Joumana Haddad: Rebellion whirlwind versus opprobrium, via words

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Alongside generating brainchildren in English, Haddad masters six other languages, among which her native Arabic tongue, French, Armenian, and Spanish.

by Christy-Belle Geha -Source: Annahar

Joumana Haddad’s portrait by photographer Alejandro Luque. (Courtesy of Joumana Haddad)

BEIRUT: By the age of 12, Joumana Haddad had already devoured the works of Dostoevsky, Balzac, Eluard, and Salinger, from her father’s library, and moved to the Marquis de Sade, whose world scandalized the young girl. Years later, she became an award-winning poet, renowned journalist, and literary translator.

Haddad registered her Ph.D. subject on the Marquis de Sade at Sorbonne University in France, but never completed it because academia “never quite attracted” her.

She preferred dedicating her time to a new book rather than to a thesis, as she told Annahar, the newspaper whose cultural pages she headed for 20 years, growing into the first woman in the Arab region to occupy such a position.

“Language is a beautiful tool through which the world can be looked at, named, discovered, loved, reinvented, have its stories told,” Haddad said. However, language is also a “dangerous tool to distort the world and lie about it as well.”

Discovering De Sade was Haddad’s “baptism by subversion” as she wrote in her 2010 “I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman,” her first book in English, in which she confessed that literature “has been [her] original emancipator.”

Alongside generating brainchildren in English, Haddad masters six other languages, among which her native Arabic tongue, French, Armenian, and Spanish.

“I never avoid saying something in a particular language and thus ‘escape’ to another,” she noted. “I say what I want to say, period. Whatever the language is. It’s just that the idea of a book often comes carrying with it its own genre and its own language, and I surrender to that.”

During Annahar’s conversation with Haddad, she elaborated that she relishes abandoning herself to her volatility, and she subsequently adopts the null literary routine or daily writing rituals, given that her “fickle type of creativity doesn’t appreciate discipline.”

As neither academia nor discipline attracts Haddad, she abhors the tendency among Arab women towards submission to clichés and victimhood, triggering her to speak, write, and transgress the human-fabricated constraints.

“Poetry, to me, is the closest dwelling to freedom, and the shortest path to the core of all things. It is the nucleus of truth under the innumerable layers of deceit, and that’s a yearning in me,” she explained.

With a favorite-poets spectrum oscillating between Akl Awit, Ounsi El Hajj, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath, Paul Eluard, and Fernando Pessoa, Haddad thinks that all poets and avid readers might face the risks of their readings’ influence on their expression.

“We almost always carry some essence of what we have read and loved in our own texts,” Haddad said. “The important thing is to absorb that influence and personalize it and enrich it with our individual voice so that it stops being an influence and rather becomes the hybrid descendant of ancestral matrimony. We all produce cross-breeds when we write.”

In parallel with publishing widely-acclaimed poetry in French like “Le temps d’un rêve” (1995), her Arabic “The return of Lilith” (2004), “Mirrors of the passers by” (2008), and “The Geology of I” (2012) among others, and “Invitation to a Secret Feast” (2008) in English, Haddad also published several works of translation – which she delved into for her Master’s degree at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK) – including an anthology of Lebanese modern poetry in Spanish, “Allí donde el río se incendia, Antología de la poesía libanesa moderna” (2005).

Her explicit and daring poetry and prose earned her international prizes such as Italy’s International Prize North-South for poetry in 2009, the Blue Metropolis Al Majidi Bin Dhaher Arab Literary Prize and the Rodolfo Gentili Prize in Porto Recanati in 2010, as well as the 2014 Italian “Career Poetry Prize,” after she was appointed honorary ambassador for culture and human rights for the city of Naples in the Mediterranean in 2013.

“When I’m writing, there’s no ‘audience,’ no readers, no calculations and formulas.” She explained. “No ‘what will happen next?’ or ‘how will this text be received?’ Nothing from the outside world interferes with the flow of my thoughts and words. I become completely impermeable, as well as totally free from the earthly notions of time and space, and the weight these might cast on me.”

For Haddad, this attitude comes as a result of years of training in the art of fighting self-censorship and the nagging voices in her head. “I learned not to surrender to those, because without the absolute freedom of writing whatever I wanted to write, I cannot produce anything,” she added.

Obloquy cascades flooded Beirut – the city where Haddad was born in 1970 – and the surrounding Arab region, when she published “Jasad” (or “Body”) starting 2008, a quarterly magazine unprecedentedly tackling Arab cultural taboos including polygamy, masturbation, homosexuality, virginity, marriage, in addition to erotic stories and personal testimony.

Haddad herself scandalized her father at the age of 26 when she opted for the word “penis” in a poem, rather than “column,” the preferred term by her father.

“As long as you’re alive, you’re oppressed, whether you realize it or not, whether you accept it or not. Humans are oppressed by the small details as well as by the big picture, by the obvious and by the less obvious, by the patriarchal laws and by the inequitable economy, by international politics and by biased media,” she expressed.

Haddad believes that waking up is a constant “going to war,” as every day, there are new “oppression monsters to defeat.”

Given her harsh fight against prevalent notions of womanhood and misogyny in the Middle East, as well as western stereotypes on Arab women, Haddad’s most vociferous opponents slide into her inbox and threaten her for her “provocative” cerebral products, initially thought to be written by men.

But despite it all, she admits not being affected by criticism, as “it doesn’t steer the direction that only [she] decides to take, nor the content that nobody but [her] chooses to express.”

“Anger generates beauty when it is the right kind of anger, that is, outrage in the face of indignity and the will to do and say something about it,” she added. “All strong emotions can generate beauty. The only indifference is sterile. But we don’t write to ‘generate beauty.’ We write to create earthquakes and move mountains, or at least that’s what I try to do.”

Her scientific approach to life helped her in her career as she confirmed, and “‘Parole parole parole’ doesn’t work for [her].”

For Haddad, her mind needs to be “addressed and convinced with a solid reason,” which many might consider a weird characteristic in a poet and writer.

“I look at my young self with compassion, and she looks at me with the grateful eyes of someone who’s been somewhat avenged,” she concluded

 

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