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Book review: Superman is an Arab

by Faisal al-Yafai

As cultural editor of An Nahar, Joumana Haddad has long been a presence in the vibrant media landscape of Lebanon. But until recently, she was better known outside of the country for her poetry than her journalism. That changed two years ago, after the publication of ‘I Killed Scheherazade’, a furious tirade about the state of women in Lebanon, the Arab world and elsewhere. It was widely praised, particularly in liberal circles and in the West, a fact that provided Haddad’s critics with ammunition.

‘Superman Is An Arab’ is the follow-up to that book, less a sequel than the continuation of a conversation about what Haddad thinks is wrong in the battle of the sexes.

Haddad turns her attention to men in this book, decrying the ‘Superman’ of the title, a man whose “muscles are just a facade for his insecurities”, who “confuses manhood with machismo, faith with fanaticism, ethics with stale tradition, love with possession and strength with despotism.”

There are, she argues, many of these men “in my dear old Arab region” and happily lists them. It is a long list. “The father, the brother, the boyfriend, the husband, the priest, the sheikh, the politician. In short, the guy next door.” Haddad contrasts these Supermen with the Clark Kents, men who are “timid, clumsy, honest, sweet and mild-mannered. In short, genuine.” Lebanon and the Arab world, she writes, need more Clark Kents.

Despite the title, Haddad isn’t specifically taking aim at Arab men, but men in general. It is clear, however, that she feels especially angry about the treatment of women by men in her own country, Lebanon.

Haddad has said before she feels her country hates her, but she exhibits genuine care for Lebanese. She is just furious at their treatment.

And her fury has many targets. Haddad is outraged by what she sees as sectarianism pervading daily Lebanese life, from the assignation of a child’s religion at birth, to the lack of civil marriage in the country, to the division of political spoils. She fumes at the emphasis on women’s virginity, which she writes leads the bodies of women to be religiously regulated, even mutilated, to be “buried under burqas” and murdered for the sake of “honor”.

Even the social freedom of Lebanon, the “illuminating exception” of the country in the region, provokes her. This freedom is illusory, a glaze of liberty in a conservative country, always compared to places with much less freedom, like Saudi Arabia.

Yet Haddad reserves most of her anger not for individuals, but institutions. She writes sympathetically of women, whom she feels have been victimized and, on occasion, have participated in their own victimization.

Interspersed with the book’s polemical essays are amusing, telling biographical sketches. Haddad is reflective in her writing and recognizes that she has too, on occasion, participated in unhealthy relationships — she speaks of men she has loved who were wrong for her from the start.

But ultimately Haddad is arguing for the freedom of individuals from the bonds that restrict them. She is scornful of marriage. It is a “disastrous invention”, she writes, a patriarchal institution that promotes male superiority over women.

Haddad’s latest work will delight those who enjoyed ‘Scheherazade’; her anger is clearly undimmed and she ranges widely in her exploration of this new territory. The criticism of her critics will remain the same; those who find her shrill, or argue she is perpetuating Western notions of liberation, will find little here to change their minds.

One can disagree with what Haddad says and even the way in which she says it. But it is difficult to argue that Lebanon’s Germaine Greer — still angry, still vibrant, still worth reading in this tirade against manufactured men of steel — does not for the people she writes about.

 

Faisal al-Yafai is an award-winning journalist and essayist. His book about feminism in the modern Middle East is forthcoming from I.B. Tauris, London

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