Documentary Film Gives Voice to the Erotic Body

By 
Kim Jensen

Joumana Haddad, Lebanese feminist, author, and poet, founded Jasad, the Arabic Journal of Erotic Arts, in order to advocate for the sexual liberation for the Arab World. In her film, “Jasad & The Queen of Contradictions” Amanda Homsi-Ottosson combines interviews with Haddad, Jasad journal contributors, and critics, as well as reactions from the street, and footage taken from the literary salons of Beirut, the Queen of Contradictions herself.  

Jasad & The Queen of Contradictions
A film by Amanda Homsi-Ottosson
Women Make Movies,  2011, 40 minutes 

“Jasad & The Queen of Contradictions” is a short documentary about “Jasad,” the Arabic journal of erotic arts founded and edited by Joumana Haddad, the Lebanese author, poet, and feminist. One might quickly assume that the “queen of contradictions” refers to Haddad herself – an outspoken advocate of sexual liberation in the Arab World. The title, in fact, refers to the city of Beirut. According to Haddad, Beirut is not just the queen of contradictions, but a city of immense schizophrenia and hypocrisy, especially in regards to questions of women’s sexuality. Haddad confronts this duplicity in all of her books and other literary enterprises, including “Jasad.” Surprisingly, the film portrays Haddad as completely lacking in contradictions; she articulates clear and uncompromising views on women’s liberation and freedom of expression.

Drawing on interviews with Haddad; interviews with the journal’s contributors, supporters, and critics; reactions from the street; and footage taken from literary salons of Beirut, the film focuses primarily on the controversies surrounding “Jasad,” which features sexually-explicit art, poetry, film reviews, translations, and fiction. Haddad has been the target of protests, hate mail, and violent threats, but persists in her mission because she believes that like an anaesthetized patient, the Arab World needs a good slap to wake up; she likes to refer to her magazine as that slap.

Though many of “Jasad’s “subscribers reside in conservative Gulf States, the journal’s most obvious critics are religious conservatives. In the film’s candid interviews in the streets and cafés of Beirut, young moralists challenge Haddad’s daring views. The film also presents criticism from Lebanese feminists who are wary of her approach. Zainab, a veiled young woman from the women’s collective, Nasawiya, claims that Haddad imposes a one-size-fits-all approach to feminism that doesn’t consider cultural context. She worries that Haddad reinforces the idea that a liberated woman must “strip down” and bare her body. The problem is that Zainab admits that she has only seen “Jasad’s” website for the first time on the day of the interview. Her cursory remarks are based on relative ignorance and a faulty set of assumptions about the very nature of free speech, which demands nothing of others, imposes nothing, except the right to not be silenced.

Dr. Aman Kabbara Chaarani, the President of the Lebanese Council for Women, vehemently opposes distribution of Jasad because she says that the Lebanese authorities have made no attempt at blocking minors from having access to the journal. Also claiming that Haddad “imposes” her opinions, Chaarani worries that the journal may cause young minds “to go astray.”

Another implicit criticism of “Jasad”– whose contributors and editors drop English words and phrases into their discussions as a matter of habit – is that the journal is generally reflective of elite Western incursions. Aware of such critiques, Haddad makes the case that “Jasad” is actually resuscitating a long-buried erotic lexicon and tradition that stems not from Western influence, but from a rich Arab heritage that has been repressed in the last two hundred years. Anyone who has read the unexpurgated versions of One “Thousand and One Nights” or the lusty love poems of Abu Nawas knows that she has a good point.

“Jasad & The Queen of Contradictions” provides an excellent platform for the lively, forthright Haddad to present an unfiltered narration of her ideas. In this regard, the film is a resounding success and a powerful resource. Unfortunately, the film never shows Haddad in face-to-face conversation or direct dialogue with her critics. It would strengthen the work to have included an intelligent debate between proponents and detractors, allowing a more nuanced conversation to emerge.

What also remains to be explored and discussed are the literary qualities of the journal itself. Social provocations are a legitimate purpose of art, but aren’t enough to hold the world’s attention for long. It is discouraging the way our focus on controversy often obscures more important questions, such as: does the journal succeed on its own terms and achieve a high level of aesthetic distinction? Undoubtedly, the film will incite some viewers to subscribe to Jasad (even if in secret – and make that judgment for themselves).

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, No.66.

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