In her new work of literary journalism, “Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World,” (Anchor Books, Jan. 2014) Shereen El Feki tackles the hotbed topic of sexuality in the Middle East, specifically Egypt. El Feki is herself a product of both east and west, born to a Canadian mother and an Egyptian father. While this dual origin isn’t wholly responsible for the mastery of her book, it did undoubtedly provide her with a firm grounding from which to convey the complexities of Arab society to Westerners.
However, if El Feki’s book was about mere cultural translation, it would fail to stand out. She doesn’t settle for simply illuminating the complexities of gender and sex relations in the Islamic world to readers; she chooses also to challenge preconceptions and assumptions. She invites the reader to critically consider Arab culture, especially in places it parallels the culture of the West, like the expectation for people to be inherently heterosexual or the institutionalized persecution of sex workers. She also takes the opportunity to illustrate to Westerners places where Arab culture is more sexually liberal (they do exist) and to point out to us where our discomfort with their differences might stem from our own biases, rather than abstract moral truths which we convince ourselves we uphold through our actions. This was especially apparent in her writing about “gay rights” a struggle the West has embraced which the East pushes back against for reasons other than intolerance. El Feki doesn’t seek to merely inform; she seeks to reveal truths about humanity and our natures, and through that revelation, to inspire a cultural revolution more enduring than the events of the Arab Spring.
One especially enjoyable aspect of the text is the transitions between chapters. Each flows into the next with a deliberate grace, clearly inviting the reader to turn the next page and continue on their voyage into the (at times taboo) land of sex with El Feki as their guide. Her voice never judges or condemns, but always uplifts, supports, and affirms both her subjects and her reader. Our questions are her questions; our concerns are her concerns, and on each page she does them justice.
El Feki was always interested in sex from a medical standpoint, especially during her time as a health and science writer for The Economist, where her inquiry into the HIV epidemic provided a natural lens through which to analyze a part of the world which was important to her both politically and personally. She chooses her anecdotes with precision and at times even humor, such as her opening scene, in which she tries to explain the purpose of a vibrator to a room full of repressed Muslim wives. The extensive amount of information she has collected via observation and interview reveal that the five years she spent writing the text were not idle ones. One only hopes that five years from now, the vision of an equal and open world El Feki holds in her mind is closer to realization than it is today.
Hippocampus Rating: 5/5
Who would enjoy this book? All those who hope for such a world, particularly those readers interested in gender relations, foreign cultures, Islam, or the study of journalism, in which El Feki’s methods would provide excellent instruction.