Arifa Akbar: Unveiling Eastern vices and some Western fixations

The week in books
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The Independent Culture

Last week, a report revealed how female students at Kabul University lived in fear of predatory male lecturers demanding sexual favours for good grades. This week, an evolutionary psychologist published his "discoveries" into, among other things, the dangerous sexual desires that motivate Muslim men to become suicide bombers.

Next week, a provocatively titled book, Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle-East, by John R Bradley intends to take us on a "riveting journey" (his publisher's words) through the "underbelly of the region to expose its sexual mores". Much of this coverage seeks to highlight the degree of sexual perversion arising from the practice, or malpractice of Islam and while such sexual abuses endemic to various cultures should be brought to attention, it is worth admitting to our own unhealthy cultural obsessions too. The plethora of reports on murky sexual customs in the Arab worlds are shocking, but also reflect our fixation with the Muslim male libido, which appears to be feared, loathed and fetishised, and which, it is intimated, must be urgently civilised by the liberal West. Zena Al Khalil, author of the memoir, Beirut, I Love You, feels it should not be assumed that Muslim women always end up as victims. Just as in the West, it is the rich who are the all-powerful consumers of the sex trade, be they women or men. "There are Saudi princesses who come to Lebanon to buy sex, as well as Saudi princes," she says.

Bradley's book, in fairness, seeks to avoid the usual cultural myopia and self-righteousness. He attempts a kind of comparative study of the vice trade, or at least reminds us that while the Middle East may fall foul of sexual hypocrisy (in pretending homosexuality and prostitution does not exist despite thriving red light districts) the West can fall foul of hypocritical rhetoric, pointing out that those faraway "Muslim" sexual inequalities and abuses can be found just as close to home (interestingly, he compares the statistics around "gay-bashing" in Britain to the absence of it in the Middle East, and the sex tourism of Saudi men who go to the Gulf for under-aged prostitutes to Western tourists visiting Thailand).

He travels from his current home in Egypt to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Morocco and Yemen, to examine the sex-trade in urban centres, from the Shia practice of temporary marriages in Iran, to child brides and casual (though covert) homosexuality across the region. A fair amount of his material is anecdotal; he finds himself talking to belly-dancers in Damascus, a Chinese prostitute in Bahrain and he is even offered his very own 12-year-old child bride in Egypt. In the end, Bradley holds the secularised Tunisian model up as an example, concluding that "it is better to view sex (instead) as a private transaction, completely separate from religion and politics".

But is the separation of sex from the rest of life realistic, or even possible? He himself cites Henry James's quote, that sex "finds its extension and consummation only in the rest of life". How then can it be an entirely private transaction?

His book has some refreshing material but its enormous regional sweep is problematic. After all, what would we make of a book that, in under 300 pages, sought to study sexual vice in the West, from paedophile rings in London to legalised prostitution in Amsterdam to Josef Fritz in Austria to the Christian conservatism of Middle-America to the sexual perversions of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib? Dr Maha Azzam, associate fellow at Chatham House, suggests that such a compendium would need the support of intensive statistical research. A culture in which sex is not discussed openly, she adds, might be prone to greater levels of abuse, but "to say it exists more over there than here needs to be measured and supported statistically". And Western secularism does not appear to have done away with sexual abuse. Perhaps the concept of sex as a private, apolitical enterprise is simply an unattainable ideal.

Dame Barbara's racy past

She might have branded Jackie Collins' raunchy first novel as "nasty, filthy and disgusting" but the romance writer, Dame Barbara Cartland's own first novel ,written as a 19-year-old debutante, was considered risqué when it was first published in 1925. Jigsaw was written as a racy society thriller, following a year as a gossip columnist for the Daily Express. The novel, featuring a debutant who was shocked to discover that young women were being paired off with middle-aged men, was seen as a "powerful study of West End life with the lid off". The book is to be reprinted for the first time since 1925, in a limited edition of 5,000 replicas.

Arguably, the best reads ever

How long does it take for 28 outspoken people to reach consensus on the best 25 reads of their lives? In the case of a committee set up for "World Book Night" next March in which 25 titles will be given away, it ended in four hours of debate. The result is by no means a definitive list, says Jamie Byng, the committee's chair, and MD of Canongate, but is based on "a series of subjective opinions" as it could only be. The books – which cannot be out of copyright – were chosen by writers including DBC Pierre, Kamila Shamsie and Stephen Fry, and publishers, based on the criteria that they had most influenced them. There was almost immediate solidarity over 10 titles (Byng's personal favourite was Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.) As lists go, it falls foul of all that it leaves out (Joyce Carol Oates, JM Coetzee, Haruki Murakami) but there will be shared loves (Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin for my part) and it will get people talking, if not reading.