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 newsstands of the Middle East it’s a different matter. In the run-up to its launch next 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,” Haddad said. “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 — let alone in all their intimacy — this daring experiment has triggered both anger and excitement.
Officials of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite 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 Web site 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 US$130 for four issues to avoid censorship.
Subscribers in Saudi Arabia, the most conservative of Arab countries, number in “the hundreds,” Haddad said. Egyptians are finding it pricey but she has high hopes for the “more permissive” countries of the Maghreb such as Tunisia and Morocco.
The Jasad Web site features a keyhole with erotic pictures, statues and other provocative images sliding past tantalizingly behind it. The cover of the first issue pictures a naked woman sheathed in bright crimson silk fabric like a flower.
Its 200 pages of articles and illustrations are of a quality that would not be out of place in Paris, New York or London. 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” that should not be sold to minors, it is “artistic and cultural,” is far from pornography — and represents a return to authenticity.
“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.”