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Update: ‘Sex and the Citadel’ Makes Guardian Book Award Longlist

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Posted on Aug 1, 2013

By Tracy Quan

Update: “Sex and the Citadel” has been nominated for the 2013 Guardian first book award, a prize given for “excellence, promise and originality,” says Lisa Allardice, the Guardian Review’s editor and chair of the judges. Stephen Grosz’s “The Examined Life” and NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names” are among 11 debut titles vying for the honor.

“Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World”
A book by Shereen El Feki

When Shereen El Feki’s father was a 9-year-old boy in Cairo, he would sneak onto a tram that ran through the city’s official brothel quarter. Clinging to the side to catch “a boy’s-eye view of the action on Clot Bey Street,” he saw change overtake a historic red-light district. The closing of those licensed bordellos as he came of age would be part of a much longer story about hypocrisy and political power in Egypt.

Family flashbacks are the most surprising (and delicious) revelations in El Feki’s first book, “Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World,” which journeys through the customs, laws, attitudes and history informing sexual life in six Arab countries.

In 1940, Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior was in charge of regulating prostitution, and El Feki’s Egyptian grandfather was a civil servant whose job involved keeping British servicemen away from the brothels. His boss, Sir Thomas Wentworth Russell, was head of the Cairo police, a likable Brit who referred to working girls as “harlots sitting like beasts of prey.” Protecting susceptible white guys from Arab decadence (and attendant sexually transmitted diseases) must have seemed like the natural order of things, and Russell, who died in 1954, was admired in United Nations circles.

The Egyptian government no longer regulates brothels, and prostitution was legally banned a few years after Russell retired. Licensed prostitution was denounced as a colonial vice by the country’s liberators, who conveniently forgot that the sex trade had been taxed and regulated for centuries, “long before the coming of the British,” El Feki tells us. Today, prostitutes are still frowned upon, especially by Islamists, but El Feki finds the sex industry alive and well, even on Clot Bey Street.

Six decades later, El Feki, as former vice chair of the U.N.‘s Global Commission on HIV and the Law, shares common ground with her late grandfather’s boss, but oh, how things have changed. The West is routinely attacked for its decadent ways, and susceptible white guys are now the predators. Russell would likely be amazed to find the granddaughter of his administrator attending meetings with sex workers who make policy recommendations to the U.N. One of those meetings was held in Beirut, shortly after the 2011 Egyptian uprising, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe (or even fun) to be a sex worker in an Arab country these days.

In March, when the Muslim Brotherhood was still in power, it made a point of bashing prostitutes’ rights on its official website. Now, it’s the idea of “protection and respect” for prostitutes, rather than the industry itself, that gets blamed on “cultural invasion.”

But is this so-called invasion really coming from the West? Muslim Bangladesh is where sex workers went to the High Court to establish their right to work more than 10 years ago. In Malaysia, Muslim transgender girls defy the religious authorities who want them off the street. Islamists and others would have us believe religion is the only reason this kind of activism isn’t happening in Egypt. “Sex and the Citadel” sets out to debunk such fairytales.

Tunisia, in spite of Islamist mob violence, still has licensed brothels and legally registered sex workers. Lebanon is a trendsetter for the region’s gay activists. Morocco is now ahead of the curve in helping unwed mothers and their children stay together. El Feki, however, puts Egypt at the center of her sexual tour.

Raised in Canada by a Welsh mom and Egyptian dad, she’s a cosmopolitan enigma, dividing her time between Cairo and the Kensington district of London (“conveniently close to Heathrow”). When I caught up with her on Skype, during a hectic book tour, she spoke about the soft power associated with her father’s birthplace.

“If we could get a more open discussion around sexuality in Egyptian media, and get some of these themes into a few Ramadan soap operas, that would have huge impact,” she said. “Get something to work in Egypt, and you have a better chance transferring this to countries in the Gulf, like Qatar and UAE. Or even Jordan.”

Chapters on “summer marriage” (an Islam-approved way to profit from sex without breaking the law), modern hymen repair (a steady gig for doctors) and gender bending might make you feel like an armchair Orientalist. Hetero girls dressed as boys, with painted lips, drawing moustaches on their faces in ninth century Baghdad? These early Islamic hipsters, known as ghulamiyyat during the Abbasid caliphate, would confound the uptight Kuwaitis who six years ago passed a law against “imitating the opposite sex in any way.”

When Arab sexperts are compared, Ali ibn Nasr al-Katib, who wrote the “Encyclopedia of Pleasure” in the 11th century, sounds more modern than Heba Kotb, a 21st century sexologist with her own TV show. Ali’s “Encyclopedia” treats recreational sex as a female hobby, while Kotb, “the Arab world’s best known sex therapist,” sees it as female duty. She wants women to enjoy their duties, but is also “an implacable opponent of premarital sex.”


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