BEIRUT: The Middle East and North Africa have been very much in the spotlight over the last two years thanks to the Arab Spring revolutions. As international policymakers grapple with the question of what comes next politically in the region, others are more focused on cultural and social change.
For many interested outside observers, one aspect of life in the Arab world that remains more or less shrouded in mystery is sex and sexuality. In the MENA region, for the most part, private life really is private. People may gossip about one another, but most don’t advertise their sexual adventures on Facebook.
Immunologist-turned-journalist Shereen El Feki has made a stab at remedying the stark shortage of information on what goes on behind closed doors in the Arab world – and also, though more rarely, in less private spaces, from dark alleyways to exclusive nightclubs.
“Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World,” is a fascinating exploration of sexual culture, based on a well-balanced mixture of history, statistical information gleaned from the few surveys conducted by various NGOs, and first-hand interviews, which in many cases show that the official studies have barely scratched the surface.
Feki is a former health and science writer for the Economist and is vice chair of the United Nation’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law. In spite of her book’s all-inclusive title, it mostly focuses on Egypt, with input and comparisons drawing on data from countries including Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Morocco and Tunisia.
This, she explains, is due to Egypt’s status as the most populous country in the region, combined with its geopolitical, cultural and social significance. The decision was also undoubtedly practical. Though raised in Canada, Feki is half-Egyptian (the other half being Welsh) and has family members living in Egypt.
Though she claims her Arabic is not great, her Egyptian nationality allows her to perform the insider-outsider balancing act, becoming someone who is local enough to confide in, but foreign enough to fall outside the social constraints and taboos that face the majority of Egyptians. As a result Feki is privy to information inaccessible to most – until now.
The result of five years of research, “Sex and the Citadel” is informative and well written. It is also hilarious. Frequently irreverent and at times gently sarcastic, as the book’s title suggests, Feki doesn’t allow the serious subject matter to dampen her lively sense of humor.
Headed by a proverb, observation or word of advice from the author’s sage grandmother, each of the work’s seven chapters tackles a different social group and their sex lives.
Feki begins by exploring attitudes toward sex and sexuality in the region – and how and why they’ve changed since the penning of 10th- and 11th-century works by Arab authors, such as Ali Ibn Nasr al-Katib’s “Encyclopedia of Pleasure,” or the more coarsely titled, “The Language of F**king.”
Within this context she tackles six broad topics: sex within marriage and the different types of Islamic marriages on offer; premarital sex; sexual education; prostitution; and life for Arabs who fall outside the heterosexual norm – including gays, lesbians and transsexuals.
Within these categories the author delves deeper into the sexual underground, covering issues such as virginity, hymen-reconstruction surgery, abortion, female genital mutilation, polygamy, contraception and impotence – each accompanied by interviews with informants with first-hand experience.
The author’s informal style, punctuated by quotes from everyone from housewives to prostitutes, sexologists to activists, sociologists to Egypt’s grand mufti himself, makes for an absorbing and engaging read.
In some cases, the stories she is told are tragic. A young gay Egyptian man recounts being arrested and raped. Each summer, an Egyptian father forces his young daughter to enter into temporary marriages with wealthy Gulf tourists, a barely veiled form of sex work.
Other anecdotes are frankly hilarious. Among them is a Cairo taxi driver’s response to the implication that he might take Viagra as well as an office-wide consensus that the cause of impotence among Egyptian men is an unholy Western-Israeli alliance, in which spies zap locals with a special belt, depleting their sperm.
“What’s protecting the agents themselves from such malign effects was not considered,” Feki observes dryly. “Perhaps they are women, or men kitted out in special Western-Zionist underpants to shield them from the blast?”
Midway through the author’s research, the Egyptian uprising radically altered the political climate, and her focus seems to have shifted along with it. “Sex and the Citadel” is not just a study of sex and society, but an exploration of whether Egypt’s political revolt might have set the scene for a sexual one.
A practicing Muslim herself, the author relates each aspect of sexual culture back to Islam, exploring various legal and personal rulings on topics ranging from abortion to homosexuality, as well as citing Quranic references and examining their various interpretations.
As she stresses, attitudes toward sex in the Arab world are thoroughly entangled with religion, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. What is needed, she believes, is not a sexual revolution like that of the West during the ’70s, but one likened to a more tolerant and open-minded interpretation of Islam. Unfortunately, it appears there is still rather a long way to go.
Whatever the answer to the problems facing those having sex outside sanctioned boundaries – essentially unmarried people – Feki’s book is a riveting read, bound to provide interesting, if inappropriate, dinner table conversation for some time to come.
“Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World” by Shereen El Feki, published by Chatto and Windus, London, is available from local bookshops including Antoine and Virgin.