Reuters, Asmaa Waguih

Tahrir Square in Cairo

IIs it possible that all these young men who clash in the streets of Cairo and Damascus don’t have enough?

Democracy? No, I mean this other thing that people are looking for and are ready to die for.

The “Arab Spring” discourse is now part of the clichés of pundits’ gossip in America, with plays on “Arab winter” and “Arab fall” depending on the policy of the speaker and the country in question. difficulty that dissolves at this time. But few talking heads know enough about Arab culture to link the massive street actions in the Middle East that we have seen to issues behind surface politics. And these substantive issues include the state of Arab marriage, the tension between so-called Western norms and Islamic piety, and repressed sexuality among young Arabs who face financial and theological obstacles to achieving their desires.

Is it tasteless to mix dark things like political rebellion with lust and sub-rosa denial? It may be truthful rather than in bad taste.

Thank you, then, Shereen El Feki — Cambridge-trained immunologist, former science writer for The Economist, current vice-chair of the United Nations Global Commission on HIV and the Law — for venturing beyond the headlines into Sex and the citadel: intimate life in a changing Arab world, forthcoming from Pantheon Books. It’s a cutting-edge exploration of the uncertainties that fill the humble mansions in which Tahrir Square protesters return home. A true book may not set you free when you have suffered for centuries from misinterpretations of Islam and sex, but El Feki is prayed to get an Arabic edition.

In the West, his brutal examination of sex and its associated practices and accessories – topics include vibrators, Viagra, virginity codes, marital rape and homophobia – would hardly raise eyebrows. We Westerners now live in a Fifty shades world, an editorial culture in which Naomi Wolf Vagina is reviewed on the first page of The New York Times Book Review by former ballerina Toni Bentley — she from The capitulation (a title intended to evoke the offering of another part of the body) – and we hope the children do not watch.

Likewise, in high school, the philosophy of sex and love, not to mention the long history of social science research on sexuality, from Kinsey to the present day, occupies solid and reputable ground. The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love meets regularly at disciplinary philosophy meetings, and academics like Alan Soble and Rosemarie Tong have made admirable careers.

For El Feki to lead the way, however, she explained the vibrator to a group of housewives in Cairo (she is trying Arabic for “thing that makes fast movements”); dissect the intricacies of formal and informal forms of Arab marriage; Tracing the slow disappearance of the pursuit of pleasure in Muslim culture from its hedonistic heyday in the 8th century to the 10th – shows a combination of courage and compassion that itself calls for praise. She is not afraid to make the link between the demonstrators that we see on our screens and her subject:

Sexual attitudes and behaviors are intimately linked to religion, tradition, culture, politics and economics. They are an integral part of sexuality, that is, of the act and everything that goes with it, including gender roles and identity, sexual orientation, pleasure, intimacy. , eroticism and reproduction. As such, sexuality is a mirror of the conditions that led to these uprisings, and it will be a measure of the progress of hard-won reforms in the years to come. … If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their chambers.

TThe daughter of an Egyptian father and Welsh mother, El Feki does just that, bringing a twisted and cunning Western voice (the chapter titles include “Desperate Housewives” and “Shifting Positions”), and an insider spirit. sincere Egyptian, citing a grandmother. -set, to the rich data it has collected. She has “spent the past five years traveling the Arab region asking people about sex; what they do, what they don’t do, what they think and why ”, and it shows.

His recurring theme? That the Arab world “was once open to the full spectrum of sexuality and could be again”. One of the ironies that El Feki returns to regularly is the reversal that occurred in the so-called clash of civilizations between the West and the Arab world. In Flaubert’s time, and in the time of the Prophet himself, Westerners and Arabs alike viewed Arab culture as a shamelessly sensual and sexual culture, and not anti-Islamic for that. On the other hand, Christian Europe defended the rejection and repression of the sexual joys of this life for the glory of the hereafter.

“The Arab world,” writes El Feki, “once famous in the West for its sexual license envied by some but despised by others, is now widely criticized for its sexual intolerance. … And the West, once praised by some in the Arab world for its hard line on same-sex relationships, is now seen by many as a radiant source of sexual debauchery from which the region must be protected. Indeed, much of the opposition to the hastily adopted Egyptian constitution stems from objections to Islamist attitudes regarding sex and daily life becoming part of Egyptian law.

“If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their rooms.”

Daring enough to quote Wilhelm Reich’s famous line “the sexual misery of the masses” and to devote an entire section to anal sex in the Arab world, El Feki tells both the reverse side of the overthrow and “the story of those who try. to escape. “Focusing on Egypt and Cairo as a microcosm of 22 countries, 350 million people and the unmistakably diverse sects and ethnicities of the Arab world, but also paying regular attention to sexual cultures in Lebanon, in Morocco and Tunisia, it offers a compelling lesson in sexual literacy about this part of the world, to the ordinary life of which we once paid so little attention.

We learn the shameful (`ayb), rude (illuminated adab) and prohibited (haram), marriage and sexual intercourse (same Arabic word: nikah), mix of sexes (ikhitilat), single (anuse), “Customary unions” (`urfi), and the childless woman, or “pitiful” (mask). We meet courageous women and men who are trying to educate the Arab world about its own true sexual traditions, especially the compatibility of dynamic sex with Islam: people like Beirut-based writer Joumana Haddad, whose magazine avant-garde sex, Jasad, is sold in Beirut in plastic packaging with an “adults only” sticker, and an Egyptian, Mahasin Sabir, host of Motalakat Radio (“Radio des femmes divorées”), who speaks with thousands of divorce supporters and its consequences.

At the same time, El Feki weaves enlightening social science research throughout his written study full of twists and turns, some of which are surprising. About 40 percent of older Egyptian men now suffer from some form of erectile dysfunction, a circumstance that El Feki frankly investigates – let’s just say Egyptian men face their own version of performance anxiety. Only 20 percent of young Arab women report having had premarital sex, while many more young men acknowledge it – an apparent contradiction that El Feki pounces on. According to a 2008 survey, more than 90 percent of Egyptian women under the age of 50 who were ever married reported having undergone genital mutilation in their youth.

Combining in-depth reporting and confident critical views, El Feki excels at sketching primary themes into images that stick. “The intimate order of the Arab world today,” she observes, “is like our solar system: marriage is the sun, whose gravitational pull holds it all together; around him are planets in ever more distant orbits, from premarital sex to sex work to homosexual relationships. She hopes that sexual cosmology, as a kind of preheliocentric carnal theory, is on the way out.

“Change is come to Egypt, “says El Feki in his conclusion,” not a sexual revolution, I think, but a sexual reassessment, in which people will one day have the education, inclination and freedom to have a shameless vision of who they were, how they became who they are and what they could be in the years to come. The confidence and creativity of Arab civilization was once reflected in her sex life. For the first time in a long time, we have the chance to review this, not by looking at our past, but by looking towards our future. “

It’s a courageous and moving coda for an extremely revealing book.

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