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Spotlight: Selma Dabbagh

Selma Dabbagh photographed by Susannah Baker Smith

Half-Palestinian, half-English, born in Scotland, Selma Dabbagh’s life trajectory has taken her through eight countries; ‘places disappearing behind me’ she says, movingly, because she cannot return to many of them.

It makes her thankful for the solid ground of London where she has now settled – albeit a London much damaged by Brexit. She cannot return to Palestine, where she worked as a human rights lawyer, because Israel will not give her permission. She cannot return to Kuwait, where she lived as a teenager until the disruption of invasion. And she cannot return to Bahrain and Cairo because the transience of her community of friends leaves her without purchase there. They held other passports and moved on for political, personal or professional reasons.

Her first, highly acclaimed novel, Out Of It (2011), emerged out of her time in the West Bank; in it, she explores the emotional consequences for her characters when their desire to engage in political activism is thwarted by the narrowness of available avenues. For some time she split her life between writing and the law but since 2016 she has worked exclusively as a writer, writing screenplays, radio plays, stage plays and short stories.

I was curious to know what had motivated her latest book, a curation of erotic writings by Arab women entitled We Wrote in Symbols (2021), when we spoke over Skype. The intellectual currents that swept her to this point were many. The bilingual anthology, Classical Poems by Arab Women (2017), included sexual poems which surprised Dabbagh by the ‘contemporary feel, the authority and self-assertion’ of the women who expressed sexual desire without a sense of shame. At the same time, she had been reading North American novels which depicted ‘brash portraits of casual sex and hook-up culture’. While working with Marina Warner on the Stories in Transit project, which focused on overlapping Christian and Muslim cultures in the Mediterranean, she began reflecting on ‘how the erotic is positioned in terms of our own sexuality’.

For Dabbagh, porn is in the eye of the beholder: ‘I live in such a feminized world that the male gaze had not even come up on my radar’

She wanted to rescue Arab women’s sexuality from orientalist framings which begin even with an amorphous term like ‘Arab women’, which obscures the huge diversity of nations, religions and cultures that it covers. She wanted to reveal the 3,000-year-old history of women writing erotica in Arabic, long before Revelations of Divine Love by Julian (aka Juliana) of Norwich appeared in English in the 14th century. The Arab world had a more liberal, fluid, sensual approach to sexuality before the 15th century; it had no word for bisexuality until sexual behaviour began to be demarcated under colonialism.

The title, We Wrote in Symbols, is taken from one of the poems in the collection, underscoring our preconceptions that women would not have the freedom to be daring in conservative Arab societies. Many of the pieces are in fact explicit and appear to stand in ironic contrast with the title, as if to lay a trap for the reader so that they come face to face with their own prejudices. But Dabbagh points out that not all the pieces are explicit, that there were many writers working with restrictions and ‘to ignore that would be irresponsible.’

The collection ambushed me on many fronts: the humour, often arising from women deflating the egos of their male lovers; the quality of the writing, especially when much of it is in translation; the challenge to my inner censor and my feminist politics. Given that there is a campaign going on in Britain against the phenomenon of men using the ‘consensual rough sex’ defence to get away with murdering women, I found ‘The Trembling Woman’ by Bint Magdaliya, where the female narrator wants to be strangled by her lover in order to reach orgasm, an uncomfortable read. And yet, there was something disarming about the humorous premise of a masochist who finds all her lovers to be inadequate sadists. In ‘Cupid Complaining to Venus’ by Hanan al-Shaykh, two women friends use porn to teach their men to be more consummate lovers. Again, there is a growing consensus in the West that consumption of porn by boys and young men fuels unhealthy and abusive relationships.

Dabbagh seems almost surprised by my question on the line between erotica and porn. The line for her is drawn by whether it’s written for titillation alone, whether there’s any artistic value or whether it’s used for political purposes. She had focused on how relationships can founder on the lack of connection between love and lust but hardly at all on porn. Those writers who were commissioned define themselves as writers of erotica, and were given carte blanche to fulfil the brief as they saw fit.

For Dabbagh, porn is in the eye of the beholder: ‘I live in such a feminized world that the male gaze had not even come up on my radar.’

We Wrote in Symbols was published in April by Saqi.

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