Copies of Fadi Zaghmout’s third novel, Laila and the Lamb, have been stopped from entering Jordan. Just as Kuwaiti readers were protesting the extensive censorship that has become part of literary life there, particularly in the past five years — which ArabLit will be covering more extensively — Zaghmout wrote about his own frustrating experience in Jordan:
Zaghmout, who began his writing life as a popular Jordanian blogger, has two previous novels: the bloggish Bride of Amman, which was translated to English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, and the spec-fic Heaven on Earth, translated to English by Sawad Hussein.
For his third novel, Laila and the Lamb, Zaghmout said he wanted to write a “radical feminist book,” inspired by Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. He wanted Laila to be a sexually dominant woman “because I believe that the mainstream cultural assumes that women are in general sexually submissive and they make a link between women’s submission in bed and real life. I think I heard that in an argument about gender equality a few years back, where the guy I was arguing with stated that women are naturally passive, thus it is against their nature to take on leading positions.”
Zaghmout said, in an email exchange, that he wanted to challenge the “perception of women and their sexuality and explore the link between submission in bed and outside it,” adding, “Our culture has grown overly masculine in the past decades, and I think some radical feminism in literature is needed today to balance things out.”
To bring out the novel, Zaghmout signed an agreement with the Cairo-based publisher, Kotob Khan, after meeting the director, Karam Youssef, at last year’s Abu Dhabi Book Fair. The book is now available in Cairo bookshops — it’s at center top in the photo — but not in Jordan.
Back in 2014, the online magazine 7iber examined censorship pathways in Jordan. Books that have been banned in Jordan include, for instance, the Arabic translation of Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin and Hassan Blasim’s Madman in Freedom Square.
As 7iber noted, for books published outside of Jordan, shipments are stopped at customs. And customs, Zaghmout said, is where Laila and the Lamb’s troubles began. First, the shipment arrived from Cairo. Then customs turned to the Jordanian Media Commission for permission to release it. Zaghmout said over email that “Aramex gave my dad a copy and asked him to go get the approval. He went to the media commission and gave them the copy of the book. They read it and told him they decided to ban it and asked him to write a letter stating that he will make sure to ship the books back to their source.”
As Zaghmout wrote on his blog, The Arab Observer, earlier this month, he then went to the Jordanian Media Commission, where he spoke with a man he believed to be the head of the print and publication department. This man argued that the idea behind Laila and the Lamb was problematic, and that the book was being banned because it contained “a description of the sexual process as well as obscene words and ideas that are remote from our society.”
Zaghmout wrote on his blog*:
This premise may be new to Jordanian literature, but I find it wrong to judge ideas by the logic of their proximity to our society. What is the purpose of literature if not the introduction of new ideas and the criticism of prevailing thought? How do societies evolve if they are closed off and prevented from discussing foreign ideas? Does the censor prevent every new thought under the pretext of it being at a distance from our society? Why not let the society decide what suits it — read what it wants and leave what it wants — without the government acting as guardian, which is limited to individuals in one circle, who may have their own thought and morals?
Further, he said over email, the law prevents writers from exploring many sides of the human psyche. “Does a killer or terrorist or corrupt government official behave along general morals and decency? How can we write fiction if that’s the criteria dictated by the law?”
He also wrote on his blog that these forms on censorship are not effective. “Unfortunately, banning books is a form of censorship that, nowadays, harms the book industry, limits creativity, and frustrates writers, but does not prevent the book from reaching the reader.”
Indeed, if you go to The Arab Observer, you can read some excerpts from the (banned) novel. You can also buy an e-book of Laila and the Lamb on Google Play.
So what next? Zaghmout said he consulted with an attorney, who said he needs a formal letter stating that the book is banned in Jordan. “I wrote to them asking for such a letter, but they refused to give it to me.” This is, apparently, the usual process, which Zaghmout believes is “to prevent us from going to court since we don’t have any tangible evidence in hand. I am still discussing this with my lawyer and will see whats the best way to approach it so that we have a case when we go to court.”
“I think they follow this process in order to avoid any media backlash or pressure,” Zaghmout said, although in his case, the author was not planning to sit quietly by.