We are a people of dirty secrets hiding beneath a veil of fake morality.
That’s the first thought that came to mind when I read about the banning of the novel “Crime in Ramallah,” by the Palestinian author Abbad Yahya, and about the death threats he has been receiving.
Published this year and the fourth book by Mr. Yahya, the novel narrates the everyday lives of three young men (Raouf, Nour and Wissam) in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The Palestinian Authority’s attorney general banned it in February because it “contained indecent texts and terms that endangered morality and public decency.” Some Palestinians have even threatened to burn bookstores selling the novel.
When I heard the news, I immediately went out and bought a copy. Because I live in Beirut, the “freedom haven” of the Arab Middle East, this proved easy.
That evening, I started reading “Crime in Ramallah” and did not stop until I finished it. It was refreshingly genuine. It did not shy away from exposing the ugliness, the desperateness, the corruption, the loss of purpose, the unavoidable wrong turns and the uncomfortable truths of life in Ramallah after the second intifada. The sexual fragments are quite graphic, which was surprising and exhilarating. An Arab author writing about a homosexual character (Nour) enjoying oral sex, to cite but one example, is not something we encounter often. But, as the response to the book has shown, there can be no homosexuals in a reality-obliterating Arab world, where “real” manhood is defined by a chauvinist heterosexuality.
Indeed, being an Arab today means you need to master the art of denial. It means deliberately confusing the lethal herd syndrome affecting most people with a false notion of virtue, allegedly protecting you against the glaring truth, against your human nature, against your critical judgment, against your individuality, i.e. against yourself.
When I started a literary magazine that specialized in the arts and literature of the body in Arabic in 2008, I encountered the same violent reactions and accusations being hurled at Mr. Yahya. You see, even in so-called progressive Lebanon, sex is still a taboo. It is equivalent to shame, something not to do, except if you’re doing it in secret, or have a special permit called a marriage license. As for gay sex, it is the ultimate transgression. Never mind that Abu Nawas, one of the greatest Arab poets of all times, had written, back in the eighth and ninth centuries, countless erotic poems about his gay sexual encounters.
This may come as a surprise but Abu Nawas is but one author contributing to the rich tradition of erotic Arabic texts that go back centuries. Many mention the Kamasutra as an absolute reference in matters of sexual manuals, but that handbook is tame compared with Arabic works like “Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight” by Sheikh Muhammad Nafzawi (circa A.D. 1410) and “The Sexual Reinvigoration of an Old Man” by Ahmad bin Suleyman (circa 1534) and the guidebook on sexual pleasure for married couples often attributed to Imam Jalal Al Din Al Suyuti (circa 1480). Probably no language is richer than Arabic in sexual vocabulary, and probably no language, nonsensically, has become more resistant to it.
And things are getting only worse. This is not the first time that Mr. Yahya has written about sex. As he told NPR, “For me, as a writer, I always thought there was much space to write, to think, in Palestine and in Ramallah, especially.” The West Bank is largely secular and book banning there is practically unheard of. So what has changed?
As Mr. Yahya said, it is a reflection of the growing conservatism in his society. It’s a conservatism that Arabs everywhere — Lebanese included — are now facing.
Are those who banned Mr. Yahya’s novel even familiar with the provocative writings of their own intellectuals? Have they read any of Ghassan Kanafani’s inflamed love letters or Mahmoud Darwish’s erotic poems, I wonder? Do those who are speaking of the need to protect public decency realize, as some Palestinian officials have noted, how destructive this notion really is?
The passage the attorney general and many Palestinians seem to have found most egregious is the one where Nour spots a poster of Yasir Arafat carrying a machine gun and imagines the gun as a penis. In a culture so passionate about metaphors, this was a metaphor too far. Our political leaders are untouchable, beyond criticism, beyond defiling. But Mr. Yahya did not fear de-sanctifying a revered symbol like Mr. Arafat, and we are in dire need of de-sanctifications in the Arab world.
Mr. Yahya, who was in Qatar when the attack on his book unfolded, is too scared to go back to his native Ramallah. He told me that he’s still roaming around the Middle East and Europe, uncertain of his destiny, separated from his wife, Yara, who’s still in Ramallah. “My whole life is on hold,” he said. If he returns, he risks being arrested and jailed, or even murdered.
That could be me, I thought when I heard this, and could be any one of us defying the red flags if the situation of free speech in the few liberal Arab cities continues to degenerate. How can we counter this downfall? By killing that mischievous internal voice urging us to shut up. Some may call it suicide. I consider it to be our only survival plan.
Joumana Haddad is a Lebanese writer, journalist and public speaker. She is the author of several books, including I Killed Scheherazade and Superman is an Arab.