Arifa Akbar: Unveiling Eastern vices and some Western fixations

The week in books

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.

a.akbar@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the movie There Will Be Blood
music
Arts and Entertainment
Brush with greatness: the artist Norman Cornish in 1999
art
Life and Style
Stress less: relaxation techniques can help focus the mind and put problems in context
art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment