While in Turkey last summer, I heard of a book called Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. Shereen El Feki, the author, is a Canadian of Egyptian-Welsh ancestry. Prior to writing the book, she asked both women and men in Cairo – as well as other parts of the Arab world – to tell her about their sex lives.
The answers were surprising, enlightening and fascinating. The reader feels like they are eavesdropping on a secret conversation that answers questions they’ve wanted to ask, but didn’t know who to ask them of. This approach works, both for the intimate atmosphere it creates and because of the private subject matter.
Although to outsiders the Middle East is considered to be a bastion of sexual conservatism, matters of sex, in fact, play a huge role in the everyday life there. Sex is heavily entwined in religion, tradition, politics and economics – areas now subject to rapid change.
Sex and the Citadel explores every category of sex – whether it’s sex in marriage, outside of marriage or in unofficial marriages (where a man and woman sign a temporary contract for a few hours, or years, in order to have sex in an “Islamically sound” way). It also covers gender – transgender, transsexual and cross-dressing – and women’s rights and equality issues in the region.
El Feki includes many interesting quotes from her interviewees, like this one from the host of Motalakat (Divorced Women’s) Radio in Cairo, in which she refers to her listeners:
“Half of the women want to be divorced because [they are] not happy sexually. [But] they are scared to speak about that. First from society, scared from their families, scared from their children…
“She is scared to lose her son, her family… But a man goes and gets another wife; he gets to be very happy, with a woman, two or three. But she [does] not have this right. She has to be sad, unhappy, and [accept] bad treatment and just live to raise her children. Society wants her to be like that. She can’t say, ‘I have a sexual right—I want to be happy’; if she says that, they will say she is a bad woman.”
There are fascinating discussions in Sex and the Citadel about Arab porn, where women are dressed in a hijab or niqab. El Feki also explores the “import” of anal sex from Egyptian men working in Arabian Gulf states who return home with this new request. One of the more interesting and little known topics she tackles is the rising trend in what is called in Arabic, Boyat – a woman who looks and behaves like a young man.
(Interestingly, El Feki says that the phenomenon of women cross-dressing in the Arab world isn’t new. Such women were prevalent in ninth century Baghdad, and they were called ghulamiyyat. These females dressed like men but wore make up, plucked their eyebrows, painted their lips and drew on moustaches.)
Sex and the Citadel is an engrossing, surprising and compelling read with enough facts and figures to back up the personal stories. This book will long hold a spot on my shelf.