Sunday, January 20, 2008

Saja kindly translated my last Al-Akhbar's article, for those who are interested. I did not edit it.

"Femininity and Feminism...and Culture Industry in Lebanon

There is an urgent need to study a phenomenon described by Theodore’ Adorno as “Culture Industry” in Lebanon and the Arab world in the age of Rotana (a popular Arabic satellite channel) and Al-Nahar newspaper’s institutional monopoly in the age of the rising Gulf (does anyone notice, by the way, the tremendous control a single Saudi prince commands over musical and artistic taste?) Many in the Arab world, especially oil sheikhs, suffer from the complex of Lebanese excellence, which is a lie Lebanese chauvinists created and some Lebanese and Arabs believe. This is why we find Lebanese (male and female) media personalities in oil media, while anchors from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates hardly exist. Egyptian culture in the sixties was able to compete with Al-Nahar culture and the values and concepts it publicizes.
Cultural Mafia
What I term “Cultural Mafia” is apparent in Lebanon on more than one front. The quid pro quo principle of “publicize me and I publicize you” is culturally both predominant and lethal. We find one writer in Al-Nahar, for example, flattering another writer in the very same newspaper. Al-Nahar also devotes many of its pages to Dar Al-Nahar’s publications in a classic display of commercial coordination. This network of semi-prohibited relations explains Al-Nahar’s silence about the lawsuit Fakhri Karim, the official intellect of Iraq’s occupation’s president, brought against Al-Adab magazine because its editor Mr. Samah Idris overstepped the boundaries of “valid criticism,” per Karim’s definition. No magazines responded about “valid criticism,” with the exception of Al-Akhbar. The Frankfurt school of philosophy could devote an entire chapter to study the authoritarianism of the concept of “valid criticism” in Ardono’s book about The Authoritarian Personality and the question of who may authorize whom. But the cultural pages of the Saud and Hariri families’ pages have more important matters to publish. Hakem Paul Shaul writes culturally about Fouad Al-Seniora “Bravo, Seniora, foundation of state, democracy and sovereignty” (Al-Mustaqbal, Dec. 29, 2007).
Without discussion, Al-Nahar decided in the sixties that it was able and qualified to decide the essence and definitions of the civilized and the sophisticated in art, culture and politics, contrary to other media outlets in Lebanon and the Arab world (which is called “the Orient” in Lebanon to signify its Europeanization). The presumption is that taste is not intrinsic, as if we didn’t live without difficulties before the spread of Starbucks cafes and the onslaught of addiction to coffee beverages (the Lebanese boast visiting Starbucks and refuse to boycott it as a company that supports Israel. Boycotting Starbucks, in their opinion, is backwards and belongs to the culture of death, which Karim Marwa rejects today, after having praising it in the nineties). The manufacture of taste is an indispensable part of modern capitalism, which subsidizes workers as prisoners of consumerist production, as Herbert Marcuse analyzed in his book One Dimensional Man, or Marx’s الهوى الشهواني). The influence of the Nahar taste industry is widespread; it decides, for example, that Mansour Al-Rahbani, who trivialized and leveled even Socrates and Al-Mutanabbi, was an inspirational poet because of his poem “I love you, Lebanon, my homeland.” The Lebanese cultural factory also decides which parts we should accept from the west and which we should reject. Goods that Lebanon imports from the west or elsewhere demean and transform Che Guevara to a politically void symbol (does anyone in Lebanon know that the man was a strict Marxist-Leninist who, according to Lebanese definitions, didn’t love life?) For example, Al-Nahar newspaper changed Muhammad Al-Maghut to a Lebanese nationalist upon his death. It accentuated his love for Lebanon but failed to mention that he had named his daughter Cham because that could have alarmed the ears of racists among the newspaper’s editors and readers. As Saadi Yousif eulogizes Sarcon Paul, "رامبو مقتلعا عن متاريس الكومونة". (Rambeau uprooted from the trenches of the Commune)
Al-Nahar newspaper promotes and demotes whomever it wishes according to its own random, arbitrary, personal and political standards. For instance Joumana Haddad, in her interview cited below, talks about “objective” standards in deciding poets and writers to decide to who “deserves” to be written about in the cultural section of Al-Nahar newspaper. Unfortunately, Al-Nahar newspaper’s standards spread in several publications in Lebanon and the Arab world. Glorification of Al-Nahar’s writers takes up an entire section in Al-Nahar’s cultural industry. Even Pierre Sadek’s infantile paintings are considered art of the highest caliber. Hence, pieces like Shaoqi Abu Shaqra’s “Plant quince in movie theatres. Men watch before noon and women after a hot bath” or “He slept on his back, heavier than mercury and potatoes, carried the weapon, could hardly lift his legs, and a slaughtered, plucked turkey, his pants made of white linen” (from the collection of poems: Practices Magic and Breaks Ears as He Runs Away) become valuable literature that deserves to be posted on Beirut’s acorn trees, as were the mu’alaqat, ancient Arabian poems considered the finest in Arabic literature. Of course, poet and art are subjective and vary by taste, but neither taste or its recipient are free from class oppression and the control and monopoly of backward capital on the industry of culture. The Lebanese state does not create culture, except for Tarek Mutri’s Hariri-esque speeches, which are the mother and father of all literature, as long as they do not deviate from the edicts of the cultural palace. Can anyone question or criticize Shaoqi Abu Shaqra’s poetry, for example, even according to the criteria of “valid criticism” which Fakhri Karim outlined for us? There is a tremendous gap in common cultural media to criticize vertically-formatted poems or conservative political poems (except Yahya Jabir’s “epic” about Rafiq Al-Hariri; what delicate literary feelings!) but you can’t object to Al-Nahar’s predominant taste. Could anyone scream – within the limitations of permitted screaming, of course, so that “valid” expression advocate Fakhri Karim doesn’t bring a lawsuit against us – to object to Mansour Al-Rahbani’s plays, which are no different than low-income elementary schools’ theatrical productions; schools which don’t need to import an entire symphony orchestra from Armenia to give the impoverished work a facade.
Joumana Haddad and Challenging Sexism
This introduction was necessary to discuss the grand launching of Joumana Haddad’s new book. She fills TV channels and newspapers whether you like it or not. She was also hosted on the program “Stay at home (with Hariri)”. We should first acknowledge that women’s work in the cultural arena, both in and outside Lebanon and even in the west, is subject to oppressive standards and criteria that deny women’s rights. Joumana Haddad spoke about problems facing work in “a patriarchal society” as the Lebanese consider the west’s standards ideal, as if the west has no sexist or patriarchal structures. Hisham Sharabi’s attempt to differentiate between patriarchy and what he termed “modern patriarchy” was unsuccessful and seemed drawn from cheap orientalist books which attribute special terms to the Arab world, like The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai. In addition, his generalizations were not extrapolated from field studies. The American novelist Michelline Markom told me that, before the success of her first novel, her female agent in New York said when she met her for the first time “It’s good that you’re pretty; that will make it easier to market your book.” Therefore, women’s animosity towards other women, including commercialization and sexual marketing, is a global problem, even though it varies by methods and languages. Discourse about “female literature and poetry” stems from severe narcissistic sexism, and several female writers have suffered under this phenomenon including Fadwa Toqan, Ghada Al-Samman, Leila Ba’albaki, Souad Al-Sabbah - will she republish her poems praising Saddam? - Ahlam Mustaghanami and others.
Studying literature through a gender prism is not rejected in the post-modern school of literature, but it tends to formulize and restrict female literary scholarship. Viewing a woman, regardless of profession and rank, as a physical body is an expression of sexism, such as Abbas Baydoun’s focus on Benazir Bhutto’s beauty, posture, elegance and sexual appearance; he seemed happy that she wasn’t flabby before her death. In addition, the element of sexual repression influences marketing writings which are based on a popular desire for sexual excitement. Otherwise, what does it mean to find Nawal Al-Sa’dawi’s Woman and Sex book on the streets of several capitols surrounded by vulgar sexually provocative magazines? This factor adversely affects male writers as well: Nizar Qabbani’s Nahd’s Childhood was released and known several years before his post-1967 political writings. But Joumana Haddad didn’t want to explore sexist issues, probably because her host started the conversation with an expression of disgust with feminists because they’re “masculine” per his description, or “ugly” per her description.
Discussions with Joumana Haddad take the same format as conversations in cultural cafes in Lebanon. There were a number of commemorations of designers in a commercial sense because the Lebanese sell shoes and people according to trademark, which makes a Filipina maid more expensive than Srilankan slaves who work in the houses of the free citizens of a homeland noisy with slogans. During her show, we saw Joumana entertaining her viewers by running a search on her name in Google’s search engine. She asked us to seek a particular translation of her work which was published by the “eminent” Galimar publication house. We’ve heard more than once that she is fluent in seven languages, with the eighth in the works. Narcissism and self-praise is a fundamental part of Al-Nahar’s culture.
The Lebanese is a genius by nature, due to the high content of parsley in local foods. What does it mean to be “fluent” in seven languages? Anyone who has studied four or five languages ore more knows that identical fluency in several languages is impossible. Doctoral programs at universities here and in Germany do not accept the languages fluency claim, rather they give the student language tests (albeit there is sometimes leniency). Iraqi scholar Muhsin Mahdi narrated that he met the orientalist Hamilton Gibb, who was a member of the Arab Language Conference, after he assumed the post of Hamilton Gibb at Harvard University, only to find out that Gibb didn’t know Arabic. The poet should respect those languages by acknowledging that learning a number of languages is a gradual process, from the mother language through the second language and third … etc. unless the point was to impress the viewers with the genius of the Lebanese. Repeatedly reminding us of languages serves no purpose besides making the acquisition of languages seem as easy as buying dresses. Learning and perfecting languages requires hard work, not Haddad’s method of talking about seven languages and the eighth in the works.
In response to sexist questions, Joumana Haddad spoke about her “beauty” very comfortably and confidently, exacerbated by insulting observations focusing on her outside appearance from male and female guests on the program – and who said sexism was behavior limited to men? One may consult Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex or Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which has not yet been translated to Arabic, without considering beauty a relative issue. She went a step beyond and protested the burden of her “beauty” because there were those who assume that beautiful women are superficial and “ugly” women, to quote her verbatim, are intelligent. In the name of what she deems beautiful, she invites you to evaluate her inner and outer beauty equally. It is not necessary to elaborate here; the judgment is yours to make. But she added discourse about femininity and feminism that does not reflect depth of reading in such a philosophically and intellectually rich area, or any awareness thereof outside demeaning journalism. She says she objects to feminism because it demands equality instead of seizing it. The host did not seem at all familiar with feminism to be able to discuss. He can only listen mesmerized, with his mouth open. This is the summary of theories and movements in Lebanon. Slogans. Merely slogans. Haddad is to feminism what Socrates is to Mansour Al-Rahbani (in the seventh episode of said program, Mansour said he was infatuated with Sufism and Sufi poetry. The host inquired who his favorite Sufi poet was. “All of them” was the immediate answer. After only minutes about Sufism, the host asked him what the most important thing in life was. “The hummus plate,” replied Mansour. If only Al-Hallaj had known of the plate of hummus before his crucifixion!)
Haddad criticized generalizations, but spoke about feminism in generalizing terms. Which feminisms did Haddad talk about in terms of clichés which lack knowledge, let alone accuracy? Did she mean liberal feminism, existential feminism, post-modern feminism, Marxist feminism, psychological feminism, separatist feminism, socialist or grassroots? Feminism’s theoretical production is vast and abundant, and the only part that Haddad extracted was to caution us from “ugly” women. Save us, Joumana, and set the discourse and dialogue straight. What is this feminism that you caricaturized? How are intellectual and philosophical currents reduced to simplistic notions? Also, feminist movements (such as liberal feminism in the United States, grassroots in Australia, existentialist in France, socialist in Iraq or in Yemen when it was prosperous) never demanded equality, but they seized it and forced changes in the law. Law professor and feminist scholar Catherine Mackinnon did not plead to be rescued. Rather, she brought about changes in the law in the seventies to outlaw all forms of sexual harassment.
Haddad added that she preferred femininity over feminism. Feminism is a stigma in Cedar Land even among those who take on women’s issues – for example, Diana Muqallid rushed to deny her feminism on Transit before talking about programs she was preparing about women for News and Tears channel. There is false feminism, similar to colonial feminism, which Leila Ahmed discusses in her book Inspiration about Women in Islam. False feminism is clear in Su’ad Qarut’s program on NBN’s channel, as Arab women are only shown crying and complaining i.e. lacking in agency, to use Simone De Beauvoir’s concept in this regard. Joumana Haddad failed to considered that in modern psychology (many in Lebanon are still prisoners of Freud’s school of psychology) views femininity and masculinity as social constructs, independent of genetics or nature. She’s welcome to view whatever she desires and to reject feminism and “ugly” women – according to her, as beauty is decided by Al-Nahar and its writers – but discussion about intellectual and political movements that had great influence on the social and legal exchange between the sexes around the world should not lack information, specially from those who head the cultural department of Lebanon’s foremost culture-manufacturing newspaper. Haddad, and those who were summoned to praise her, added talk about rebellion and defying prohibitions. But we are unable to ascertain which prohibitions, unless sweet talk about challenging religion’s authority is considered rebellion. Sectarian demonstrations are considered revolutions in Lebanon, where Said Aql’s superstitions are considered “philosophy,” Al-Seniora is considered a “man of state,” and the tabbouleh plate is evidence of Lebanese genetic supremacy. Randomly assigning attributes has become a main feature of the predominant culture, especially since the Lebanese legend substitutes for the absence of a historic miracle launched on the pages of Al-Nahar newspaper, just like Fakhruldin’s play (where he was dragged in bonds) a true national independence war (or even a defensive war) while the Lebanese considered the destruction of Cold River Camp (Nahr Al-Bared) a source of national pride.
Of course, it is unfair to focus exclusively on Joumana Haddad, but she spoke against the consensus and logic of 99.99 percent. Isn’t the culture of Al-Nahar newspaper just an expression of 99.99 of culture and predominant consensus? In the sixties Al-Nahar used to timidly express limited liberal criticisms of state and society, but today it is a militant Hariri beacon. Discourse about rebellion on the pages of Al-Nahar newspaper is akin to talking about revolution from within a shopping mall in Dubai or talking about beauty among frogs or defending an innovative form of “leftism” (by Elias Zahra) in Al-Mustaqbal newspaper. If Haddad considers her “discussion” of God rebellion, where does she stand on Mihiar Al-Dimashqi’s songs about Adonis, or Amal Danqal’s writings about Sparticus’s Last Words (Danqal is neglected in Lebanon, probably because he refuses peace with Israel). Her discussion of Lilith is not innovative, as many in Lebanon assume, as Joy Kogawa wrote about it a decade before Haddad’s “discovery.” I’ve never met Joumana Haddad. I sent her an email during Israel’s monstrous attack on Lebanon (when Sa’ad Al-Hariri requested intervention from Cyprus’s president along with Basm Al-Sab’, who walked hand in hand with Rustum Ghazala in a rally to “support and pledge allegiance” to Bashar Al-Asad in 2003) and asked her why the cultural section of Al-Nahar ignored لأتون النار المستعر. Joumana Haddad responded explaining that she...was not an Arab Nationalist."