‘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.