‘Reclaiming Arabic As a Language of Sex’

Editor’s update, August 23: El Feki’s ‘Sex and the Citadel’ Makes Guardian First Book Award Longlist

Sarah Irving is attending the Edinburgh fest-a-thon. She reports:

By Sarah Irving

Sex and the Citadel calligraphy from websiteThe cover of the Canadian edition of Shereen el-Feki’s Sex and the Citadel is a stunning piece by Iraqi calligrapher Wissam Shawkat. Arabic script twines in and out, forming the shape of a female torso. The words are all long-forgotten Arabic terms for sex.

The beautiful, complex symbolism behind the image suits Shereen El-Feki’s book admirably. As she told an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Arabic language has – or used to have – over a thousand verbs just for the act of having sex. Classical Arabic manuscripts in collections of rare books are filled with joyous and highly explicit descriptions of sex – not macho, male-focused sex, but sex which speaks of equality, female pleasure and mutual enjoyment. And far from being some kind of underground medieval Arab porn, these erotic books were religiously approved, their advice seen as part of God’s gifts to humankind.

By way of a single example, El-Feki cited Ali Ibn Nasr al-Katib’s Encyclopaedia of Pleasure, written in Baghdad in the late 10th or early 11th centuries. She told one specific story, the details of which might be too much for even the enlightened readers of ArabLit. Suffice to say it involved a mind-blowing female orgasm but a sad end for a puppy.

If this open, enlightened, positive attitude to sex is such a strong current in Arab, Islamic culture, asks El-Feki, where has it gone? Why is sex still, she believes, the great ‘unresolved tension’ in many marriages and the last great taboo in public debate in the Arab world?

Western stereotypes might have some easy, and uninformed, answers to those questions, involving ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and male control of women. El-Feki’s summaries of some of the key areas of her book show that the situation is much more complex than that, and sometimes the reverse of Western assumptions.

On the subject of same-sex relationships in the Middle East – and she specifically outlines that some, possibly many Middle Eastern homosexuals reject Western labels such as ‘gay’ – we find interviewees such as Mounir, a working-class Egyptian man who has sex with other men. He has been arrested and tortured by the police and suffered for his sexuality over a large portion of his life. But he still rejects the identity politics of the Western gay liberation movement, insisting that he wants – and believes to be possible – a life which combines respect and personal sexual freedom for him with an Islamic society and values.

And talking to young divorced women in Egypt, El-Feki also found that they didn’t want a ‘Western’ lifestyle which involved many sexual partners. One of them pointed out that Madonna could be seen as the epitome of sexual liberation but has had many failed relationships. What they did want, though, was men who respected them and a sense of romance of companionship in their marriages, something they saw – rightly or wrongly – as being more prevalent in Europe or the USA.

In response to a question from the audience (which filled the venue to capacity, and was perhaps 90% female), El-Feki took on the issue of female genital mutilation. Widely prevalent in Egypt, she stressed that it is a practice common in the Coptic Christian as well as the Islamic community, rather than being associated with a particular faith. And, she emphasised, it is usually women – mothers and grandmothers – who insist on FGM being carried out. When senior religious figures such as the Sheikh al-Azhar and the Coptic Pope have condemned the practice, they have been dismissed by ordinary women as being under the thumb of Western imperialists and local dictators.

But, El-Feki pointed out, men appear to be increasingly involved at a family level in debates over whether girls should be cut – because they see internet porn involving threesomes and other unusual practices, believe these to be the norm amongst Western women, and decide that ‘their’ girls must be prevented from following the example of these uncut promiscuous Western women. It’s a disturbing cycle of patriarchal reinforcement across cultures.

The Edinburgh Book Festival is a rather patrician affair, still dominated by “ladies who lunch,” men with floppy fringes and expensive but ill-fitting suits, and middle-class liberals who would be offended if one called their attitudes to the Middle East colonialist. El-Feki’s fresh, frank, humorous demolition of stereotypes raised a few eyebrows. But, as she says, an even bigger challenge is the Arab audience itself. No Arabic publisher has, so far, accepted the book, and the English edition isn’t on sale in either Saudi Arabia or the UAE, the two main markets it would need to crack to be picked up by an Arabic publisher.

“Success”, according to El-Feki, would be seeing her book on the coffee-tables of some of the women she interviewed for it. That may still be some way off.

[http://www.sarahirving.co.uk] is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and has been a journalist and reviewer for over a decade. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is dipping a tentative toe into the waters of Arabic-English translation.


  1. Oh your blog remains a safety point where I remember I am still alive and human!

  2. Thank you so much for bringing to ArabLit readers this introduction to Sex in the Citadel! It sounds such an interesting and much needed intervention. Just ordered the book.

    1. Great! If you want to do a review, of course……….

  3. can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. very interesting read!

  4. It’s given my thoughts a new direction. Seems to be something more sophisticated than ‘Arabian Nights’.

  5. What an interesting piece of work that of Shereen el-Feki! If you are interested in the topic, there is one particularly work “Menstruation” (Abdulhamid, Ammar. Saqi Books, 2001) that deserves a reading. It raises, in a more literary way, the same issues that el-Feki presents in her “Sex and the Citadel”. I am looking forward to reading her work 🙂

  6. I don’t know if I agree with you but in America we can agree and disagree with no problems…

    1. segmation, you sound like an idiot

  7. Well copulation is still taboo in our Ummah. We all know the stand on Islam on sodomy and other pre-marital affairs…So on that note, I am not here to judge anybody. With that being said, my new novel Between Sisters, SVP also tries to make copulation a subject less difficult to talk about too. Check it out! It is available on Smashwords, Amazon, and Barnes & Nobles. I will definitely check out Sex and the Citadel to see what it is about. After all, every person just need to discern haram material from not haram material when exposed to it. Papatia Feauxzar

  8. Whoa! Who knew? Certainly not me..And to think I thought I was well versed reading about sex(including the origin of sex practices etc etc..) I had NO clue Arabic language had that many inferences to sex..Good luck in your studies! I’m putting this book on my long list of to-reads..

  9. Well, that explains a lot. Like that volume of Persian literature I heard about. It was considered very racy by some critics. I forget what it’s called though.

  10. For the calligraphic art, it’s lovely and evocative!

    1. More of Wissam’s calligraphy here: http://wissamshawkat.com/ But there’s lots of fantastic work being done in “contemporary calligraphy,” fusion of an ancient art form with contemporary sensibilities.

  11. I didn’t know that the Coptics practised FGA also. Great piece.

      1. 🙂 Yes, it’s prevelant in a number of countries in Africa (as well as Yemen) and crosses religious & other boundaries. http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/prevalence/en/ Although it’s correlated in many people’s minds with religion — including those who practice it — it is not religion-specific.

        And hullo, The Other Me!

  12. Why didn’t you say I could get more action by signing up for Arabic class? Sign me up already! (And great pic btw. I’m sure I saw this before in a mosque among my sundry travels. But seriously, nobody should be mutilating anything, even the Arabic language, not that I’m probably ever going to know the difference.

    1. Not just more action: You’ll have whiter teeth, you’ll be more fit, and you’ll never get papercuts.

  13. Wow this was so informative, thank you so much! I really enjoyed it 🙂

  14. This sounds like a fascinating book, which is a credit to your perceptive and readable review. I was curious, though, about the question you mention of why sexual discussions are still largely repressed in current Islamic Arabic cultures after having had such a long tradition in openly erotic literature. You say it is more, according to El-Feki., than Western stereotypes of Islamic fundamentalism or male domination. But the examples you give do all involve aspects of Western culture, whether they are sought after (romantic companionship) or rejected (gay liberation movements, three-somes). So I was left thinking that it certainly seems that, one way or another, the tension is in fact closely connected to exposure to Western culture, rather than being an internal dynamic within Islamic Arabia? I hope this is fairly clear. Perhaps you could comment.

    1. Perhaps Sarah will swing by and comment. For me, I haven’t read the book or been to one of El Feki’s book talks; you could also direct questions to @shereenelfeki.

        1. No, not at all! It’s a guest post, but I think Sarah comes by now and again.

  15. Reblogged this on Ezdehar and commented:
    Very interesting piece on language and sexuality in Arabic culture. Some good questions are brought up like how certain forms of expression were tolerated and encouraged in medieval Islamic culture but have since become taboo.

  16. Excellent piece. I’m going to have to pick up a copy of Sex in the Citadel. I’ve been spending the summer in Libya and have noticed a dramatic disconnect in the culture from sexuality in almost any form. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by American upbringings but changing the channel from a relatively tame sex scene in a movie that was purchased seems a bit over dramatic.

    1. I’m sure it will be a great read — as you see, it’s on the Guardian First Book Award longlist. However, I certainly would hesitate to posit American sexualities as a “clear lens” through which to see the world, as there are arguably many ways in which popular-media sexuality, etc., deform us. Women first of all, probably, but men as well.

      1. do you mean as a criticism of the book or my comment? i agree judging any aspect of a culture by simple comparison is a flawed strategy but am curious to see some of the changes documented in the language that the article talks about, perhaps some explanations why the language and culture seem to have changed this way over the past few hundred years or so.

        1. I haven’t read the book, I mean your comment as being “spoiled” by Americanness, and I apologize if it was meant ironically.

  17. Do you think the taboo came from the West? That because of western attitudes to female sexuality, that it passed on to Arab countries? We know the sahabah weren’t ashamed of these things.

    1. Good question. I suppose I’d have to read the book to know (not sure if Sarah has). And perhaps do some additional research.

    2. Hi Naila, I am not sure but anything is possible. In my opinion, intimacy should not be taboo. It creates unhappiness and bad and covert behaviors. I liked a passage in her book from a gynecologist that says that sex is the opposite of sport. Sport is talked about and not practiced while sex…we know everybody is doing it and noone wants to talk about it….

      On another note, growing up, my step mother who is a Physician hijabi raised awareness on sex and aids, diseases, etc. We were just banned from doing it before marriage.

  18. Hi Sarah,
    I have a general language learning blog, and I have made a pretty cool (at least I think so) Arabic Alphabet Chart. Now I’ve decide to give it away to other bloggers who might like it.

    If you’d like to post a copy, you can grab it here…


    Have a nice day.

    SpeakOut! Languages

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