Where her school friends were absorbed by Tom Cruise and Bruce Springsteen, Haddad’s head was full of Dostoyevsky and Salinger.
I loved reading for many reasons: I read to breathe; I read to live; I read to ravel away; I read to escape a brutal reality; I read to smother the explosions of the Lebanese war…
These are fiery and provocative essays in which she challenges many of the taboos she encounters every day and exerts her right — and the rights of her Middle Eastern sisters — to resist the pressure to conform to prevailing notions of identity and womanhood. Haddad. She wants them in short to ‘kill’ the idea that Scheherazade, the heroine of Arabian Nights who uses her ingenuity to save herself from death, is a role model for women.
Haddad helped slay that particular monster when she launched the Arab world’s first erotic cultural magazine, Jasad (Body) in 2008, fighting against censorship rules and defying death and rape threats in order to do so. She continues to defy stereotyping with poetry which is deliberately personal and often explicit and through her editorship of the cultural pages of Lebanon‘s leading daily, An-Nahar (she’s the first woman to do such a job in the Arab world.)
I came across her when she spoke at the 2013 Hay Literary Festival about the reality of life for women in the Lebanon. I was hoping that in her book she would draw back the veil much further on what she sees as the reality of life for twenty-first women in the Middle East. But having read it I am not much more enlightened. Most of the book is about her own attitude and her own anger and frustration. She writes narrative as if it was poetry, frequently using repeated phrases to create emphasis as well as rhythm and cadence. Her book has vigour and passion but without any solid evidence (little in the way of data, or analysis for example) it sounds more like a politician delivering a party conference speech. Disappointing.
Perhaps however I am missing the point. Perhaps the book is hugely significant not so much for what it says specifically or doesn’t say, but in the very fact of someone having dared to say anything at all on this subject.
I Killed Scheherazade was published in 2010 by Saqi Books. It has since been translated into 11 languages. In 2009, a panel of writers, academics and journalists named Joumana Hadad as one of the most interesting authors in the Arab world.