“(I can’t get no) satisfaction” was certainly not on the sound track to the Arab revolts. But it might very well have been their subtext, according to the well-known Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who argued in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that the uprisings were fueled in part by sexual frustration. “In the Muslim world, casual sex, Western-style, doesn’t exist,” Lewis said. “If a young man wants sex, there are only two possibilities — marriage and the brothel. You have these vast numbers of young men growing up without the money either for the brothel or the bride-price, with raging sexual desire. On the one hand, it can lead to the suicide bomber. On the other hand, sheer frustration.”
This somewhat questionable reportage is followed by the sentence, “The theory has drawn virulent rebuttals from some and slow nods of acceptance from others.” (Neither the virulent rebutters nor the slow nodders are named.)
Yes, I realize that Bernard Lewis is 95, and that he’s perhaps a bit set in his ways. But, dearie, it’s never too late! Indeed, once he gets started, Mr. Lewis will find that it’s difficult to read through a contemporary Arab novel without stumbling across some treatment of non-marital sex and desire. But we’re not just looking for any treatment. For Lewis, we want truly interesting literary depictions of sex and attitudes toward sex.
We’ll start him out with two memoirs: Life is More Beautiful than Paradise, by Egyptian author Khaled al-Berry, which looks into the relationship between desire and Islamist organizations in upper Egypt, and Moroccan Abdellah Taia’s Salvation Army, a lovely discussion of desire, gay sex, the movies, and other things. Mr. Lewis can also find Taia’s “The Wounded Man” in the Beirut39 collection.
Habib Selmi’s The Scents of Marie-Claire has beautiful descriptions of the fading of a sexual relationship between a Frenchwoman and a Tunisian man.
And Mr. Lewis will find that Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Story of Zahra is a must-read, for the relationships between family, power, and the enjoyment of sex. (More suggested al-Shaykh novels here.)
If he would like a more erotic break, he can read some of Adonis’s poems about desire.
Then Mr. Lewis will want to resume his literary quest to understand modern human sexuality by reading Mohammed Choukri’s For Bread Alone. He’ll unfortunately need to explore how desire can become twisted, and yoked into the service of other desires, by reading Elias Khoury’s Yalo. Yemeni novelist Zayd Mutee Dammaj also gives an interesting portrait of the relationship between power, culture, and sexual desire in his novel The Hostage.
If Mr. Lewis’s attention span is failing him, there’s a short excerpt of Jordanian author Ghalib Halasa’s Sultanah, trans. Ali Issa, posted on Jadaliyya.
Then, if Mr. Lewis needs a pick-me-up, for a freeing portrait of sex as (potential) liberation, he may explore So You May See, by Mona Prince. More about that book later in the week.
Of course, this is a serious issue deserving of serious treatment, such as:
Maya Mikdashi: What is Good Sex?