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Breaking through the body taboo in Arab culture

NETHERLANDS — A new magazine entitled Jasad will be published this week in Lebanon. What makes it different is its complete focus on all facets of the body, be it through literature, science or the arts. The editor-in-chief says that the Arab world has "veiled and ignored the body as if it was something to be ashamed of".

Back in the picture

Jasad magazine is the brainchild of Lebanese journalist and poet Joumana Haddad, editor of the cultural page of Lebanese newspaper An Nahar. The word ‘jasad’ means ‘body’ in Arabic, but is rarely used outside its erotic or sensual meaning. Haddad hopes that her magazine will address taboos that continue to hold Arab societies back. Haddad says:

"The body is part of our daily reality. But it has been absent from our lives, language and culture. And even when it is referred to, it is portrayed as incomplete or malformed. With the magazine, I want to reclaim a place for the body in Arab society and see the word regain its proper meaning,"

 Hypocrisy abounds
Haddad has accused some Arab intellectuals of hypocrisy, which she believes stems from decades of oppression. In the introduction to the magazine, she explains the situation:

"We in the Arab world admire those who write about the body and nudity as long as it is not one of us. We build a wall between us and sensitive issues so we do not address them directly. We must stop looking down on our bodies as if we are ashamed of them or are committing a crime."
A cultural initiative or steamy reading?
So will Jasad just be an Arabic version of Playboy or Hustler magazine? "Not really," says Dutch-based Egyptian writer Raof Mosad. He says the magazine promotes itself as a cultural project, in an attempt to bypass the strict censorship on sexual subjects in places like Saudi Arabia. But judging from the topics in the first issue -ranging from foot fetishes and homosexuality to an interview with French Philosopher Michel Onfray on enjoying life – it remains unclear whether authorities will clamp down on the fledgling magazine and ban its circulation.

Mosad himself has written erotic novels. He says that while the official policy is not to allow the circulation of erotic and sex-related material, a considerable amount of erotic literature is available to everyone in the Arab world. There are many websites and forums where one can gain access to this material at a much lower cost.

The upper crust
Jasad is published by Al Joumana publishing house, which is also owned by Haddad (shown right). Fifty Arab and international writers, researchers and artists have contributed to the glossy quarterly magazine which costs USD130 per year. But Mosad doubts if those with average incomes in poorer countries like Egypt can afford such an expensive magazine for Arab standards. It is not surprising that a high number of subscriptions have so far been registered in Saudi Arabia. While he applauds the initiative, he doubts that the readership will go beyond the elite.

No boundaries
Haddad says the magazine has not drawn any boundaries for itself and will promote complete freedom of expression. At the same time, Jasad will strive to "find its place in the heart of the Arab Culture". However, Haddad realises it can only do so "after shaking the foundation of that culture in a reasonable and creative way".

In Haddad’s view, the initiative will not transform society, but can at least offer a greater awareness of the body and its needs. She remains a firm believer that the Arab world is ready to take this bold step forward.

By  Abir Sarras
Radio Netherlands