Sunday, December 14, 2008

New Lebanese gloss mag gets religious lesson

At last, a sex magazine in Lebanon.

No, sorry lads, it isn't pornography, but Jasad, a women's glossy mag that is considered just as bad, according to the religious order of the Arab world.

As the following article states, such a magazine wouldn't raise an eyebrow in the West, which for many in the Arab world is essentially the problem.

Long have we been informed that sex, drugs, homosexuality, alcohol and rock 'n' roll are Western diseases that aim to demoralise our high standards and rich prudent culture in the Islamic world. Ironically, the Christian order of the Middle East would sit on the Islamic world's side of the fence on this argument.

The Christian and Muslim religious bodies of Lebanon are quite similar to oil firms. A few, old, large organisations that control the means of daily life, appear to compete with each other in public, but on the inside resemble much the same.

In Lebanon, the various religious organisations take turns to inflict their conservatism on the country, whether it's banning Metallica or Madonna from touring Lebanon, or preventing the reform of archaic laws on gender and sexuality.

I stated in a recent comment that the political alliances of this country aren't natural and doomed to fall, eventually.

For example, the Opposition enlists apparent progressive, secular groups such as the FPM and SSNP, both of whom would see no problem with such a magazine, and the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah, the party that tried to shut the magazine down.

But the founder of this magazine, Joumana Haddad, is also a culture editor of the pro-March 14 paper, An Nahar.

March 14 also has its contradictions, as it generally encompasses the secular, chic class of Beirut's Sunnis (Future Movement), as well as the right-wing hardcore Christians of the Lebanese Forces, most of whom would probably agree with Hezbollah on the matter.

So if we redrew Lebanon's political alliances on the lines of conservatism versus liberalism, we would be in for some major surprises.

Hezbollah, Amal and LF vs FM, FPM and SSNP? Of course, that would require the parties to adhere to their ideologies and place domestic policies at the forefront, and their regional patrons on the backburner. That'd be the day!

Lebanese politicians caring about Lebanon? Yeah right!

New Lebanese glossy lifts the veil on hidden erotic heritage

Guardian/The Age

ON ANY Western coffee table it would not look out of place: a magazine with a slightly risque cover and articles ranging from sexuality to fetishism and the human body.

But on the news stands of the Middle East it's a different matter. In the run-up to its launch this week, the glossy quarterly Jasad ("body" in Arabic) has been generating plenty of curiosity and hostility as it prepares to take on some of the most powerful taboos in Arab culture.

Issue one of the Lebanese title includes articles on self-mutilation and cannibalism as well as stories on sexual themes by authors from Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Palestine. Pseudonyms are not permitted. Regular features will include Body-Talk, Voyeur's Corner and My First Time.

The quarterly, licensed as required by the Lebanese Government, is the brainchild of the writer and poet Joumana Haddad, whose day job is culture editor of Beirut's famed An-Nahar newspaper.

"The body is a quintessential part of Arab culture that has been veiled," said Haddad.

"I'm not trying to introduce something alien. We have wonderful erotic texts in Arabic like The Scented Garden or the non-censored texts of A Thousand and One Nights. These are all part of our heritage and we have come to deny it."

In a region where the majority are Muslims, Arabic is revered as the language of the Koran and the trend is for bodies to be covered up rather than exposed, this daring experiment has triggered both anger and excitement.

Officials of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shia movement, tried to close Jasad's stand at last week's Beirut book fair. One outraged visitor ripped down a poster, complaining that the subject matter was "haram" — forbidden.

Visitors to the website of the popular al-Arabiya TV have attacked it. "Stop promoting this blatant vulgarity and obscenity," was one furious comment.

But another said: "Amazing magazine! Oh Lord, please let it be distributed in Jordan!" A Saudi man pledged to buy 50,000 copies and distribute them free "to open people's minds".

Jasad will be on sale in sealed plastic envelopes in Lebanon but elsewhere it will be delivered directly to subscribers' homes for $US130 ($A198) for four issues to avoid censorship.

Subscribers in Saudi Arabia, the most conservative of Arab countries, number in "the hundreds", according to Haddad. Egyptians are finding it pricey but she has high hopes for the countries of the Maghreb such as Tunisia and Morocco.

The Jasad website features a keyhole with erotic pictures, statues and other provocative images sliding past tantalisingly behind it. The cover of the first issue pictures a naked woman sheathed in bright crimson silk fabric, like a flower.

The Arabic "J" of the title is linked to a set of handcuffs, hinting at the restrictions on free discussion of the body.

Haddad is firm that while Jasad is an "adult publication", it is far from pornography.

"Some of the things that people wrote in Arabic a long time ago would make the Marquis de Sade blush," she said, laughing. "Now even the word 'breast' in Arabic would be shocking in certain circles. The language has gone backwards because of the influence of religion in daily life. This is about the reappropriation of our language. It's been stolen along the way. We have rotten political systems that increase the power of religion."

Only in the "oasis" of Lebanon — where pornography is banned but magazines and videos are sold and lax laws allow a porn film industry to function — would it be possible to legally publish a magazine such as Jasad.

"I don't mind having people thinking differently from me," said Haddad. "I respect the right of people not to accept these things, but I don't accept it when they try to stop me doing what I want to do.

"This is not a political project. The magazine is about love for the culture of the body. It's not a cause — but it does hope to break taboos."


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