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Saturday, July 28, 2012

On Women's Sexuality

    This post is about women’s sexuality: one denied, the other explored. What caught my attention this past week was a small news item printed on July 21, in the New York Times’ “World Briefing” section, which summarizes events that have occurred in various parts of the world. In one short update the paper informed its readers that in Ivory Coast, nine women were sentenced to two years in prison each for carrying out Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) over an extended period, a practice that has been banned in that West African country since 1998.

    That barbaric cultural practice has been performed on young girls between infancy and age 15, usually by elder village midwives, who use rusty razors, scissors or broken glass to cut out the females’ clitoris and the labia, to permanently eradicate the women’s ability to enjoy intercourse, thereby ensuring fidelity to their husbands. The procedure, which is often performed without any type of anesthetics, is excruciatingly painful and dangerous. Occasionally it causes death as a result of bleeding or infection, but also infertility and life-long pain, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn mortality. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.

    Some observers believe FGM to be a case of cultural relativism, for many young girls in the countries where the practice is either legal or banned, choose the procedure, believing that unless they go through with it their chances to get married in their communities lessens dramatically. But that’s hardly a choice.

    While the United Nations and some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are doing important work on FGM, and while some African and Middle Eastern countries have banned it, the practice still continues, violating the human rights of women on many levels, among them their ability to discover and enjoying their sexuality.

    While the subject of women’s sexuality is by no means new, it gained a renewed interest in the United States with the publication in 2011 of E. L. James’s erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey. The books, which sketch the relationship between a young college student and a rich businessman, are notable for their explicitly erotic scenes involving bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism, and more. Taking America by storm, it sold tens of million of copies, becoming the fastest growing best seller ever, granting its author over $1,000,000 a week, or $160,000 a day, according to some statistics. Because of its unprecedented popularity it’s been the subject of numerous debates on television and the printed media; women have organized special events, occasionally with the author as a guest speaker, to discuss the book and the effects it has had on their lives.

    I have not read any of the books and I don’t know if I will. But as a writer who is experimenting with a new Women’s fiction, I was curious at the lasting effect, if any, the book might have on publishers’ choices. On Wednesday evening I therefore joined a large crowd at McNally and Jackson Book store in Soho, to hear what a panel of authors and other experts had to say on the book and its effect on American culture.

    The panel included the writers Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying and twenty-one other books, Daniel Bergner, whose book The Other Side of Desire was described by the sponsors as "an open-minded exploration of fringe sexual cultures," Melissa Febos, former dominatrix and author of the Memoir Whip Smart, Ian Kerner, sex counselor and author of She Comes First, and Roxane Gay, a writer for Salon and The Rumpus.

    There was disagreement within the panel as well as between panelists and members of the audience concerning how poorly the book was written, though the consensus was that its writing style was insulting to the lovers of literature. Almost everyone present agreed that the book discovered nothing new. Erica Jong made the point that there were excellent books, which have been written on the subject long ago, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.

    There was also disagreement between feminists, who thought the book was a poor example for young female readers, who may accept the abuse the young heroine suffered as a new threshold unacceptable to feminists, and those who argued that because the mistreatment was consensual and even enjoyable, it was not abusive. And, there were those who thought that the book had empowered women, who after reading the book, have begun to fantasize and to explore their sexuality. There were those who objected to the class difference of the protagonists, and those who thought nothing of it. But by and large, the agreement was that contrary to popular belief Fifty Shades of Gray did not change the lives of women, single or those who have mates, and that it definitely has not change the American culture, literary or other. I was glad to hear that.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Writing

          In Israel, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was acquitted of corruption charges this past Tuesday, creating a media storm there, thereby overshadowing a disturbing government commission report which stipulates that the West Bank—or Judea and Samaria, is not occupied territory, and therefore Jewish settlements there do not violate international law. In Egypt the struggle of power between the Military and the Muslim Brotherhood continues with Parliament being a tossing ball, while in Libya early election results indicate that the Islamists lost.  In Jordan, a member of parliament threw a shoe and pointed a weapon at a political rival in a live talk show dispute over Syria, drawing millions around the world to watch the brawl on YouTube. In Syria top military and diplomatic officials are still defecting as the killing there continues, and Iran is as defiant as it has been regarding its nuclear ambitions.  In Spain, the government is raising taxes and cutting the national budget as part of a deal with Euro zone leaders to help rescue the country’s banks.  And it goes on and on.
 Yes, I am passionate about news from Israel, the Middle East and the rest of the world. But my new passion these days is the main character of the women’s fiction I have just begun to write. She is a woman in her late sixties who refuses to age gracefully.
The news of my new project has been received with mixed reactions: My grown daughter, who felt abandoned when I wrote my memoir, looked at me approvingly and even supportive, while my husband wondered how much time I am going to spend writing my new book. My seven year old granddaughter, who loves writing her own stories, and who believes that she is “just like” me, was clearly impressed. She wondered if I could come to her new school to talk about writing a book, as I did in her kindergarten, when I had been invited by her teachers to do so, and she was the star of her class.
    Some friends were enthusiastic, others were surprised. One of my best friends strongly disapproved, protecting me from what she thought was unnecessary torture I am putting myself through, after spending a considerable time interviewing Israeli and Palestinian women affected by war, writing their stories, then postponing the completion of that book perhaps indefinitely, but speaking about that important issue publically, and then writing my own story; not to mention my book on the Israeli Palestinian peace process, which was published sixteen years ago. Some friends wonder for how long I’d “disappear” this time.
Only a few months ago I pledged to never ever write another book, not wanting to go once more through the grueling process of trying to publish one, as I have been doing with my memoir,  and the disappointment that comes with each rejection letter. But writing is too strong a passion. As I explain to my friends, “my fingers truly itch.” It is especially exciting for me to experiment with a new genre, and to get into my new character, whose identity I assume as I imagine her.
I was going to return to painting this summer, but that will have to wait, unless my new protagonist will want to do just that.    

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Response to "On Fear and Complacency."

       I would like to share with my readers a response to my last blog which I received from an Israeli relative.
       He read my blog with mixed emotions.  On the one hand he viewed me as an insider:  a citizen who had paid a heavy price when I lost my husband to war, and a person who is familiar with the culture, language, and the nuances of life in Israel, including the daily security and economic hurdles Israelis face and the difficult choices they have to make. 
        On the other hand he viewed me as an outsider:  a visitor who arrives to Israel every year from a relatively safe and comfortable place [the US].  While it is true, he said, that US policies toward the Middle East may influence the region, with the exception of Iran, a country both Israel and the US fear, Americans do not face the risks Israelis do from other entities in the region, like Egypt, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. Yet, he continued,  in spite of these threats, especially in this tumultuous times in the region, Israelis strive to live a normal life, a task that is not easy, compared to paralleled efforts in the US, Canada, or Western Europe. 
       The turning point for Israelis, he pointed out, occurred with their 2005 evacuation from Gaza, and Hamas’s political and military victories over the Palestinian Authority there in 2006-2007. Since then, southern communities in Israel have lived under the threat of missiles attacks; since the fall of Mubarak the Sinai has become lawless, resulting in rocket attacks on southern Israeli cities.  He asked me to try to imagine such a reality in remote American communities, assuring me that there would be zero tolerance to such threats.  These opinions are not his alone, he wrote, but views that are shared around the country.
        He believed there is no quick or magical solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Occupation corrupts, and Israel’s remaining in the territories does not improve matters. In an ideal world, according to him, Israel should return to the '67 borders, Palestinians should give up the right of return, and a Palestinian state should be formed side by side with Israel. But it takes two to tango, and it seems to him that not only is the dance floor called the Middle East unstable, there's no one to dance with anyway. Maybe the right thing is to stall, and wait for a more stable reality.
       Perhaps, he wrote, in my position as a teacher and a writer I should consider taking a step back. He disagrees that complacency and fear exist in Israel. What does exist, he thinks, is the heavy burden of personal safety combined with a difficult socio-economic reality. Under such conditions, Israel is trying to make decisions that often minimize risks rather than maximize opportunities.
       I understand the resentment of Israelis who are offended by the opinions of outsiders who do not share the anxieties of living in Israel in spite of caring deeply about the country. But sometimes an outsider, especially one who has been part of the Israeli milieu and understands it, may see things clearer than the insider, who is deeply immersed in his own reality. I liken it to a family who needs outside intervention to improve its complex relationship. As for a solution, though I didn’t attempt to offer any in my post, I too support the existence of two states. But the longer the wait, the less likely it would remain on option.  

A note to my readers:  I do get responses in my e-mail, which I rather see in the “comment” box at the end of my posts.