How does one explore their sexuality in a society where open discussion of the subject is taboo? In Shereen El Feki’s Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, the author explores various aspects of the sexual lives of men and woman in Arab society. She writes with an engaging style, using first-person accounts and historical research to create a compelling portrait of a society’s attitudes towards sex.
In one humorous anecdote for example, she tries to explain a vibrator to a group of women who had never seen one. Trying to find the right Arabic word, she comes up with one that means “a thing that makes fast movements,” but then realizes that could equally apply to a hand mixer.
El Feki uses this and other such anecdotes to reveal a world that many Western readers may find difficult to imagine. She doesn’t present her subjects as exotic, but rather presents them with warmth, empathy and humour. As with the vibrator anecdote above, the similarity between a sex toy and a kitchen tool is funny, but also reveals the rather radical misunderstandings that can occur in a society where it is forbidden to speak of the subject in public.
Through the lens of sexuality, El Feki examines various aspects of Arab life. She speaks about the struggle for female empowerment, attitudes towards marriage and the single life, and other such topics. Particularly striking to me is an interview with a man fighting for LGBTQ rights in the Middle East. Unlike much of the Western world, this man desires to be seen as equal but is staunchly against same sex marriage, because this goes against his religious beliefs. El Feki therefore presents an alternative perspective even to subjects that Western readers may initially find familiar. More significantly, she presents dissenting views within the society, thereby preventing any impulse to generalize.
I grew up in the Philippines, where religious and political institutions have long suppressed a certain form of discourse around sexuality. A recent political battle has brought this struggle to the public eye, and while major steps have been taken to open this discussion, and many more continue to be taken on the level of the individual, there is much work left to do, and this indeed impacts upon many other aspects of society — women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and general perceptions of equality to name a few.
El Feki tackles an important subject and presents a wonderfully frank view of an aspect of Arab life. The book makes real the human beings behind movements and issues we may have only heard of, and therefore makes us care even more deeply. There is a fine balance between respect for custom and propagating institutional ignorance, and El Feki makes a compelling case about the dangers of the latter, and reveals how current events may, in fact, already be turning the tide.
Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.