By Joumana Haddad

And the word became flesh

The Gospel according to John

This is not a manifesto. I am not a fan of manifestos, proclamations and statements, nor a believer in their efficacy.
Nor is it a pre-emptive speech for the defense, to ward off an impending accusation, in the style of “I will have you for lunch before you have me for dinner.” For I know it is inevitable that an accusation, or rather several accusations, are heading my way. And it is highly unlikely that a case for the defense, whether it was made sooner or later, would be any use in warding them off.
Nor is this a cry for support, attention, sympathy, or solidarity.
Nor is it a complaint, a disparaging commentary, a gripe, or a gnashing of teeth.
Nor is it an act of rebellion, or of provocation, or a rallying call, or an attempt to cause an uproar.
On the contrary: in reality, I am writing this today in a state of astonishment. I write in bewilderment, longing to understand. As soon as the founding of my new quarterly cultural magazine called JASAD (Body) was reported by some of the Arab printed and online press, wonderful and enthusiastic and supportive echoes began bouncing back at me (which were, by the way, much richer and more copious than I had dared to hope). Alongside all of those, however, were some strange, really weird reactions and commentaries, most of which came by email, but several of them via certain ‘do-gooders’, fans of passing on negative talk on the pretext of affection, or of what they would call alerting one to its existence.
This is, of course, exactly what one would expect, you’ll tell me, and it’s an inevitable reaction to reports of a forthcoming magazine concerned with the ‘literatures, sciences and arts of the Body.’ To make matters worse, the magazine’s in Arabic. And as if that wasn’t enough, the editor in chief is a woman. Which, basically, means it’s a Molotov cocktail primed to explode. ‘So what did you expect?’ you’ll ask me.
I wasn’t expecting a miracle, of course. And I certainly wasn’t under any illusion about public opinion, in its entirety, seizing on and embracing the idea of this magazine, being thrilled by it, giving it its blessing, encouraging and celebrating it. But, on the other hand, never in my life have I encountered a country, or anything which deserves to be called a culture, which attacks a cultural production before it has actually materialized in its tangible form. Nor which passes judgment on it, relying solely on the mere imagined idea of it, as our countries and our culture do almost continuously. I should in fact refer to them here as our cultures: our varied and different and contradictory cultures which, even if they quarrel and oppose each other over their differences, don’t distinguish themselves, sadly, in anything other than the perpetuation and promotion of inferiority, hypocrisy and degradation.

Excuse me, I forgot something. I forgot - and I say this without generalizing - that most people in our happy Arab countries, nearly all of them, almost everyone, is ethereal and unearthly: they are in fact all saints, and prophets. Immaterial beings that, somehow, are born and grow up without bodies, without either sexual organs, needs, impulses, fantasies, vices, or transgressions, and with no secret naughty habits, or public ones either.
I also seem to have forgotten - how could I? - that most people in our happy Arab republics and kingdoms, nearly all of them, almost everyone, is zealous about something or other.
So, come on, let’s list these zealous factions, together. There’s the faction that demands conservatism, fervent - in appearance only, yes, but with the height of all malice - about the concepts of chastity, modesty, and purity. These people are zealous on preserving the hymens of the eye, the nose, the ear, the throat, of language, the imagination and of dreams, and all sorts of other similarly unnecessary necessities. These fragile and sensitive membranes apparently keep, all by themselves, the honor of our traditions safe from the mire, from affront, from insult and from scandal; and the zealots of this faction are intent on protecting them from the threat of being torn by any kind of obscene ‘penetration.’
There is also a faction who is truly conservative - zealous about this century’s mores and values. But most of them get these mores upside down and inside out: like someone who sweeps dust under the carpet in order to feel secure, but ends up believing in the illusion of this fake cleanliness, to the extent that the illusion becomes truth.
And then there is the faction of pessimists, symbolically known in Arabic as ravens. These particular zealots focus on any initiative that aims to refresh the stagnant waters of the quagmire, indulging their seemingly eternal need to sound the death knell before the initiative has even been born. Their flaccid philosophy is asserted by the incessant croaking of that same old refrain - ‘it’s all in vain, so why bother?’
And there’s also the chatterbox faction, zealous about the benefit of keeping their tongues’ diesel engines running; engines which would rust away and break down if it wasn’t for all the rumors, machinations, intrigues, hallucinations, fabrications and cheap lies they run on.
And there is the zealous saboteur faction, with their instinctive biological impulse to put a spanner in the works. They make sure anything that overcomes its paralysis and gets up and walks, without owing it to a miracle from them, trips over and falls back down again.
And last but certainly not least, there is the spiteful faction, whose adepts are as zealous as can be about their violent urge to spread poison. They do this under the pretense of a concern for personal well-being, and for good reputation, and on whatever other similarly believable pretexts they can find.

Very well then. Allow me, just by way of clarification, to announce loudly and clearly: Ladies and Gentlemen, JASAD is not a pornographic magazine. But it is not defending itself against the slur of being pornographic out of primness, or out of a puritanical mentality. For here in Lebanon, we live with enough pornography of the political, social, media, artistic, cultural, mental, intellectual and moral variety, not to fear the least harmful of all types of pornography - the literal and direct one.
And JASAD is also not an activist magazine with a cause (either feminist, as some people presume, or anti-feminist).
Nor is JASAD a sex education magazine, preaching or offering advice (knock at Google’s door to find all that).
Nor will JASAD magazine consist of a motley mix of art aimed exclusively at the feminist public (God protect us!)
Nor is JASAD magazine a charming whim. Or a light joke. Or an experiment.
JASAD will tell you all about itself. But the magazine is, in short, a serious cultural, intellectual, literary, scientific and artistic project, which demanded a great deal of thought and thorough examination before crystallizing and becoming manifest. It is a project related to the Body, the body of life, the body of the mind, the body of the heart and the body of language. And the project’s sole aim is to inquire into the consciousness of the body, and into its unconscious. To do this by meditating, getting immersed, delving deep, experimenting, rebelling, being awake, sleeping, dreaming, having visions, hallucinating, writing, sculpting, drawing, dancing, and by creating a body for the body. All of this within the adventure of freedom; an adventure we are still only at the very beginning of, just as the body, also, is still at its very beginning.

“Why didn’t you produce JASAD as an electronic magazine, and avoid the censorship it is likely to be exposed to?”
“Because paper is one of the finest and most desirable bodies that we can ever have the pleasure of touching. Also, because ‘entering through the narrow gate’, as one of the greats put it nearly two thousand years ago, is a much more beautiful way to go than via the vastness of the cyber highway - is that not so?”

This is how we are, Ladies and Gentlemen:
We applaud nudes by Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray and Spencer Tunick, but on the other hand when their work is shown in an Arab cultural magazine, along with similar erotic art by both Arab and western artists, we condescendingly call it pornography.
We exult the greatness of Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Vladimir Nabokov, to name but a few, as examples of writers who broke taboos, and continue to break them, with real flair. We laud them to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to find an interview with an Arab writer who doesn’t mention one of them, praise them, and brandish their name as a crucial literary influence. But, on the other hand, when an Arab cultural magazine publishes poems, stories, texts, and translations belonging to the genre of literary eroticism, we call it pornography.
We celebrate, with the height of ceremony, the genius of Picasso, Balthus, and Courbet, and their forebears and descendants, ranking them among the fathers of vivid visual passion. But, on the other hand, we call a study of similar paintings by both Arab and western artists, published in an Arab cultural magazine, pornography.
We shout ‘bravo’ at the Japanese film director Nagashi Oshima (Realm of the Senses), the Italian Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris), and the Polish-American-French Roman Polanski (Bitter Moon), and at other foreign filmmakers who have violated the forbidden, and continue to do so, with great courage and artistry. On the other hand, however, we call the discussion of these kind of films in an Arab cultural magazine pornography.
And so on, and so forth. Talking about circumcision is pornography. Talking about gay life? Pornography. About self-mutilation rituals? Pornography. About how psychological complexes affect gender identity? Pornography. About the relationship between the body’s social dimension and the eye? Pornography. About fetishism and cannibalism? Pornography. About our subjective experience of our own face’s reflection in the mirror? Pornography. About the question of sexual identity? Pornography. About contemporary novels’ critical perspectives on sex? Pornography. About the feminist intelligentsia’s vision of desire? Pornography. About the male body, caught between being concealed and being absent? Pornography. About orgasmic moments in Sufi practice? Pornography.
Don’t exhaust yourselves with trying to work any of it out - don’t bother: pornography, pornography, pornography.

This is how most of us are: “We want something and we spit on it,” as the famous Lebanese saying goes. We get rid of an abomination with one hand, and we practice intellectual debauchery, which is much worse, with the other. One unified schizophrenic Arab nation, the vast majority of it united around constitutions of ignorance, hypocrisy, backwardness, malice, lies, and the art of hiding behind a ridiculous and scanty screen.

So, friends and foes, wean yourselves off those ballads of warning, intimidation, advice and guidance. Leave behind all the attempts to frighten you, chastise you, startle and embarrass you. Don’t waste your breath trying to make me change my mind: the wheels have been set in motion now, and I’m not going into reverse gear.
My opponents and my allies, JASAD is for you. JASAD is your body, whether you accept it or reject it.
Embrace it, or stone it: it will be more than ready for either possibility.
…And its house will not be made of glass.