Sex and Arab sensibility

Shahidha Bari considers an exploration of desire and denial amid Egypt’s shifting sands

March 28, 2013

Only once in my life have I quoted the Persian poet Rumi. Woefully lost in the back streets of Beirut and struggling to string together some sentences of Arabic, I clutched hopefully at the arm of a handsome passer- by and rather desperately recited at him the following lines, triumphantly fished from the dusty recesses of my memory: “I don’t know where I’m going/You are the road and the knower of roads/More than maps, more than love.”

This seemed to do the trick, and luckily Beirut is precisely the sort of hazy and languid city in which fleeting romances and rescues seem regularly to unfold, a dozen a day. Reading Shereen El Feki’s Sex And the Citadel, one might be reminded of Rumi again: “If anyone asks you/how the perfect satisfaction/of all our sexual wanting/will look, lift your face/and say/Like this.”

As Rumi could have told you back in the 13th century, sex is not separable from any society. El Feki’s wager is as striking as it is simple: “If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms”. Despite the abysmal title (for which a silly editor somewhere should be roundly rebuked), El Feki’s account is deeply sensible and well judged, her approach open and informative rather than illicit and structured and sociological instead of scandalous. “Sex”, she writes, “is the lens through which I investigate the past and present of a part of the world about which so much is written and still so little is understood.” Consisting of seven parts, and attending carefully to questions of attitude, marriage, youth, sexual education, homosexuality and culture, her book also has enormous range within these organised param-eters, leading into the teeming nexus of what “intimate life” entails and the culture within which it takes place. One of the unexpected insights to be gained from reading this book, and in no small part connected to El Feki’s wide-ranging exploration, is a sense of the profound ways in which sex reaches beyond merely its own act - and this in itself is an insight that might travel from Arab to English borders. El Feki’s research ranges from an account of the uses of pornography and sex toys to discussions of impotence, domestic abuse, the taboos of childlessness, the ambiguities of divorce, the many varieties of marriage, emergent transgender identities and the issues of HIV/Aids awareness and activism in the region.

El Feki is compelled to point to a troublingly collective disavowal of sexual behaviour outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage

This last interest points to the origins of the study in El Feki’s own background as an immunologist and a reporter for The Economist on the global epidemic of HIV. Attempting to reconcile this part of the world’s apparent low incidence of infection as recorded in United Nations Aids statistics with contrary findings from her own research on the ground, El Feki is compelled to point to a troublingly collective disavowal of sexual behaviour outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage, “a resistance buttressed by religious interpretation and social convention”. Yet despite her dismay, El Feki’s particular skill here is to document this disjuncture, recording in the fullest way its particular historic, religious and cultural forms. Sex and the Citadel wisely prefers statistics to sensationalism, and largely sticks to the volumes that numbers speak so well. Here, the ordinary figures (90 per cent of Egyptians are married by the age of 35) are as informative as the extraordinary (40 per cent of Moroccan men have frequented sex workers). The most distressing statistic is perhaps that of the practice of female circumcision in Egypt, which El Feki does not baulk to note has been performed on 75 per cent of girls under the age of 17 - and this is, moreover, a figure that includes only those procedures conducted by medical professionals. As staggering as these numbers may appear, more telling perhaps is the evenly measured way in which El Feki documents the rates of incidence, regulation and campaigns around what in Egypt is known as tahara (purification) and in English as FGM, or female genital mutilation. This last distinction is noted rather quietly, and if at times one might find El Feki’s assessment wanting more explicit denunciations, one might also recognise in her abstention the difficult line this narrative treads between analysis and judgement.

But this is a principled book, robustly educative and illuminating without consenting to the kind of vacant voyeurism that the intimate life veiled by Islam can provoke in unthinking outsiders. It is often a respectful as well as curious book, gently prodding the problems it recognises without censure, an approach perhaps facilitated by the peculiarity of El Feki’s part Egyptian, part Welsh, mostly Canadian origins. And yet it is, of course, precisely those parts of the book that investigate the intersection of sexual practice with Islamic law that are most intriguing. The word nikah, El Feki observes, applies both to marriage and sex, and is cunningly close to nik, the Egyptian slang for the verb “to fuck”. But Islam in El Feki’s account is unperturbed by this and surprisingly graceful in its concern for sexual gratification - and her note, in passing, regarding Muhammad’s apocryphal reproof of “lacklustre lovers” is especially startling (and cheering).

This book is, though, from the off, against the grain, not only in its subject matter but also in its odd mixture of data compilation, interviews and anecdote. With the last, El Feki’s prose tends towards the truistic; repeated references to “cascades” of dark hair and “almond eyes” are leaden and lazy. At times, the analysis veers unsteadily between unflinching gaze and an injurious abstention (the issue of “reparation therapy” for homosexuality surely warranted the courage of a stronger condemnation), and her Egypt-centred analysis elides the wildly different North African and Gulf Arab states. But El Feki is astute to note that if the Arab Spring has not initiated a concomitant sexual revolution, it is itself the product of ongoing re-evaluation of personal and political life. The right to desire is one that is both attached to and underpins all other freedoms.

Early in the book El Feki acknowledges her debt to the French philosopher Michel Foucault and his conception of a “history of sexuality” in which sexuality presents “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power”. El Feki’s study is predicated on this crucial notion of sex as a practice that could be administered and controlled by men, state and God, and the possibility of the attainment of a “truth” of sex by which one might be freed. Sex and the Citadel struggles in its own way with this fantasy, recognising sex as one of those spaces in which selfhood and statehood are damagingly severed. The challenge after Foucault and for writers such as El Feki is to recognise sex and sexual life as the work of self-intelligibility, as a practice and set of relations in which we make and are made intelligible to ourselves, not only in the acts that we permit and the pleasures we restrict but the conversations we have inside and outside the bedroom.

The author

Based in London, Shereen El Feki spends much of her time in Cairo, but confesses: “I’ve travelled so much over the past five years for my book that when people ask me where I live, my first response is ‘seat 23A’.”

She loves London “for Hyde Park on a sunny morning in June, the V&A on a rainy afternoon in December, and the quiet courtesy of Londoners all year round”. Cairo is “crowded, polluted, chaotic - but on a starlit night, watching the Nile flow by, you can understand why it was called ‘Mother of the World’”.

Born in Oxford to a Welsh mother and Egyptian father, El Feki was raised in Waterloo, a university town in Ontario. “I did not fully appreciate the value of Canada’s social model until I wrote Sex and the Citadel, and saw the tensions in Egyptian society. Growing up in Canada, I was taught a respect for diversity and a tolerance of others, however much their lives differed from my own.”

“I was not a particularly strong student in my early years - shy and uncertain of myself. But around age 11, I had an extraordinary teacher who saw my potential and brought it to life. Miss Toscher, if you’re reading this, many thanks: my book had its start in your classroom. My parents were also instrumental. I owe them a debt of gratitude I can never fully repay.”

Her entry to journalism came when she finished a PhD in molecular immunology at the University of Cambridge and was offered an internship on The Economist’s science pages: “I walked in and never looked back.” She has been both a journalism fellow at the American University in Cairo and an Al Jazeera presenter.

“One of my chief aspirations for this book is for it to stimulate young people to ask the hard questions they now pose of politics to the individual and collective problems of sexual life,” she says. “For it to encourage a grassroots discussion, it needs to be available in Arabic - but both the English and any future Arabic edition have to pass the gauntlet of state censorship.

“Economic and political instability has made publishing a difficult business, let alone trying to put out a book on as controversial a topic as this. But if, five years from now, I can walk into the living room of one of the women whose story appears in the book, and find the Arabic edition on the shelf, and her daughters on the computer contributing to my website then I will consider it a job well done.”

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