Veiled Desire

    30 March 2013

    Concentrating on sexual intercourse in isolation, wrote the notoriously celibate Henry James, leads to creative failure, for the act ‘finds its extension and consummation only in the rest of life’. What happens in the bedroom matters, then, because it relates to how we navigate shifting boundaries between tradition, convention, religion and morality — the stuff of James’s fiction. The caricaturist Max Beerbohm parodied James’s remarks by drawing the portly author kneeling, transfixed, outside a room in a ‘promiscuous hotel’, next to a pair of women’s shoes and men’s boots.

    The marketing blurb for Shereen El Feki’s Sex and the Citadel reminded me of this caricature. ‘If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms,’ we are told, before being assured that this ‘is no peep show’. Both statements are true. ‘Sexual attitudes and behaviour are intimately bound up in religion, tradition, culture, politics and economics,’ El Feki writes, in a way that seems to paraphrase James. ‘They are part and parcel of sexuality — that is, the act and all that goes with it.’

    El Feki was born in the West to an Egyptian family, and spent childhood holidays visiting relatives in Egypt. After years covering health and science issues for the Economist, she briefly joined Al-Jazeera English in 2007 as a presenter, then switched careers to research HIV in the Arab world for the UN.

    Now she is mainly based in Cairo — at a time of Islamist ascendancy when women are suffering unprecedented sexual harassment on Cairo’s streets. Nevertheless, she tackles her subject frankly, and explores how the Arab Spring upheavals are, to her mind, challenging entrenched taboos.

    The book is heavily focused on Egypt, and is born of her most recent fieldwork. But it is a very literary narrative: each section opens with personal anecdotes and interviews, backed up or contradicted by scholarly articles, and rounded off with El Feki’s hope for a better future. She cautions that any change will be a long time coming. Everything depends on whether the ideals of the secular revolutionaries triumph, or if they are supplanted by radical Islamism.

    Sex and the Citadel covers prostitution, heterosexual anal sex, female genital mutilation, impotence, people living with HIV, and the various forms of ‘temporary marriages’ allowed by Islam. Then there is the particularly prickly issue of homosexuality. As elsewhere, El Feki is sensitive enough to present both perspectives: the tiny group of gay-identified men who yearn for for greater acceptance, as well as the much larger group who engage in same-sex relations but reject western ‘gay’ identity politics. Even the crackpot Islamists get ample opportunity to air their views, which are faithfully transcribed — although I suspect El Feki had to bite her tongue as she listened to their nonsense.

    Thankfully, Sex and the Citadel is not another treatise by an activist out to publicise her ‘rescue’ of third-world women languishing in despair. ‘The Arabs have had enough of being told what to do, and I don’t want to be another person issuing instructions,’ El Feki tells me, responding to a question about how she felt as both an outsider and insider. Her Arabic is, by her own admission, not perfect (she didn’t speak it while growing up); and she shuns the veil. ‘I feel like a born-again Arab,’ she beams. ‘This book has connected me with the region in a way I couldn’t have imagined.’

    When she started it, the intention was to offer Westerners a glimpse into Arab sexual mores; but as it progressed, she explains, she realised that it would be an important tool, too, for young Arabs — who are, to judge by her account, also woefully ignorant about their history.

    I remind her, rather insensitively, that a young, unveiled Libyan woman, Magdulien Abaida, had recently been granted asylum in Britain after being detained and threatened with execution by members of a Libyan Islamist militia, for the crime of promoting women’s rights. El Feki scribbles the details in her notebook, uncharacteristically distracted. She admits that Arabs have boxed themselves in by embracing ultraconservative Islam exported by Saudi Arabia since the 1970s. They have consequently forgotten the remarkably broad discourse about sex and sexuality that was once common in the Muslim world. If change is to come, she correctly points out, it will because Arabs re-embrace their own hidden liberal Islamic traditions, rather than by mimicking alien western models. Sex and the Citadel is thus peppered with examples from the more tolerant past: reminders that there does indeed exist a progressive Islamic inheritance that values personal liberty and emphasises the importance of sexual intimacy — for both men and women.

    El Feki is a vibrant, elegant, impressively self-assured individual. But she strikes me as out of touch with the grim reality of the contemporary Arab world. The trouble is her central argument. It seems far more likely that the Arab world is going to end up with Islamist theocracies, not secular democracies. Her interview subjects, too, are overwhelmingly drawn from the middle and upper-middle classes so beloved of western media pundits but shunned by the Arab masses.

    She protests that working-class voices are included, but partly concedes my point: ‘One of the reasons one hears quite a lot from intellectuals, activists, lawyers and bloggers is that I didn’t just want to talk about the problems,’ she says. ‘I’m interested in looking at solutions, which are mostly coming from pioneers. These tend not to be ordinary people.’ Which demands another question: are the Arab masses, scraping a living amid their imploding economies, interested in reassessing their sexual identities?

    They certainly don’t seem interested in democracy and pluralism. In Egypt’s recent referendum on an Islamist-leaning constitution — the most important in the country’s 5,000-year history — a paltry 32 per cent cast a vote. It passed. But El Feki insists that the Muslim Brotherhood are screwing things up so badly, especially with regard to the economy, that the masses will eventually reject them.

    On the contrary, I counter: the activists, whose cause she champions, are alienating, not galvanising, the masses, who increasingly associate democracy with lawlessness and hunger. Hence the dwindling voter turnout, and the fact that the Islamists have won every election so far. The brief opening up of Egyptian society, and the opportunities to discuss issues about sex, will just as quickly be closed down. But she insists that recent events ‘suggest that’s not going to happen’. She sees ‘small signs of pushback, not just the dramatic protests. People are talking about things now that were impossible to talk about under the Mubarak regime — not just the elite, but ordinary women in the working-class neighbourhoods I visit.’

    We agree to disagree, but make a pact. If, in five years, the Islamists have been consigned to history and El Feki is still able to walk around Cairo unveiled, I will buy her lunch. If the Islamists have consolidated their power, lunch is on her. She agrees and, with a giggle that perhaps reveals as much about her naivity as her bravery, mimes covering herself with a veil.

    During our chat, news has broken that Chokri Belaid, Tunisia’s most prominant secular critic of Salafism, has been shot dead outside his home.