An inexperienced, untalented author has naïvely stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument.… Should free-speech advocates champion “The Jewel of Medina”? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers don’t generally applaud them. If Jones’s work doesn’t reach those repugnant extremes, neither does it qualify as art. It is telling that PEN, the international association of writers that works to advance literature and defend free expression, has remained silent on the subject of this novel. Their stance seems just about right.But English PEN actively supported the publication of the novel as a case of freedom of expression, using their online network to flag up the attack on British publisher Martin Rynja. They also co-ordinated a widely-editorialised petition by leading British writers. In a note on the petition, Hari Kunzru wrote that:
Calling for books such as these to be banned or censored shows a lack of confidence over the subject matter. The only response to freedom of speech is more freedom of speech and the right to criticise and produce better books. Let pen fight with pen. Artistic licence is required to explore perceived wisdoms and ask new questions from different angles to reveal new insights. These insights are stunted if artistic licence is limited by the intimidation of extremists.Black Iris has a thoughtful response about how this case illuminates the "volatile nature [of freedom of expression]. The unpredictable (and sometimes predictable) nature of where and how a discussion will evolve."
Providing further context and consideration to the charges laid against Jewel comes an excellent interview in The Guardian with Lebanese poet and journalist Joumana Haddad, who has launched Jasad, "a quarterly magazine specialising in the body's arts, sciences, and literatures."
On sale in Lebanon in sealed plastic envelopes (and by couriered subscription elsewhere), Jasad is, as Haddad points out, a continuation of a rich tradition in Arabic literature; she tells Ian Black,
"I'm not trying to introduce something alien. We have wonderful erotic texts in Arabic like the Scented Garden or the non-censored texts of a Thousand and One Nights. These are all part of our heritage and we have come to deny it."The first issue has a plethora of contributors, whom Haddad insists write under their given names. They are a distinguished bunch, including French writer Catherine Millet (whose memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M. caused shockwaves), prize-winning novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, Egyptian poet Emad Fouad, and Abbas Beydoun, who is the Cultural Editor of Lebanese newspaper As-Safir as well as a novelist and poet.
There's an essay on lesbian life in Syria and France by Kurdish-Syrian journalist Maha Hassan, author of the excellent article "Female Arabic Writers: Neither Mannish nor Scheherazadian." She critiques Moroccan novelist Said Benkrad's assertion, made in August 2008, in Damascus (the 2008 Capital of Arabic culture), during a debate about female writing,
that the female Arab novel carried within itself only the body and temptation and that female writers put their desires above their words. He thus made a very clear distinction between novels written by men and those that are written by women.As the erotic writing by Ben Jelloun, Fouad and Beydoun included in Jasad shows, the erotic body is not the provenance of women writers -- but nor are they excluded from writing about it. Cannily, the magazine's website has a forum where issues of gender, sexuality, censorship, cultural heritage and so on can be discussed by readers and browsers, as the magazine provides a forum for writers to present their intellectual and erotic fantasies. The magazine is currently only available in Arabic, and in print, but excerpts are readable online, in English and Arabic.
It's great to see a full-page article about Arabic literature in the Saturday Guardian (dominated by a picture of the very beautiful Haddad and featuring a box entitled "World of Contradictions" summarising the double standards around the erotic in the Arab world), but appearing on the same day as the NYT Jewel review, it makes me wonder whether it's not so much about Arabic literature as the still-tantalising Orientalist myth of the erotic East, at once sternly veiled and sybaritically laid bare. While Jasad itself explores sensually, sparkily and thoughtfully a diverse world of sexuality, including cannibalism, fetishism, cinematic voyeurism, gender difference and body theory, the article presents it simply as a controversial "culture clash" of Western values (its "articles and illustrations are of a quality that would not be out of place in Paris, New York or London") and Arabic social mores. Jewel is being read through a similar narrow focus. But each carries with it, for Western readers and editors, a whiff of Burtonesque jasmine, a seduction -- into easy arguments as well as erotic reveries.
Haddad is a bold and talented writer and editor, and her magazine showcases a selection of the most exciting writers and artists from the region. But is this really all the coverage the Guardian can afford to the Beirut Book Fair and to Arabic literature? In fairness, the Review section's "A Life In Writing" interview this week is with Mourid Barghouti.
It's a detailed and considerable piece, and (after looking at the Jasad article) what springs out for me are Barghouti's bodily metaphors for his writing process: he describes the protagonist of his 2005 long poem Midnight as
"left with this attack of time on his heart and mind and solitary body… I find I always imagine myself in the place of the victim," he says. "When the twin towers were hit, I felt I was thrown from windows, running from the fire - I lived it. In Abu Ghraib I was the hooded prisoner with electrodes on his fingers."
Interviewer Maya Jaggi quotes Zuhair Abu Shayeb, a poet and editor at the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing in Amman, who says Barghouti "abandoned the heroic tone and slogans that plague modern Arabic poetry. His is a poetry of coughs and headaches - the daily pains of the individual". Barghouti agrees passionately; of his sequel to the memoir I Saw Ramallah, he says:
"It's to make every trivial detail into a chronicle of history. Everything starts from the individual - the body's pleasures and pains. If you don't see that, you misunderstand history."