Chatto & Windus, £14.99. Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Sex and the Citadel, By Shereen El Feki

This survey of sexual habits across the Arab world is as serious-minded as it is entertaining.

This book opens with the endearing image of a group of mostly married Egyptian women gathered around a small buzzing object: "What is it?" they ask, as the author holds the vibrator in her hand. "What does it do?"

Get money off this title at the Independent bookshop

Shereen El Feki makes clear from this scene that her survey of sex lives will track very different terrain from Sex and the City. This is not Candace Bushnell's land of Rampant Rabbits and El Feki is no Carrie Bradshaw. It is Cairo and El Feki, a half-Egyptian broadcaster and academic, is conducting a five-year investigation into what goes on in the intimate lives of ordinary 21st-century Arabs.

If Doris Lessing believed that the "description of what happens in the bedroom, between the sexes with all the power-play between the genders" deserved a vital place in literature, so El Feki echoes these sentiments for non-fiction. It is her rationale for writing the book – that sexual norms reflect the politics of a society, so the examination of the former lends to an assessment of the latter.

For a region that has revolted against its political regimes, this is not a straightforward task. El Feki looks at the entire Middle-East region but with a special focuses on Egypt, and comparing histories with present day realities.

There are entertainming moments but the lightness sits alongside El Feki's rigorous probing. So Gustav Flaubert's adventures in North Africa ("[He] continued to fuck his way up the Nile") provide interludes, as do the lascivious taxi-drivers in Cairo and the Pythonesque discussion on the ills of imported artificial hymens in the Egyptian Parliament. But this does not detract from the seriousness of El Feki's purpose. She talks to sexually frustrated wives, to homosexuals, unmarried Arab women and to husbands.

Case studies are combined with analyses of Islamic scripture, from passages on sexual pleasure to contraception, anal sex, masturbation, homosexuality and abortion. What is clear to El Feki is the wriggle-room that the Qur'an and accompanying Hadith allow in matters of sex, reflected by the relatively relaxed attitudes towards prostitution and homosexuality in early-Islamic Arabia. In a climate dominated by conservative or wahhabi Islam, it becomes inevitable that interpretations of sex will tally with its conservative mission, she argues.

The Arab world was not always uptight about sex, she reminds us. It seethed with unabashed sensuality until the 10th century. Even after the advent of Islam, the Arab libido was not confined by religion but exalted by it. "According to another account, the Prophet [Muhammad] ranked peremptory foreplay and failure to sexually satisfy one's partner among serious male deficiencies".

El Feki suggests that change is coming – there are more single women and taboo-breakers, but her hope is cautious. Revolution didn't deposed all the old men in power, and its direct aftermath may lead to religious conservatism at first – Egyptian youths are more buttoned-up about sex than their elders. It is not revolution she hopes for now, but a far more gradual Arab awakening in the bedroom.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before