Tackling controversial Issues in Arabic Novels 

5 min read
Fadi Zaghmout | Photographed by Borna Ahadi

Author Fadi Zaghmout knows the downside of tackling contentious issues in the Middle East all too well

Twenty years ago, before the Internet and satellite news channels revolutionised our lives, traditional media outlets in Jordan were mostly controlled and censored by the government. We only had access to two national terrestrial TV channels, plus a few others from nearby countries, as well as a number of government-owned and independent newspapers. During those 20 years, and during my childhood and teenage years, the region was undergoing a big shift, by applying an imported strategy cooked up in the USA to strengthen religious sentiments and radical religious views in the region, in order to undermine and fight the influence of communism. That was our Cold War. One that spread like wildfire and grew under our skin, to create the image we have of the Arab world today. It was an era where governments and Islamists discourse united, dominating every form of media.

Fortunately, the Internet was a game-changer. It pulled the rug from underneath the feet of traditional powers and gave us a much-needed space for freedom – at least in the early days of the Internet, before traditional powers learnt how to catch up and control the newly-founded medium. We were lucky to have ‘Blogspot’ before electronic newspapers. It was a platform that allowed us to cross boundaries and communicate to the masses without any censorship. Alternative political views appeared, challenging religious views found a space, and sexual freedoms surfaced for the first time in the region. It was a period of high hopes that paved the way towards the ‘Arab Spring’ we reference today.

During my university years and the few years that followed, I grew to notice the huge amount of pressure we apply on women to get married at a young age. And I knew that it is linked to what I call a social obsession with marriage. An obsession that aims to control people’s sexuality, under the umbrella of accepted traditional boundaries. As a result of this obsession, which focused on controlling women’s sexuality in particular, and under a patriarchal male-dominated society, we ended up distorting the natural relationship between men and women – turning men into honour defenders, murderers in extreme cases, and women into controlled and supervised victims. It was a heavy set of cultural values that we inherited, ones that have a clear definition of what men and women should look like, and how they should behave and interact with each other.

I started blogging in 2006 with a passion for gender equality, body rights, and sexual freedoms. And I remember the heated discussions during the early days of blogging, which taught me that the best way to convey my point of view is by putting it into a story: by creating a scene were people get to understand the characters’ feelings and relate to their choices. Create a context. At the time, I realised that the issues I was talking about needed to be written and addressed in Arabic. It needed to be communicated to a wider audience, that goes beyond the early adopters of the Internet. I wanted to see these stories go into traditional media, to infiltrate the fort of traditional values, and provide an alternative discourse. It wasn’t an easy feat, especially for a new writer, to get published – knowing the state of the publishing industry in Jordan and the Arab world at the time. An industry faced by its own problems and its own challenges with the rise of the Internet. Nevertheless, that didn’t discourage me, and I was determined. I finished my first book Bride of Amman in mid-2011 and it was published in Arabic to the Jordanian audience in 2012.

It stirred controversy indeed, but that was a needed discussion. As someone pointed out at the time: ‘it pointed to the elephant in the room’. Some people hated it, as it challenged their views and values, but others loved it. It wasn’t just me, as the Internet proved to raise the bar of freedom, others have found ways into publishing controversial books that pushed boundaries on all fronts. I like to believe that our societies are shifting; our values and culture are changing. Yet the fort of traditional media is still impenetrable and our legacy of heavy set values are still intact.

Traditional powers still exercise their control, even at a time where it is no longer applicable as we have seen in banning books in Arab countries. It is shameful to see books like Mama Hessa’s Mice by the Arab Booker Prize winner, Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi, banned in his own country. Same goes for the very important book by Alaa Al-Aswany titled The Republic As If, which talks about the recent Egyptian revolution, banned in Egypt and a number of other Arab countries. I haven’t escaped such censorship either, as my latest book Laila and the Lamb got banned in my own country, Jordan. The reason for banning it was because “it describes sexual intercourse, has foul language, and promotes foreign ideas.”

The fight will continue, as we all know, cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t shift by a single voice or one alternative discourse, but it is important for us to have these voices. As Jumana Haddad, in her latest TV show ‘fe al mamnoo,’ which translates to ‘Banned,’ says, looking to the camera: “Ban as much as you want, my dear censor. You ban, but the caravan goes on.”

FADI’S FOUR MUST-READ BOOKS

‘MAULANA’ BY IBRAHIM ISSA

Maulana is a novel by Egyptian Journalist Ibrahim Issa, originally published in 2009. The story revolves around protagonist Sheikh Hatem Al-Shennawi, who is a popular preacher known for his moderate views. The novel tackles controversial issues such as the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) Hadith, the Mu’tazilah, Shi’ism, the people of the Dhimah, terrorism, and the sheikhs of television.

‘THE REPUBLIC AS IF’ BY ALAA AL-ASWANY

A literary work by Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany, The Republic As If, tells the story of attempts to abort the Egyptian revolution in 2011. It showcases the terrifying alliances formed by religious leaders, authoritarian regime and the media, to suppress those who were seeking change in Egypt.

‘SUPERMAN IS AN ARAB’ BY JOUMANA HADDAD

A sequel to a previous novel I Killed Scheherazade, author Joumana Haddad examines the Middle East’s patriarchal system and its continual domination in the Arab world. “It is not a manifesto against men in general. Nor is it a manifesto against Arab men in particular,” describes Joumana. “It is, however, a howl in the face of a particular species of men: the macho species, ‘supermen’.”

‘I GREW UP AND I FORGOT TO FORGET’ BY BUTHAINA AL-ISSA

Buthaina Al-Issa’s novel addressed the rights that women in the Arab world were deprived of in the 1980s and ’90s, under the pretext of religion and tradition. The story is told through the lens of the protagonist, Fatima, who grew up during the wave of the so-called religious awakening in the region, a time where fatwas began to descend on young people, and they were taught that music, entertainment, television, and the arts are haram, because they were considered disobedient and insulting.

  • Words by Fadi Zaghnmout
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