“If you really want to know a people, start by looking in their bedrooms” – Shereen El Feki.
Her research into HIV/ AIDS in the Middle East has taken author Shereen El Feki across the Arab region as she investigates the stories and practices of sexual relations, where she says “people don’t care about what you are doing, but what you are seen to be doing.”
Very much a social stigma influenced by traditional attitudes and religious belief, sex as a subject matter is one in which to tread very carefully in the Arab world. In her new book, Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, El Feki digs deep to uncover the hidden truths about sex in the region, from homosexuality, to the spread of HIV/AIDS and the shocking statistics about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Coming from a Welsh-Egyptian background, El Feki’s western appearance and short pixie haircut are, on first impression, at odds with her status as a respected Muslim author. Speaking about her experiences in the Middle East, El Feki explained that her appearance worked to her advantage when asking such intimate questions, because people felt more comfortable answering her, fearing that they would be judged by someone “Arab-looking”, and thus making it easier to get the conversation going. “My problem was not to get people talking about sex, but to stop them talking about sex,” El Feki jokes.
Speaking frankly about sex as “a fundamental human right” and the need to educate people on the practices of safe sex in a part of the world that supposedly sees the condom as “haram” (forbidden), I wanted to find out more about Shereen El Feki and her personal motivations for writing this book, as well as what she hopes to achieve with the publication of this text in both Western and Arab eyes.
Arab Review: What was your personal motivation for writing a book on this particular topic? (HIV research aside, this is more about your own experience with the research and understanding of sex in the Arab world).
Shereen El Feki: My personal motivation was to better understand my heritage. I’m half-Egyptian, and Muslim but I grew up in Canada, far from my Arab roots. I had long wanted to “re-orient” my career to the Arab region — and given my background in HIV, looking at sex in communities across the region provided me with a fascinating way to combine personal and professional interests.
My drive to write Sex and the Citadel was also fuelled by my curiosity at the stories of my father’s youth in 1930s-50s Cairo, and the proverbs of my grandmother, full of far-from-prudish country wisdom which seemed to reflect an easier sexual climate than we find today. My father is a great reader of classical Arabic literature and history, and through him I became acquainted with the great works — including Alf Layla wa Layla (1,001 Nights) and the poetry of Abu Nuwas, in all their full-frontal splendor. So I began to appreciate that things were not always as closed around sex as they are today, and I began to wonder why the change — hence this book.
AR: Your findings are indeed fascinating and often utterly shocking to read. Do you, however, think that the narrative is somewhat one-sided? What about the people who are actually very happy in their marriages and sex lives?
SEF: As I say in Sex and the Citadel, this is not another book about what’s wrong in the Arab world, it’s about what’s right — how people from across the region are trying to find solutions to their problems. But it’s true, most of the public discourse in the Arab region around sex these days is about problems — disease, dysfunction, disorder — not pleasures; something our ancestors a thousand years ago celebrated in a rich tradition of Arabic erotica.
Given all the taboos around extramarital sex, I have yet to meet an unmarried man or woman, sex worker or person who crosses the heterosexual line who is leading a safe, satisfying and pleasurable sex life free of discrimination, force or violence — the essence of sexual rights. As for husbands and wives, for editorial and structural reasons my chapter on married life was focused on a single, sprawling family in Cairo whom I got to know over the course of five years — only occasionally did any of its members talk about sexual happiness (and those few instances are duly noted in the book). I once mentioned this to Azza, the central character of the chapter, and she too was struck by this omission. “You know, you’re right. No one in the family seems happy in the bedroom… and none of my friends either. Is it like this in other countries?” Good question. Of course, the Arab region does not have a monopoly on sexual hangups — comments from readers around the world makes it clear that the taboos and restrictions I discuss are widespread across the world.
We don’t yet have an Arab Kinsey Report or Masters & Johnson to tell us in any robust quantitative, or qualitative, fashion what exactly is happening in bedrooms across the region. It is research we urgently need, and I hope will emerge with the nascent climate of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression we now see in many countries in the wake of 2011. Perhaps the coming generation of researchers will find that conjugal happiness which seems so elusive in the evidence to date.
AR: What would you say was the most shocking/ profound finding when undertaking this research?
SEF: I was struck by pervasive double standards, and the huge gap between appearance and reality when it comes to most aspects of life in the Arab region, including sex: men free to have sex before marriage, but women expected to be intact; virginity defined by anatomy, not chastity; sex tourism masquerading as marriage; travelers who make a great show of their piety at home but who waste no time in breaking every rule once abroad and far from the eyes of their fellow countrymen. I was also struck by how often people use religion to justify social convention — for example, in the case of female genital mutilation, which affects 80-90 per cent of 15-17 year old girls in Egypt. The procedure is largely motivated by a belief that it controls female sexuality, yet is dressed up in a hadith of debatable religious meaning and authenticity; to give respectability to what is, at the end of the day, a tool of social regulation. Closing these gaps, in all domains, will be key to achieving the reforms that millions are hoping to see in political, economic, social, cultural and personal life in the decades to come.
AR: What do you like/ respect most about the Middle East, and Egypt in particular, in terms of the culture, the people?
SEF: My journey across the Arab region has certainly changed me. The overwhelming emotional generosity of Egyptians has worn down any reticence or reserve I once possessed, and I find myself a more impassioned, more open person for it. Having been brought up in a one-child household, far from my roots, I know now what it means to be part of an extended family, and the contentment this can bring, for all its constraints. I have far greater respect for my elders than I ever did growing up in a society that prizes youth above all. And I now have a better understanding of Islam, which has only served to increase my adherence to a faith that, I believe, gives me both freedom and direction in my life. I have not just affection and gratitude, but a deep admiration for people across the region who welcomed me so warmly into their lives — not just the customary hospitality extended to strangers, but an acceptance as one of their own.
AR: Finally, what do you hope that readers will gain from reading this book?
SEF: When I began Sex and the Citadel, I wanted to help outsiders to understand the Arab region, at its most intimate. By the time I finished writing the book, however, it was as much for people inside the region — to help them appreciate that they are not alone in their problems, nor in the solutions they are grappling with, whether it is in their private lives, their communities, or even at the level of national laws and policies. Having the information and the tools to challenge received wisdoms in sexual and personal life — and my book is a tiny contribution to that bigger process — is an important part of achieving the wider goals of justice, equality, freedom and dignity in political, economic and cultural life to which millions across the region still aspire.
If women don’t have control over their own bodies, how will they be able to fulfill their potential in economic and political life? If we don’t trust young people with the information to understand and shape their own bodies and sexual lives, how can we trust them to be active participants in an emerging democratic state? If men and women can’t communicate, can’t treat each other with respect in the bedroom, how far will they be able to treat each other as equals in the boardroom?
If, five years from now, I can walk into the living room of Azza — one of the Cairene wives whose life illuminated so many of the challenges of marital life — and find my book (in Arabic, no less) on her coffee table, and her teenage daughter on the computer visiting my website, not just reading about sexuality in the Arab region, but actually contributing ideas and information of her own — well, then I’ll consider Sex and the Citadel a job well done.
Sex and the Citadel was published by Chatto & Windus, part of the Random House Group, on 7 March 2013.