Read Sex and the Citadel Online

Authors: Shereen El Feki

Sex and the Citadel


Copyright © 2013 by Shereen El Feki

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Simultaneously published in the United Kingdom by Chatto & Windus, an imprint of the Random House Group Limited, London.

Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
El Feki, Shereen.

Sex and the Citadel : intimate life in a changing Arab world / Shereen El Feki.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
eISBN: 978-0-307-90743-1
1. Sex—Egypt. 2. Women—Sexual behavior—Egypt. 3. Egyptians—Sexual behavior. 4. Egypt—Social conditions—21
century. I. Title.
HQ18.E3E42 2012 306.70962—dc23 2012018002

Jacket design by Brian Barth


For my parents
I swear by God there is a need to know this subject; those who do not know it, or make fun of it, are ignorant, stupid, of little understanding
—‘Umar Muhammad al-Nafzawi,
The Perfumed Garden
(fifteenth century)
Let us admit, once and for all, that sex is the basic principle around which all the rest of human life, with all its institutions, is pivoted
—Magnus Hirschfeld,
Women East and West:
Impressions of a Sex Expert



Title Page




A Note on Language


1. Shifting Positions
2. Desperate Housewives
3. Sex and the Single Arab
4. Facts of Life
5. Sex for Sale
6. Dare to Be Different
7. Come the Revolution




About the Author

A Note on Language

A few years ago, I was invited to visit a foundation for women’s rights in Cairo. The staff and I talked in English, which they spoke far more fluently than I did Arabic. At the end of an impressive tour, however, I tried to rise to the occasion. “Thank you,” I struggled in my very best Arabic, “for inviting me to your woman’s center.” There was an awkward pause and some curious looks from my hosts, but the moment quickly passed, and with the hospitality that Egyptians are famous for, we parted with handshakes and smiles all around.

It wasn’t until later, when some Egyptian friends burst out laughing as I told them the story, that I discovered the source of the confusion. “But, Shereen, you thanked them for visiting their center for sluts!” Through a subtle mispronunciation of the Arabic word for “woman,” I had put their organization into a different line of business altogether.

Such adventures in Arabic have made me all the more conscious of helping readers to get it right. So in this book, where Arabic words are transliterated into English, I have followed the gold standard of the
International Journal of Middle East Studies;
for simplicity’s sake, however, diacritical marks have been omitted. Two Arabic letters that have caused me plenty of trouble over the years, including the episode above, are represented by ‘ for ‘
and ’ for

When I’m talking about Egypt, I’ve sometimes parted ways with
, transliterating words to capture local pronunciation. So it’s
instead of
, Gamal instead of Jamal, and so on. There are, inevitably, exceptions to this exception. For example, where Arabic words have made their way into English, they are not italicized and I have opted not to Egyptianize them in most cases—that means “hijab,” instead of
, for instance. The same applies for plurals. Where words have crossed into English, I use
otherwise, I have retained the original Arabic plural form. So that’s “fatwa” and “fatwas” (not
’ (not faqihs). I have also used the common English spelling for names of places and well-known people, past and present.


“What is it?”

Six pairs of dark eyes stared at me—or rather, at the small purple rod in my hand.

“It’s a vibrator,” I answered, in English, racking my brain for the right Arabic word. “A thing that makes fast movements” came to mind, but as that could equally apply to a hand mixer, I decided to stick with my mother tongue to minimize what I could sense was rising confusion in the room.

One of the women, curled up on a divan beside me, began to unpin her hijab, a cascade of black hair falling down her back as she carefully put her headscarf to one side. “What does it do?” she asked.

“Well, it vibrates,” I added, taking a sip of mint tea and biting into a piece of syrupy baklava to buy myself some time before the inevitable rejoinder.

“But why?”

How I came to be demonstrating sex toys to a coffee morning of Cairo housewives is a long story. I have spent the past five years traveling across the Arab region asking people about sex: what they do, what they don’t, what they think and why. Depending on your perspective, this might sound like a dream job or a highly dubious occupation. For me, it is something else altogether: sex is the lens through which I investigate the past and present of a part of the world about which so much is written and still so little is understood.

Now, I grant you, sex might seem an odd choice, given the spectacle of popular revolt playing out across the Arab world since the beginning of this decade, which has taken with it some of the region’s most entrenched regimes—in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen for starters—and is shaking up the rest. Some observers, however, have gone so far as to argue that it was youthful sexual energy that fueled the protests in the first place.
I’m not so sure. While I’ve often heard Egyptians say their fellow countrymen spend 99.9 percent of their time thinking about sex, in the heady days of early 2011, making love appeared, for once, to be the last thing on people’s minds.

Yet I don’t believe it was entirely out of sight. Sexual attitudes and behaviors are intimately bound up in religion, tradition, culture, politics, and economics. They are part and parcel of sexuality—that is, the act and all 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. In his reflections on the history of the West, the French philosopher Michel Foucault described sexuality as “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power: between men and women, young people and old people, parents and offspring, teachers and students, priests and laity, an administration and a population.”
The same is true in the Arab world: if you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.

Had it not been for the events of September 11, 2001, I might never have opened that door. I was working at
The Economist
when the world turned. Having trained as an immunologist before becoming a journalist, I was on the health and science beat, far removed from the great political debates of the day. From these sidelines, I had a chance to sit back and watch my colleagues grapple with the complexities of the Arab region. I saw their confidence in Anglo-American might and exuberance in the early afterglow of the war in Iraq gradually turn to doubt, then bewilderment. Why weren’t Iraqis rushing to embrace this new world order? Why did they rarely follow the playbook written in Washington and London? Why did they behave in ways so contrary to Western expectations? In short, what makes them tick?

For me, these are not questions of geopolitics or anthropology; this is a matter of personal identity. The Arab world is in my blood: my father is Egyptian, and through him my family roots stretch from the concrete of Cairo to cotton fields deep in the Nile Delta. My mother comes from a distant green valley—a former mining village in South Wales. This makes me half Egyptian, though most people in the Arab region shake their heads when I tell them this. To them there is no “half” about it; because my father is wholly Egyptian, so am I. And because he is Muslim, I too was born Muslim. My mother’s family is Christian: her father was a Baptist lay preacher, and her brother, in a leap of Anglican upward mobility, became a vicar in the Church of Wales. But my mother converted to Islam on marrying my father. She was not obliged to; Muslim men are free to marry
ahl al-kitab
, or people of the Book—among them, Jews and Christians. For my mother, becoming Muslim was a matter of conviction, not coercion.

I was born in England and raised in Canada long before “Muslims in the West” was a talking point. There were a few of us at school (I grew up in a university town near Toronto), but I never thought much of it. Then again, I was brought up with an icing of Islam on an otherwise Western lifestyle: my only observances were steering clear of pork and alcohol and learning
—the opening chapter of the Qur’an—which my parents had me recite before our very British Sunday lunches. As the sole Muslims on the block, we were always the first to put up Christmas lights, and Easter never passed without a clutch of chocolate eggs.

As for Egypt, each year we would visit my grandmother Nuna Aziza and a vast circle of aunts, uncles, and cousins. We were the outliers: my mother was the only Western woman (
, in Egyptian Arabic) to have married into the family, and during my childhood, we were the only members living outside of Egypt. So between my father’s prestige as the eldest son and my own exotic pedigree, I basked in the spotlight. My
’s apartment was a shrine to our tiny branch of the family in exile; amid the plastic plants and the frolicking shepherds and coy maidens in petit point, our photos were crammed onto coffee tables and consoles, whose delicate gilded legs seemed unequal to the weight of so much grandmotherly affection. Growing up, I came to love Egypt and respect Islam, but I never thought to go beyond the surface.

Back in Canada, many of my father’s Egyptian friends questioned his decision not to raise his only child more strictly in the faith. I was not taught salat, the Muslim ritual of prayer, nor did I study Arabic. It was not for want of conviction on my father’s part. He is a devout Muslim who prays five times a day and recites the Qur’an every morning, from memory; he’s a hajji, having gone on pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina; he scrupulously observes the fast during Ramadan and never fails to pay zakat, or alms for the poor. But my father saw his friends push Islam and their own Arab upbringing on their children—particularly their daughters—like a vaccine against the perceived ills of the West. More often than not, however, what these parents saw as a danger, their children embraced as an opportunity, many turning away from a religious and cultural heritage that seemed to them like too much strong medicine. My parents, on the other hand, gave me the freedom to come to my religion and my roots on my own terms and in my own time.

That moment came after September 11. Like so many others who straddle East and West, I was impelled to take a closer look at my origins. That I chose sex as my lens is unusual—but understandable, given my background. Part of my job at
The Economist
was writing about HIV, and that included the grim task of reporting on the state of the global epidemic. Each year, UNAIDS, the United Nations agency in charge of tracking the disease, issues updates full of daunting statistics. What always grabbed my attention were not the huge numbers of those living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia but the tiny ones in the Arab region, where the prevalence of infection was only a fraction of what it was elsewhere. How, in an era of mass migration and instant access, could one part of the world stay seemingly immune to HIV? Was it possible that people in the Arab region were simply not engaging in risky behavior—that there was no needle sharing or contaminated blood supplies or unsafe sex?

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