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Testimonial: Born to Fight and Fight Back

PEN Conference, Copenhagen, September 2006

I ponder sometimes, when I read writings of new novelists, review some of my old articles, or start writing a new novel, the change in the freedom of speech and strides made by Arab Female writers towards breaking through the traditional “taboos”, specially those related to religion, politics, sex and the “Culture of Shame”, which may be alien to your society but has a firm grip on ours. 

The image of women has changed a lot since the age of Arab renaissance at the dawn of last century and the onset of mandatory education in the middle of it, but I back away from my amazement and optimism when I remind myself that our societies are tied down by their socio-religious centricities, unapproachable and guarded against change by those who have hijacked religion and hold its sword against our neck. This frame of mind finds women and their empowerment, threatening to its very identity. 

Sadly, the Salafist Fundamentalist resurgence that has gathered momentum in our societies benefited from the obvious bias of most European and North American countries, the misunderstanding between East and West, and the lack of opportunity for real dialogue that would bridge the divide that got us to this point.

 When my Secondary School teachers realized I had a “way with words” that set me apart from my peers, and the local papers and radio stations started running some of my short stories, and then I wrote my first novel, still unpublished, while still in high school in the mid-sixties, I thought I was going to change the world with my writing, that becoming a famous writer would open up the horizon to me, break down  all barriers, surpass all borders, that I would become a tool for change like the famous world writers who influenced me when I read their translated works.

My daydreaming took place on a tiny vineyard on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the mountains surrounded me and hid all that was beyond, so I always dreamed of exploring the world beyond and escaping the constraints of my town and its chains, I realized then that it was much easier to jump over fences and taboos through imagination and writing then in reality, it was then that I mastered the great escape to paper!

I asked my teacher innocently when I was still in first grade: why do we worship the God of the Jews when they are responsible for all the misery and suffering of refugees all around me, yet God loves them! He shelters them with his clouds in Sinai, and showered by his milk and honey, he made them his chosen people!

My teacher beat me and locked me in a small broom closet because I dared question divine justice and God’s inclination towards tyranny. I borrowed that experience in my first novel “the Sun Rises from the West”. This instance shaped my early understanding of the dichotomy between religion and reality, the whip of censorship that crushes all questions. They tried to plant self censorship in me.  I rebelled, but my biggest challenge remains to win the battle with the censor within, break the taboos, and jump over the barriers.

At school, the main theme was the original sin of Adam and Eve and a stereotype of the image of women as wives expected to cook, breed and obey their husbands. The body was the cornerstone of all sins. The official censorship had imposed an embargo on publishing pictures showing parts of a woman's breast or exposed leg. These were covered with black stains in order to prevent vice, in much the same way the censor treated political stuff. I realized quite early that Religion, Politics and Sex were sacred, untouchable taboos.

When I was ten, my father gave me a hash beat up to save his job with the government when I joined a demonstration. Many peoples were killed or detained then and schools were closed. My father started listening to the news on radio with the windows shut tight. In those early days, I fully realized that the political taboo was as formidable as the taboos on religion and sex and that we ought to whisper rather than speak about these issues because, as the Arabic saying goes "walls have ears"!  

My mother stopped and discontinued telling us certain portions of the old Arabic folktales that contained words, verbs and suggestive positions. Our childhood questions about these suppressed issues were suspended and frozen. We were not allowed to mix with boys – and this is still common in gatherings. We were not allowed to here discussions among women for fear of catching sexual terms that we should not be exposed to.

In my early childhood, I came to the conclusion that the world of girls is besieged by the others who decide what they do and not do. Writing, on the other hand, opened outlets and channels until then blocked. I therefore learned the trick of having access to such channels. It was through them that I could start my bold skirmishes and even rebellion and confrontation with the ban and rejection of the status quo. This is perhaps why my first news story during my first year at university was about a "crime of honor", when a girl was murdered because she had practiced her right to fall in love. The article was attacked by extreme conservative Salafi people, and a wave of attacks against me appeared in the local press. When the dust settled down after that scoop, I was offered the job of editor in the newspaper. From then on, I began to put out a new type of writing in an attempt to make a difference and an impact. After a series of press features on the necessity for coming up new modern interpretations of certain items on women in the Shari'a law, I was threatened and at one point, deprived of work in other areas because of my views. 

When I was offered a job at a television station, long before the age of satellite channels in the 1990s, I readily accepted. It was a powerful medium of expression in a highly illiterate society. I presented political, cultural and social programs. One of these programs, named "Pros and Cons", discussed items in the Shari'a law concerning women. The TV station received hundreds of calls to stop the program and the mosques often launched violent attacks against me after each episode. 

I have practiced different kinds of writing: in newspapers and books, and on radio and TV, and witnessed Arab women making some progress in these areas. When I started my career, a women writer in my environment was a creature coming down from another world to invade areas long dominated by males who had monopolized everything related to thought and reason. I shot and reported on the Civil War in Lebanon on television, on a day-to-day basis at a time when women, in their best dreams hoped only to be newscasters and presenters of some cultural and light variety programs.  

However, we now see women press and TV correspondents operate in areas of high risk and danger. We also see female editors and editors-in-chief. One of them is my daughter who now has more than seventy professional media professionals working for her, some of them older than her father, as director of news and current affairs and senior producer at an upcoming Satellite station – a position she had held at two of the well-known channels in the Arab World: Al-Jazeera and Al- Arabiyya.

 In areas of creative writing, the issues under discussion are still there, despite the great achievements of Arab women. Indeed, prejudice has increased. On the other hand, poverty rate among Arab women is still one of the highest in the world. These factors have contributed to conservative and backward modes of thought and practice. The Salafi schools of thought also have the resources and the plans for providing urgent social services.

Perhaps that is why a writer like me is still preoccupied with breaking down the chains that the religious, social and political censorship is still trying to impose on us. 

 My recent novel "Illusive Anchors" (Marafi' al-Wahm) was published in Beirut and Palestine. Dar al-Adaab published the text uncensored and untouched where as the Ugharit Publishing House gave themselves the liberty to butcher and distort the novel, so I halted its distribution. When I asked the supervisor why he had don this, he said that he did not want to see his publishing firm to be blown up and destroyed.

 A couple of weeks ago, I discontinued the weekly column I have been writing in newspaper for the last sixteen years when the censor argued that my articles were "too much for the available margin of freedom". He also disapproved of my argument that the recent savage Israeli invasion of Lebanon brought Hassan Nasralla neither defeat nor victory.

 As a writer, my objective is to fight and fight back. And for this purpose, I shall always find the appropriate channels and modes of expression