Source : The Hindu
Lebanese writer-activist-journalist Joumana Haddad talks of how being true to oneself is the obligation of every writer and human being
Joumana Haddad was named one of the world’s 100 most powerful Arab women for four years in a row by Arabian Business magazine. The Lebanese writer, journalist, and activist has several collections of essays, poetry and translations to her credit, including I Killed Scheherazade and Superman is an Arab. She has received the Blue Metropolis Arab Literary Prize and the Arab Press prize, among other honours. Excerpts from an interview:
You grew up in war-torn Lebanon in the 70s and 80s. What role did books play in your life then?
Books and reading literally saved my life. Everything around me was the opposite of living: violence, fear, corpses… But books allowed me to have hope, to dream of a possible future, to imagine I have what I did not have, to grow in the womb of knowledge, acceptance, and love. They were — and still are — my self-healing power.
You started writing poetry at a very young age. What were your early poems about?
My first poem was titled ‘Freedom’. Most of my early poems, which I used to write in French, revolved around the life I longed to have: liberation, adventure, romance, tomorrow… They were revenge for reality in a way.
Was your family supportive of your literary pursuits? Did they discourage you because ‘good’ girls are meant to focus on finding a husband and raising kids?
My parents were different on that level. My father was an avid reader and my earliest memory is of him returning home
after a long workday to sit down and read after eating. He was a very conservative man, but when it came to education, both his son and daughter had to excel. My mother was also a big support. Despite the fact that she was not highly educated, or maybe because of it, she sacrificed a lot to give us a good education. She also had huge ambitions for us, which made us strive to live up to her expectations.
Your poems in Arabic are passionate and explicit. Rebelling against convention in a society that prizes a woman’s ‘modesty’ can’t have been easy?
In the beginning it didn’t feel like rebellion, because I was merely being true to myself and saying what I wanted to say, which is the obligation and right of every writer (and human). I didn’t write in order to provoke, but being transparent in a hypocritical society entrenched in taboos was inevitably a form of rebellion. Despite all the insults, resistance, threats, and forms of censorship, it was all so worth it. Nothing satisfies me more than practising my right to be myself against all odds: whether in my words, books or life. Being true and resisting masks is one of the most necessary individual and collective revolutions in the world.
Poetry, fiction, non-fiction — do you have a favourite?
My thoughts and ideas are free to choose which form they want to be born in. I hate boxes, especially the ones we impose on ourselves.
You are fluent in seven languages. Do you make a conscious choice about which language to use when writing?
Just like I never decide the genre, I never choose the language: I let myself be chosen and transported!
You are a vocal critic of sexism. At what age did you became conscious of the skewed balance of power between the sexes?
Very early. In a society like mine, you cannot but notice it. In everyday life as much as in the big picture of the political and economical systems and laws. It’s like the elephant in the room. You cannot miss an elephant, even if many pretend it’s not there.
How would you describe the current status of women in Lebanon?
We are far back in the road towards emancipation and justice, despite the mirage of freedom that some women in Lebanon may enjoy. The system is extremely patriarchal and women’s participation in politics is low because of this. There are still many archaic laws. As long as half of society is not part of the decision-making process, we will not advance. But we are pushing and pushing, and the wall is bound to be torn down by our efforts one day.
What does freedom mean to you?
Freedom is an endless quest, and it has many meanings. To me, it is mainly about the right to just ‘be’ and ‘live’, as opposed to the act of ‘pretending’ and ‘surviving.’
Do you write with the hope that your words can topple existing power structures?
I never write with the intent or pretension that I can change the world. Not even a grain of sand in it… I write because I need to. Because I cannot ‘not write.’ It’s not a mission, but a vital necessity. One day when I discovered that what I wrote sometimes inspires or helps or consoles others, I was in awe. That’s the magic of books. The personal becomes universal or collective, and the change starts to happen without you having specifically sought it.
You continue to live in Lebanon despite being threatened by politicians and conservatives. Why stay on in a country that loves to hate you?
I believe real change can only come from within. You cannot import progress. I want to live the same lives of my people, experience the same suffering, endure the same struggles, face the same frustrations in order to be worthy of helping and changing all that injustice. If I’m not feeling the pain, I have no right to participate in the healing.
The interviewer is the author of A Happy Place And Other Stories.