Talk of the "Arab Spring" now forms a clichéd part of pundit chatter in America, with plays on "Arab Winter" and "Arab Fall" depending on the politics of the speaker and the troubled country dissolving at the moment. But few talking heads know enough about Arab culture to tie the massive Mideast street actions we've seen to matters behind surface politics. And those background matters include the state of Arab marriage, the tension between so-called Western norms and Islamic pieties, and the suppressed sexuality among Arab youth who face financial and theological obstacles to fulfilling their desires.
Is it tasteless to mix somber stuff like political rebellion with sub-rosa lust and denial? Could be it's truthful rather than tasteless.
Thank you, then, Shereen El Feki—Cambridge-educated immunologist, former science writer for The Economist, current vice chair of the U.N.'s Global Commission on HIV and Law—for adventuring beyond the headlines in Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, forthcoming from Pantheon Books. It's a trenchant exploration of the uncertainties filling the humble abodes that Tahrir Square demonstrators go home to. A truthful book may not set you free when you've suffered under centuries of misguided interpretations of Islam and sex, but one prays that El Feki gets an Arabic edition.
In the West, her blunt examination of sex and its attendant practices and paraphernalia—topics include vibrators, Viagra, virginity codes, marital rape, and homophobia—would hardly raise an eyebrow. We Westerners live now in a Fifty Shades world, a publishing culture in which Naomi Wolf's Vagina gets reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review by former ballerina Toni Bentley—she of The Surrender (a title meant to evoke the offering of another body part)—and one hopes the kids aren't watching.