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Books feature

Thinly veiled threats

A new kind of unrest is making itself felt throughout the Arab world. Women are beginning to assert themselves and voice their frustrations, says Caroline Moorehead

2 March 2013

9:00 AM

2 March 2013

9:00 AM

Sex and the Citadel Shereen El Feki

Chatto, pp.368, £16.99

No one could ever accuse Shereen El Feki of lacking in courage. To spend five years travelling around the Arab world in search of dildos, questioning women about foreplay and anal sex, is not a task many writers would relish. Sex and the Citadel is a bold, meticulously researched mini Kinsey Report, rich in anecdote and statistics.

El Feki’s father is Egyptian and a devout Muslim, her mother a Welsh Baptist, who converted early to Islam. An only child, with fair northern features, she grew up in Canada and was raised as a Muslim. Having done a doctorate in molecular immunology and served as a member of the UN Global Commission on HIV, written for the Huffington Post and been a presenter for the English- language Al-Jazeera, she decided to explore the sexual mores of an Arab world she knew largely as a visitor.

It was not by accident that she chose sex as her starting point: as a medical journalist, she had been struck by the low incidence of Aids among Arabs. Armed with far from perfect Arabic but a remarkable lack of inhibition, she decided to take Egypt as her focus, on account of its geopolitical influence and size, but she also dropped in on Lebanon, Tunisia and Qatar.

When Flaubert visited Egypt in 1849 for the French Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, he professed himself profoundly bored by the temples, but much taken with the ‘splendid arse’ and ‘full, apple-shaped breasts’ of the prostitutes, whose ‘flesh rippled into bronze ridges’. When not obliged to look at pyramids and mosques, he dropped in on syphilis wards and male brothels, proceeding, as El Feki puts it, to ‘fuck his way up the Nile’.

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He was not the only European traveller to do so, nor to regard the East, as Edward Said wrote, as a ‘living tableau of queerness’. For the long years when the West was steeped in straightlaced righteousness, the Arab world, with its exotic early treatises on sexual pleasure, was regarded as licentious and accomodating.

In the 11th-century Baghdad Encyclopaedia of Pleasure there is not only a ‘Description of the Nasty Way of Doing it’, but the story of a woman who, encountering a puppy on her way home from the baths, allows it to pleasure her, but then in her excitement squashes it to death. It was only in the 19th century, with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and conservative Islam, that the roles became reversed and the West acquired its present-day reputation for sexual chaos and moral decay.

Though the revolutions across the Arab world took shape only after El Feki started work, they effectively served to give her  research a sharper edge. Sex, as she saw it, would be a lens through which to investigate a little-known world, provide her with  a window on to the religion, traditions, politics, culture and economics, made all the more fascinating as revolutionary gains were throwing so much of daily life up in the air.

Basing herself in Cairo, El Feki set forth on her round of interviews. Amassing an ‘album of snapshots’, she talked to doctors, teachers, Reichian sociologists, Salafist TV personalities, sex workers and activists. She visited a bride show in Abu Dhabi, an extravaganza of jewellery, feathers, beads, chocolate, lace and wedding cakes held in a warehouse the size of a football field. She  asked housewives what they felt about buggery and explained to them the finer points of clitoral vibrators. She questioned the young in Tahrir Square about premarital relations. Sex toys, she discovered, were very hard to find, but red lace crotchless knickers were freely available, as was a bra decorated with daisies which played ‘Old Mac-
donald Had a Farm’. What the punters made of that she does not say. She learnt about the ‘missing vagina syndrome’, in which a husband cannot find his wife’s private parts, and about the magic which prevents men from getting erections.

What was interesting, she quickly learnt, was that while on the surface all was fidelity and respectability, and below it often harsh paternalism and male dominance, along the margins a whole new sexual world was sprouting up. She heard of websites, facebooks, blogs and tweets, of support groups for lesbians, hotlines, agony aunts and a divorced women’s radio programme, and even, for the more traditionally minded, a porn TV show with women stark naked except for a hijab. ‘Writing’, the Beirut author Joumana Haddad told her, ‘is an orgasmic act of ejaculation’. Insecure, scared, controlling men, so young women now opting for careers told her, were nothing but ‘a complete piece of shit’.

Sex and the Citadel abounds with statistics of every kind, many of them surprising — can it really be true that 70 per cent of Cairene women suffer from some kind of sexual dysfunction? Or that 90 per cent of  Egyptians under the age of 50 still undergo circumcision? — but the fuller picture, El Feki concludes, is encouraging. The Arab world may still harbour a culture of concealment, in which heterosexual marriage and families dominate society — the impregnable Citadel of the title — but underneath, reality is stirring. Demands for political rights and equality cannot fail, she believes, to bring in their wake sexual and social reform. It is neither Islam nor the law that is holding people back, but rather the way in which they — and particularly women — think about themselves and their lives.

Even her own five-year journey behind the scenes of domestic and sexual life brought about changes. It has made her understand herself better, see how Islam and faith are not incompatible with a healthier, more liberal attitude to sex, but rather an exciting component of the revolutions now taking shape.

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