Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World by Shereen El Feki, Pantheon Books, 346 pages
“If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms,” Shereen El Feki writes in the introduction to Sex and the Citadel.
To judge this book by its cover, you’d expect a lighthearted approach to a provocative subject. The title cleverly plays on the steamy HBO sitcom Sex and the City, and the dust jacket offers a slyly ribald visual pun on the crescent moon and star of Islam. If you have fatwas, prepare to hurl them now.
Once inside the book, you’ll still find plenty of humor, but it’s harnessed to an impressively researched work of sociology. El Feki, a scientist, journalist, and academic, has traveled far and delved deep through the Arab world for half a decade trying to get a handle on the customs, laws, attitudes, hang-ups, and religious dicta that shape the sex lives of the region in general, and Egypt and Cairo in particular. Through this understanding, she intends to shine a broad light on what makes the region tick, politically and socially.
There was a time when the West saw the Arab world as a hotbed of sexual license. El Feki describes Gustave Flaubert’s trip to Egypt in 1849, the year before he began work on Madame Bovary. Flaubert wasn’t much moved by Arab culture or commerce. It was sex, readily available, of all kinds and with both genders, that had his attention. “Flaubert proceeded to [work] his way up the Nile,” El Feki writes. (The word she uses isn’t work, though it ends with the same letter.)
But now, she observes, the shoe is on the other foot. It is the Arab world that seems buttoned up tight on sex while the West is seen as the promiscuous playground of flesh and the devil. A rise in Islamic fundamentalism, fed by decades of dictatorship and repression, has brought a smothering curtain down over sexual attitudes in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world. But with the revolution in information technology, and “as political upheaval convulses the region,” the author wonders, “is a sexual shake-up next in line?”
To find out, El Feki sought out people from all walks of life. She talked to prostitutes, pimps, mullahs, sheiks, cross-dressers, gays, lesbians, transgendered people, philosophers, students, politicians, writers, activists, sex therapists, cab drivers, drug dealers, gigolos, scientists, wives, husbands, teenagers, old people, and a whole lot more.
The sociosexual phenomena she reports on are fascinating — sometimes disturbing, sometimes delightful. She covers topics from a brisk trade in contraband Chinese artificial hymens to restore virginity for the wedding night to an anecdotal suspicion that sexual dysfunction in Egyptian males may be the product of a nefarious Western-Israeli plot: gossip has it that “there are secret agents all over Cairo wearing special belts that emit some sort of spray or beam to neuter Egyptian men, thereby weakening the nation and reducing population growth.” And then there’s the intriguing “missing-vagina syndrome, in which a husband cannot find his wife’s relevant parts,” a condition attributed to “mischievous jinn, or spirits, summoned by someone with a grudge” to put a person sexually out of business.
We learn about various kinds of unofficial marriage that Egyptians can access to dodge the Islamic proscription against pre- and extramarital relations. A mut’a is a short-term “pleasure marriage” allowed in Shiite (but not Sunni) Islam, with a contract, a built-in provision for termination, and “intimacy generally part of the package.” An ’urfi is a less formal, unrecorded form of union that also comes with sex benefits. A “summer marriage” allows a man of means to buy the sexual services of a young woman for a short, contractually specified vacation union, with a skimpy cover of religious authority.
El Feki, the daughter of an Egyptian father and a Welsh mother, brings the perspective of her Arab heritage and Western upbringing to the fiendishly complicated subject matter. She paints a picture of a culture shackled by rigidly conservative fundamentalism, of a male population laboring under insecurities and a female population oppressed by paternalistic and sometimes sadistic restrictions. But she questions the scriptural authority that dictates this situation, and she talks to scholars, both secular and religious, who paint a very different picture of attitudes toward sex in earlier Islamic periods. “It is through their interpretations of Islam,” she writes, “that many Muslims are boxing themselves and their religion in.”
The book would have benefited from a glossary. Many Arabic words are defined when they are introduced but can be elusive when encountered many pages on. A list of italicized terms would have made the journey through the sexual maze of the Islamic world more easily negotiable.
It’s a serious topic, and El Feki has done a gargantuan and gutsy job of research. She treats her subject with respect but also with a lively irreverence, which is the appropriate tone for a book about sexual customs and foibles. Toward the end, as she becomes increasingly intent on shoring up her thesis, the book grows more serious and loses a bit of the light touch that makes the bulk of it so readable. But she’s fearless, calling a spade a spade and wading into neighborhoods, both physical and topical, where angels might well fear to tread.