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.”
Meanwhile, the sex life of a desperate Cairo housewife (“We are like brother and sister”) resembles that of any unhappy secular couple in any American metropolis.
During a springtime visit to New York, El Feki addressed a packed room at the Museum of Sex. I was struck by her appearance—a soft pixie cut complementing a sleek featherweight Diane von Furstenberg jacket. The perfect look for a sex futurist. One of El Feki’s predictions, regarding female circumcision in Egypt, made me wince. A class division is developing around the clitoris, as wealthier families, urban parents and moms who graduate from high school are more likely to opt out of circumcising their daughters. If things go well for Egypt, we can expect that less than half the country’s 18-year-old girls will be circumcised by 2025. This trend, El Feki warns us, is “by no means assured, given the ascent of Egypt’s Islamists.” Unfortunately, the Muslim Brotherhood has recently been martyrized by the military, ensuring the growth of Islamist influence in young people’s lives.
She struck another nerve when she told us that LGBTQ activists in Arab countries “are not looking for the freedom to come out.”
What could be more important than coming out? “They want the freedom to stay in and live their lives behind closed doors and do as they choose,” El Feki said. “They are looking for privacy.”
Our fabulous pre-Enlightenment tradition of confession (sustained by Twitter, prolonged by Facebook) is at odds with Islam, the Quran and regional etiquette. To some, that’s further proof that Arab countries just need to be … liberated. To others, skeptical about American over-sharing, it’s a reminder that a Near Eastern sensibility has something to offer the West. Perhaps the future of sexual rights lies in freedom becoming more elegant and less exuberant.
Gay identity is less meaningful when your government doesn’t recognize individual identity. A queer activist, interviewed by El Feki, says: “I don’t have a record in the Lebanese government that’s Nadine as an individual. I’m in the record with my father.” Though it’s rare to hear Americans yearning for a more direct relationship with government, that’s exactly what Nadine wants—without her father as middleman.
In “Sex and the Citadel” and in conversation, El Feki says “patriarchy” a lot. This is not the vague “patriarchy” into which muddled feminists bundle an ill-articulated assortment of anti-male resentments. I am reminded of Mohamed Choukri, a controversial Moroccan novelist and former prostitute whose writing was censored for two decades. In 1999, he explained to an interviewer, “What annoys the conservatives is to see that I criticize my father. The father is sacred in Arab-Muslim society.”
El Feki explained that “For unmarried mothers, there’s a separate problem in the Arab world: Getting your kid registered with the state. There’s something very important called nasab, which is the child’s connection to the paternal line. If you can’t demonstrate that, in many countries, your kid does not get a birth certificate. Your kid does not have a right to go to school, the right to a passport, or to immunization.”
In March during the U.N.‘s 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, the Muslim Brotherhood condemned all efforts to grant “equal rights” to “illegitimate sons resulting from adulterous relationships.” If the Brotherhood sounds threatened here, it’s partly because of Morocco, where unmarried mothers are now able to register their infants at birth. Aicha Ech-Chenna, granddaughter of a religious scholar, who played a major role in these reforms, is quoted in El Feki’s book, recalling her grandfather’s words: “Never say ‘child of sin.’ ”
Before the Arab Spring, El Feki visited an Egyptian home for unwed moms. “The woman who runs that home was furious,” she said, “because they had all these kids and had no way to register them with the state. She told me, ‘We have a whole generation of kids the state does not recognize. When you disenfranchise a generation, how do you expect these kids to be loyal to Egypt?’ ”
“Sex and the Citadel,” in English, is available in a growing number of Arab countries, starting with Lebanon. The Indonesian edition—in the world’s largest Muslim country—is out next month.
Egypt, are you ready for an Arabic edition?