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.

Arifa Akbar
Friday 15 March 2013 20:00

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?"

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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.

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