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Review: Sex and the Citadel - Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, By Shereen El Feki

Love God, love one another

'In the Arab world, sex is the opposite of sport. Everyone talks about football, but hardly anyone plays it. But sex – everyone is doing it, but nobody wants to talk about it." So declares one interviewee at the start of Shereen El Feki's remarkable book. It's a witty encapsulation of the central difficulty that El Feki has faced in chronicling aspects of sex in the Arab world. Yet her persistence pays off, yielding an extraordinary collection of opinions on everything from online flirting to female genital mutilation.

Sex and the Citadel is not, as El Feki – a trained scientist – warns, either peep show or encyclopedia. It owes as much of its zing to Foucault as to fucking. Taking the French philosopher's assertion that sexuality is "an especially dense transfer point for relations of power", El Feki has meticulously analysed what makes Arab society tick. The sexual climate, she declares, "looks a lot like the West on the brink of sexual revolution". Many of the same "underlying forces" are there, not least the struggle toward democracy, and a large youth population with different attitudes from their parents.

Yet El Feki doesn't believe that wide-reaching change is coming soon, nor that the West has got it entirely right. Many pioneers interviewed here seek solutions by re-evaluating Islamic culture. Sources range from 11th-century Islamic sex manuals to individuals such as Heba Kotb, Egypt's famous TV sex therapist. While Kotb may shock conservatives, she declares that not only is sex advised in Islam, but practising it well makes people "more loving to this religion".

This does not deny the damage inflicted by more predominant, repressive interpretations of Islam. El Feki meets women who have undergone genital mutilation; girls who enter prostitution under the guise of "summer marriages"; and gay men who, after being arrested, are sodomised as an unofficial punishment.

What does the future hold? That is difficult to predict. As El Feki asserts, it depends upon a "complex interplay of law, economics, religion, and tradition". Yet Sex in the Citadel should be celebrated – not least for freeing voices silenced by a mixture of taboo and political repression. It provides crucial oxygen for discussions that will need more airing in the long, conflicted years ahead.

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