The Chronicle Review

Sex in the Muslim City

Reuters, Asmaa Waguih

Cairo's Tahrir Square
January 14, 2013
Sex in the Muslim City

Reuters, Asmaa Waguih

Cairo's Tahrir Square

Is it possible all those young men clashing in the streets of Cairo and Damascus aren't getting enough?

Democracy? No, I mean that other thing people seek and are willing to die for.

Talk of the "Arab Spring" now forms a clichéd part of pundit chatter in America, with plays on "Arab Winter" and "Arab Fall" depending on the politics of the speaker and the troubled country dissolving at the moment. But few talking heads know enough about Arab culture to tie the massive Mideast street actions we've seen to matters behind surface politics. And those background matters include the state of Arab marriage, the tension between so-called Western norms and Islamic pieties, and the suppressed sexuality among Arab youth who face financial and theological obstacles to fulfilling their desires.

Is it tasteless to mix somber stuff like political rebellion with sub-rosa lust and denial? Could be it's truthful rather than tasteless.

Thank you, then, Shereen El Feki—Cambridge-educated immunologist, former science writer for The Economist, current vice chair of the U.N.'s Global Commission on HIV and Law—for adventuring beyond the headlines in Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, forthcoming from Pantheon Books. It's a trenchant exploration of the uncertainties filling the humble abodes that Tahrir Square demonstrators go home to. A truthful book may not set you free when you've suffered under centuries of misguided interpretations of Islam and sex, but one prays that El Feki gets an Arabic edition.

In the West, her blunt examination of sex and its attendant practices and paraphernalia—topics include vibrators, Viagra, virginity codes, marital rape, and homophobia—would hardly raise an eyebrow. We Westerners live now in a Fifty Shades world, a publishing culture in which Naomi Wolf's Vagina gets reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review by former ballerina Toni Bentley—she of The Surrender (a title meant to evoke the offering of another body part)—and one hopes the kids aren't watching.

Similarly, in high academe, the philosophy of sex and love, not to mention the long history of social-science research on sexuality, from Kinsey to the present, occupies solid, reputable ground. The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love meets regularly at philosophy's disciplinary gatherings, and scholars such as Alan Soble and Rosemarie Tong have made admirable careers of it.

For El Feki to blaze the trail she has, however—explaining the vibrator to a group of Cairo housewives (she tries the Arabic for "thing that makes fast movements"); dissecting the intricacies of official and casual Arabic forms of marriage; tracing the slow demise of pleasure seeking in Muslim culture from its hedonistic peak in the 8th century to the 10th—testifies to a combination of courage and compassion that itself calls for praise. She's not afraid to draw links between the demonstrators we see on our screens and her subject:

Sexual attitudes and behaviors are intimately bound up in religion, tradition, culture, politics, and economics. They are part and parcel of sexuality—that is, the act and all that goes with it, including gender roles and identity, sexual orientation, pleasure, intimacy, eroticism, and reproduction. As such, sexuality is a mirror of the conditions that led to these uprisings, and it will be a measure of the progress of hard-won reforms in the years to come. ... If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.

The daughter of an Egyptian father and Welsh mother, El Feki does just that, bringing a wry, canny, Western voice (chapter titles include "Desperate Housewives" and "Shifting Positions"), and a sincere, grandmother-quoting Egyptian-insider mind-set, to the rich data she's gathered. She's "spent the past five years traveling across the Arab region asking people about sex; what they do, what they don't, what they think and why," and it shows.

Her recurring theme? That the Arab world "was once open to the full spectrum of sexuality and could be so again." One of the ironies El Feki regularly returns to is the reversal that has taken place in the so-called clash of civilizations between the West and the Arab world. In Flaubert's time, and in the age of the Prophet himself, both Westerners and Arabs saw Arabic culture as unabashedly sensual and sexual, and not un-Islamic for that. In contrast, Christian Europe stood for rejection and repression of the sexual joys of this life for the glory of the afterlife.

"The Arab world," El Feki writes, "once famous in the West for sexual license envied by some but despised by others, is now widely criticized for sexual intolerance. ... And the West, once praised by some in the Arab world for its hard line on same-sex relations, is now seen by many as a radiating source of sexual debauchery from which the region must be shielded." Indeed, much opposition to the hastily passed Egyptian Constitution stems from objections to Islamist attitudes about sex and daily life becoming a part of Egyptian law.

"If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms."

Bold enough to cite Wilhelm Reich's famous phrase "the sexual misery of the masses," and to devote an entire section to anal sex in the Arab world, El Feki recounts both the downside of the reversal and "the story of those who are trying to break free." Focusing on Egypt and Cairo as a microcosm of the 22 countries, 350 million people, and unquestionably diverse sects and ethnicities of the Arab world, but also paying regular attention to sexual cultures in Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia, she offers a compelling lesson in sexual literacy about this region of the world, to whose ordinary life we once paid so little attention.

We learn of the shameful (`ayb), impolite (illit adab), and forbidden (haram), of marriage and sexual intercourse (same Arabic word: nikah), of mixing of the sexes (ikhitilat), spinsterhood (anusa), "customary unions" (`urfi), and the childless woman, or "pitiful one" (maskiina). We meet the brave women and men trying to educate the Arab world about its own true sexual traditions, particularly the compatibility of vibrant sex with Islam: people like Beirut-based writer Joumana Haddad, whose edgy sex magazine, Jasad, is sold in Beirut in plastic wrapping with an "adults only" sticker, and an Egyptian, Mahasin Sabir, the host of Motalakat Radio ("Divorced Woman's Radio"), who talks with thousands of followers about divorce and its upshot.

At the same time, El Feki weaves illuminating social-science research throughout her bouncily written study, some of it startling. About 40 percent of older Egyptian men now suffer from some form of erectile dysfunction, a circumstance whose causes El Feki candidly investigates—let's just say Egyptian men face their own version of performance anxiety. Only 20 percent of young Arab women say that they've engaged in premarital sex, while far more young men own up to it—a seeming discrepancy that El Feki pounces on. According to a 2008 survey, more than 90 percent of ever-married Egyptian women under 50 reported having undergone genital mutilation in their youth.

Combining thorough reportage and sure-handed critical views, El Feki excels at sketching primary themes in images that stick. "The intimate order of today's Arab world," she observes, "is like our solar system: Marriage is the sun, whose gravitational pull holds the whole together; around it are planets in ever-distant orbits, from premarital sex to sex work to same-sex relations." She hopes that sexual cosmology, like a kind of carnal preheliocentric theory, is on the way out.

"Change is coming to Egypt," El Feki asserts in her conclusion, "not a sexual revolution, I think, but a sexual re-evaluation, in which people will one day have the education, the inclination, and the freedom to take an unblinkered view of what they were, how they came to be what they are, and what they could be in the years to come. The confidence and creativity of Arab civilization was once reflected in its sexual life. For the first time in a long time, we have a chance to see this again—not by gazing at our past, but by looking to our future."

It's a courageous and stirring coda to a supremely eye-opening book.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College and author of America the Philosophical (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).