Books (About Sex) for Bernard Lewis

Yes, it's high time Mr. Lewis learned about sex.

In amongst reporting on struggles in Egypt, the tragedy in Norway, and other news, I stumbled across a few tweets yesterday about this silliness in Time magazine:

“(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?

And I can say nothing about it, but @benjamingeer recommends: Sexuality in the Arab World,
Edited by Samir Khalaf and John Gagnon.


  1. Desiring Arabs by Joseph Massad???

  2. Ha! Great post 🙂

    I’ve just read ‘Banquet of Lies’ by Algerian author Amin Zaoui. It’s not literature written in Arabic however, so only part-belonging a mention here I suppose, but it’s set in Algeria and written by an Algerian. I’ve read the original version in French, Festin de mensonges, because the translation has so diluted the style but the story is worth a plunge, if only in its English inflection.

    It’s basically full to the brim with sex. And it’s appetising, sensual, sexy, humourous, tender and far far away from the ‘taboos’ of the ‘Arab’ mind. Oh, and it’s vibrant sex with sexagenarians. (All consensual).

    1. Sounds lovely; too bad you say the translation dilutes the delight—although it looks like there’s a bilingual edition. I might try to get that, since my French is appalling.

      And if you can find sex with nonagenarians, then I’m *sure* Mr. Lewis is in…

  3. Loool. Yes the edition I have has both texts, the French and the English, facing each other. I have to find lit published that way for Arabic/English, it’s the best way to read literature in translation really.

    1. Yes, “Emerging Arab Writers” is published with Arabic on one side, English the other. Some of the translators come off better than others.

  4. Oh excellent, thanks! ordered!

  5. Hi, All
    I wish somebody has commented on the deliberate misrepresentations in B. Lewis’ claim of sexual frustration. Lewis has been the man to go to after 9/11 for negative material on on Arab history, culture, and Arab future. The interview digs him up again for more trivial material thrown in as scholarship from a Middle East expert.

    It’s characteristic of Lewis to come up with such lame explanation if one recalls his ranting about Arabs’ intolerance of democracy and modernity.

    1. Everyone I saw thought his commentary was so absurd that rebuttal was near impossible.

      But here’s the thing that got me: This “reporter” didn’t even contact B. Lewis herself: She quoted his interview in The Jerusalem Post and then threw in something about (alleged) virulent rebuttals and slow-nodders (which gives more credibility to the reasonable slow nodders, I’d think).

      Seriously, Shakir, if someone is going to believe this utter nonsense, then they probably aren’t on my blog, anyway.

  6. hmmm, but wouldn’t reading about sex compound the frustration, when all these legions of undersexed youngsters realise that it’s out there, but they can’t get any? reading is a dangerous thing 😉
    *after all this sex talk, bibi must step outside and light up*

  7. Shakir – re. “Lewis has been the man to go to after 9/11 for negative material on Arab, history, culture, and Arab future.” Absolutely true and revealing of your relative youth maybe? Bernard Lewis has been the man to go to for negative material on Arab history and culture since forever; he’s the prototypical English intellectual of the worst sort: supercilious, disdainful, and jingoistic, and profoundly convinced of his superiority.

    1. Amazing that he remains in play; type “Bernard Lewis” into Google news and you get zillions of responses. “Arabic literature,” not nearly so popular. 🙂

  8. itinerantcook is so right. Remember Lewis’s PAGES AND PAGES of diatriabe against the “intellectual pollution” of Edward Said?

    bibi is also right: books about sex do not necessarily mean that people are regularly *having* sex. This doesn’t mean I’m a slow nodder, but I do think the relationship between sex and revolution would make an interesting study, if it were actually a study and not worthless ruminations by a hostile and OMG SO POMPOUS “expert.”

    1. Sofia,

      Well, that’s true, although in the memoirs I’d argue that the sexual experiences are real. And unfortunately my experience outside the world of literature is very limited. 🙂 I also know about….hmm, pediatricians in Cairo. So if Bernard Lewis says we don’t have any pediatricians, well, I’ll have lots of detail.

      1. Reality and memoir: another fascinating topic. 😉

        Even if you could prove that the sex in the books was real, it would be hard to go from those examples to a generalization about the lives of millions of people. It would be worse than hard, actually; it would be hopeless, because memoirs aren’t (usually) sociological studies, and they aren’t supposed to be.

        I wouldn’t hope that Lewis would read these books and go: “Oh! Actually, they’re having *tons* of sex. My bad.” I would hope he’d read them and think “Eep, if *some* people are doing it, maybe my huge generalization doesn’t work.” And then he’d STOP with the generalizations. And then he’d fly to Cairo and look around with fresh eyes. And then he’d go for coffee and talk books with you and your pediatrician.

        It’s a fantasy, ok? 😀

        1. No, although for what I’ve seen of sociological studies (often using data to conform to pre-programmed ideas/hypotheses), imaginative literature is at least as “accurate.” Whatever that means.

          And yes, yes. The function of literature—if it *must* have a function, outside being delightful—should surely only be to make people question their assumptions, not to instill new ones.

          He’d better be buying the coffee! 🙂

    2. I don’t have a reference, unfortunately, but there have been similar theories posited about Chinese revolutions, since polygamous arrangements allowed women upward social mobility, which tended to reduce the opportunities for lower class men for marriage, exacerbated by an already somewhat male-skewed demographic. The revolutionaries in many of these revolutions did outlaw polygamy (among other things) in the areas they controlled. I heard the theory in an Intro to Chinese History class years ago, I believe with reference to both the White Lotus and Taiping Rebellions. So there’s some precedent for the idea, no clue whether anyone has actually researched it.

      And I’ll agree with the above poster – the fact that there is sex in literature has little to do with the hows and how muches of sex in daily life, especially due to the skewed demographics of writers (coming generally from the upper classes, where rules tend to be a bit more flexible, and while Mohammad Shukri is a bit of an exception to that, though he falls largely into Lewis’ “brothels” category), and the fact that readership in Arabic is really quite low (simple pictoral/video pornography/general ogling probably plays a much larger role in adolescent and young adult sexuality, based on my experiences hanging out with shabab and looking around DVD shops)

      I would like to see some actual research to support Lewis’ position, and while I think it’s always fun to make a list of sexy books in Arabic, it doesn’t necessarily disprove what he says (though the burden of proof would be on him). Sounds like a job for the freakonimics guys.

      1. Well, to be honest, this is a literature blog, so his comment is merely a jumping-off point… I have neither the energy nor the expertise to support or rebut him (although I have at least the energy to note that this was *very* sloppy journalism on the Time reporter’s part).

        Yes, obviously porn is a much larger marker and market than literature. For myself, I just wanted to talk about literature and sex, and good literature about sex, that’s all. However, if his point is that pre-marital sex “simply doesn’t exist,” well, I think just finding one person who’s had it has done the job.

  9. Lewis is a fool. If one wants to read about sexuality and/or sensualilty in Arab literature, try some of the incredible modern poets- Qabbani, Darwish, Adonis, and the aforementioned Al-Shaykh, or Tayeb Salih’s legendary Season of Migration To The North. I doubt if Lewis has read ANY of these. Most fools seldom, if ever, read world-class literature, or any literature for that matter.

  10. By the way, for anyone in any country (especially in the light of the Arab Spring(continuing through the summer?), I have an American novel and a Chinese novel to recommend for innovative form and writing about demonstrations and myriad characters in new ways.
    The first of these if Beijing Coma, an astonishing and meticulous novel about the Tiennamen Square protest and tragedy back in the late eighties in China. Parts of the novel are breathless, showing all the details of organizing and sustaining a mass protest in defiance of an intolerant goverment.
    The second of these is a brilliant and inventive novel by the American writer Karen Yamashita, The I Hotel, about a three year struggle in San Francisco to save a community hotel housing mainly elderly Chinese and Filipino retired workers ( an assortment of farmworkers, fishermen, ex- union organizers, restaurant workers, garment industry workers ) in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown and Manilatown. It also gives a rarely availabe panorama into the rarely seen Asian American movement(s) in the late sixties and seventies in the US. The highly inventive techniques Ms. Yamashita employs would be helpful to any writer considering writing about the massive demonstations this spring in the Middle East and the Magreb.

    1. Thanks, Ernie! Always love reading recommendations.

  11. Alice Kloker just pointed me to your delightful blog. Thanks for the delights.

    1. Well, then, welcome. Any friend of Alice’s is a friend of mine….

  12. Speaking of sex and revolution, I recommend my own recently published scholarly book _Consuming Desires: Family Crisis and the State in the Middle East_ (Stanford UP 2011). And yes, Bernard Lewis is an idiot. I can assure him that people are having actual sex, for lack of a more elegant term. I write from Cairo.

    1. Frances! So where do I buy it? Is it on sale in any of the regular haunts (here in Cairo)?

  13. I think it is wrong to respond to Lewis by saying that Arabs are promiscuous and more, to bring evidence from fiction. I think history and culture have far more interesting examples. Arabs are mostly Muslims. They have long believed they should not have sex before or during marriage but with spouses they are legally married to. We loved to have sex, but like every one else, in their own way, which is called Halal or permitted. In the past, this category used to be much wider than now. Arabs men and women married in a whole variety of ways and several times during life, with no stigma. Now they cannot but marry in a single and narrowly defined way. Where did this way come from? Mostly from prudish EUROPE!! Go and read some legal history, you lazy Lewis. Even more, young men and women now don’t have enough money to get married, how come? Well, because prices are too high in economies run by corrupt governments and supported by foreign powers, mainly Israel and Again, it is Israel and the US. Even more, the wars that Israel has caused has siphoned the economic resources of many Arab countries… of course this is the least thing Lewis wants to hear, why? because it is true.

    1. Mohammed,

      I assume you are not a regular reader here, because I have never said that Arabs are “promiscuous,” only that—like all people—Arabs write about sex. I also have said much the same thing as you write above about Anglo prudishness before. But anyhow, nice to see you, and if you are interested in literature feel free to hang around.

  14. Though I am Egyptian born and bred,I was as innocent of sexual realities as BL. Until I entered 8th grade . Then, I learned that one of my classmates was enjoying sex with a boy from another school. And so on. This was a Catholic girls’ school in Cairo.

  15. Wonderful rely to Lewis’ misguided conjectures. Once again, he proves faithful to his essentialist orientalist constructs.

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