By Madelyn Stone
Lebanese poet and journalist Joumana Haddad’s recent book, “I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman,” provoked much discussion at Snell Library’s fourth “Meet the Author” event last Thursday. The book confronts the stereotype of the Arab woman as a voiceless figure, subjugated into inaction behind a dark veil.
“Veiled, oppressed, a victim, et cetera, et cetera? this is what they used to expect [I would be like] when I was going to meet the readers [of my book],” Haddad said. “And of course there was always, without generalizing, a sense of surprise to discover that not all Arab women are like that.”
Scheherazade, the heroine of the Arabian “One Thousand and One Nights,” managed to preclude an unjustified execution by captivating the king with her stories, and eventually made him fall in love with her and make her his wife. For centuries, Scheherazade received great admiration for her cleverness in negotiations with the king, but to Haddad this character represents a flawed mentality.
“[Scheherazade] conveys the wrong message,” she said. “She is negotiating with authority, a man in this case, through stories in order to get her basic right to survive. We shouldn’t be begging for what is duly ours, so I think that the main, primary target is to believe in ourselves and this is why I killed her, in order for her to reinvent herself and start telling her stories for her own pleasure, and not in order to get something in return.”
Middler art and design major Kelsey Strout, a marketing and event planning co-op at Snell Library who helped plan the “Meet the Author” event, said she was pleased with the event and the turnout.
“We usually have around 30 people and we had 63 this time, so we doubled our audience for this one,” she said.
Published in 2010, “I Killed Scheherazade” was developed as a response to the West’s misunderstanding of Arab women. In an interview with Haddad two years prior, a journalist told Haddad, “Most of us in the West are not familiar with the possibility of liberated Arab women like you existing.” These words provoked an exasperated energy, inspiring Haddad to confront the stereotyping in a book that is part exposition, part autobiography, part exposé.
“The Arab woman as she is represented in the shape of the veiled, oppressed, subdued victim exists,” Haddad said. “It’s one of our biggest problems. But even though she represents a majority, she doesn’t represent the whole. I wanted to talk about the other Arab woman, about an Arab woman who, even though she is part of a minority, represents in my opinion hope for the first one.”
In keeping with her book’s title, a sense of frustrated fervency pervaded Haddad’s words. When asked by an audience member if she agreed that there had been at least gradual progress for women’s rights in the Middle East, she managed to laugh good-naturedly, but a sense of exhausted anger became apparent as she asked the inquirer to justify his point of view.
“What progress are you talking about?” Haddad said. “Explain to me. I don’t want to offend you. I cannot understand how, even in a slow version that you are talking about, even if I have to accept that, how, in 2011, a woman cannot even drive a car. It’s absurd, it’s impossible. It’s like, what are you talking about? Where’s this slow progress? Where is it?”
Sarah Schulte, a sophomore international affairs and psychology major, said she enjoyed the event.
“I’m very interested in the Middle East, I’m thinking of focusing on that region,” she said. “So honestly anything that can educate me as to a lifestyle of any one particular person in the region, I’ll be interested in learning about. It was worth it. I thought she was very eloquent and I loved the fact that there was a bit of a debate in the room.”
Brendan Molin, a sophomore international affairs and economics major, attended the event after learning about it from his Arabic professor.
“I think it was inspiring because we do have a very limited perception of Arab women here in the states,” Molin said. “Seeing her ferociousness and the way that she can stand up for herself and be empowered like that – maybe we’re not all so diverse. I think we’ve all got that same animal spirit.”
Formatted as a question and answer dialogue, the event allowed audience members to express their thoughts and inquiries. Strout said she thought the more engaging style worked well.
“It was good that this [meet the author] was more audience-interactive,” she said. “Usually it’s just the speaker speaking about their book, but this one was more interactive, so that was good.”