About the Book

About the Author

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 Book

If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.

As political change sweeps the streets and squares, parliaments and presidential palaces of the Arab world, Shereen El Feki has been looking at upheaval a little closer to home – in the sexual lives of men and women in Egypt and across the region. The result is an informative, insightful and engaging account of a highly sensitive, and still largely secret, aspect of Arab society.

Sex is entwined in religion and tradition, politics and economics, gender and generations, so it makes the perfect lens for examining the region’s complex social landscape. From pregnant virgins to desperate housewives, from fearless activists to religious firebrands, Sex and the Citadel takes a fresh look at the sexual history of the Arab region and gives us unique and timely insight into everyday lives in a part of the world that is changing in front of our very eyes.

About the Author

Shereen El Feki is a writer, broadcaster, and academic who started her professional life in medical science before going on to become an award-winning journalist with The Economist and a presenter with Al Jazeera English. She is former vice-chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law, as well as a TED Global Fellow. Shereen writes for a number of publications, among them the Huffington Post. With roots in Egypt and Wales, Shereen grew up in Canada; she now divides her time between London and Cairo.

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 (1935)

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 ‘ayn and ’ for hamza.

When I’m talking about Egypt, I’ve sometimes parted ways with IJMES, transliterating words to capture local pronunciation. So it’s ahwa instead of qahwa, 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 hegab, for instance. The same applies for plurals. Where words have crossed into English, I use s; otherwise, I have retained the original Arabic plural form. So that’s “fatwa” and “fatwas” (not fatawa); faqih and fuqaha’ (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 not only some of the region’s most entrenched regimes—in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen for starters—but also their floundering successors, 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.1 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.”2 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 al-Fatiha—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 (khawagayya, 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 nuna’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?

As I started to ask questions, I began to tumble into the gap between public appearance, as reflected in official statistics, and private reality. While many people were busy reassuring me that HIV was not, and could never be, the problem in the Arab world that it was elsewhere, I was meeting whole families who were infected and was hearing the increasingly urgent pleas of those working quietly to stop the epidemic in its tracks. The more I looked, the more I realized that the main wedge between appearance and reality was sex: a collective unwillingness to face up to any behavior that fell short of a marital ideal, a resistance buttressed by religious interpretation and social convention.

In broad strokes, this sexual climate looks a lot like the West on the brink of the sexual revolution. And many of the same underlying forces that drove change in Europe and America are present in the modern Arab world, if only in embryo: struggles toward democracy and personal rights; the rapid growth of cities and a growing strain on family structures, loosening community controls on private behavior; a huge population of young people whose influences and attitudes diverge from those of their parents; the changing role of women; the transformation of sex into a consumer good through economic expansion and liberalization. Add to that greater exposure to the sexual mores of other parts of the world brought about through media and migration. All of which raises the question: As political upheaval convulses the region, is a sexual shake-up next in line?

Because of their essential differences in history, religion, and culture, the West is no guide to how change will play out in the Arab world. Development is a journey, not a race, and different societies take different paths. Some destinations are, however, more desirable than others. I believe that a society that allows people to make their own choices and to realize their sexual potential, that provides them with the education, tools, and opportunities to do so, and that respects the rights of others in the process is a better place for it. I do not believe this is fundamentally incompatible with social values in the Arab world, which was once more open to the full spectrum of human sexuality and could be so again. Nor need this irremediably clash with the region’s dominant faith: it is through their interpretations of Islam that many Muslims are boxing themselves and their religion in.

This book is the story of those who are trying to break free: researchers who dare to probe the very heart of sexual life; scholars who are reinterpreting traditional texts that currently constrain choices; lawyers who are fighting for more equitable legislation; doctors who are trying to relieve the physical and psychological fallout; religious leaders who are brave enough to preach tolerance where they once talked of damnation; activists who are on the streets trying to make sex safe; writers and filmmakers who are challenging the limits of sexual expression; bloggers who are forging a new space for public debate. And it is also the story of those who oppose them; the shifting political landscape of the Arab region, after decades of stasis, is opening new opportunities for both.

It took more than a thousand days to assemble these stories, and, like One Thousand and One Nights, these tales lead into each other in often unexpected ways. In chapter 1 they help us to understand how sexual attitudes in the East and West have shifted over time. In chapter 2, they illuminate the trouble with marriage, in and out of the bedroom. In chapter 3 they show us the sexual minefield of youth, and in chapter 4, they point to ways of navigating safe passage through it with sex education, contraception, and abortion—and what to do when the trigger is pressed, as in the case of unwed motherhood. Chapter 5 examines the many shades of sex work in the region and the prospects for those involved. In chapter 6 we look at those who break the heterosexual mold and how they themselves see the way forward. Finally, chapter 7 takes a wide-angle view of the current state of affairs and considers how a fairer and more fulfilling sexual culture might develop in the coming decades. For all the predicaments these stories highlight, this isn’t another book about what’s wrong with the Arab region. It’s about what’s right: how people on the ground are solving their problems in ways that often look different from responses elsewhere in the world. This is not an academic tome, nor a slice of Arab exotica. It is, in the end, an album of snapshots from across the region taken by someone trying to better understand the region in order to better understand herself. Those looking for an encyclopedia, or a peep show, should search elsewhere.

So far, I have talked about the Arab world as a collective entity, as if one could generalize about twenty-two countries, three hundred seventy million people, three major religions, dozens of religious sects and ethnic groups. The term Middle East is even more of a geographical blender, mashing together not only the Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the eastern Mediterranean but also non-Arab Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and occasionally Pakistan thrown in for good measure. While there are essential similarities in sexual attitudes and behaviors across Arab countries, there are also important differences in how societies are—or are not—tackling these challenges. Such distinctions transcend sexuality and are clearly reflected in the different trajectories of political change prompted by the popular uprisings of this decade.

So from now on, specifics. This book is centered on Egypt, and in particular Cairo, whose population represents the length of the country and the breadth of a vast social spectrum. Personal history aside, Egypt is a natural focus because it is the most populous country in the Arab region, because of its strategic geopolitical importance, and because it retains formidable political, economic, social, and cultural influence across the region. When I started my journey, few in the area—outside of Egypt, that is—agreed with me. Pivot of the Arab world for centuries, almost sixty years of post–World War II military dictatorship had sorely diminished Egypt, while its neighbors rose in economic, political, and cultural prominence. Egypt had been written off as a lost cause, a country plagued by poverty, narrow-minded Islamism, crumbling infrastructure, cultural decline, rampant corruption, and political sclerosis. Or, as my taxi driver in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, put it, with devastating simplicity: “Egyptians, so egotistical. And for what?”

Egypt, they said, had lost the plot. But once its millions rose up against the regime, the same voices heralded it as a beacon of transformation across the region. Farther afield, protesters from Wall Street to Sydney have tried to bring Egypt’s uprising home. Since 2011, worldwide solidarity protests, the nervousness in Western capitals, the anxiety of Arab leaders, and continuous global media coverage have amply demonstrated that what happens in Egypt still matters, not just for its own citizens but for the rest of the world as well. Egypt has rediscovered its geopolitical mojo, and in the process it has gained a long-term opportunity to reshape its society, including its sexual culture—shifts that its neighbors will be watching closely.

On many of the tough issues of sexuality, models for change lie close to home. This is a question of pragmatism, not chauvinism. The Arab region is not alone in its sexual dilemmas; other parts of the world are grappling with many of the same problems. While substantial progress on issues of sexuality has been made elsewhere in the Global South, and there are impressive lessons to learn, it is only natural that Egyptians should more readily appreciate, and adopt, change when they see it in a more easily identifiable package. And so I have looked to Morocco and Tunisia in the west and to Lebanon in the east, which offer models for Egypt in dealing with at least some of its collective sexual problems. I have also traveled through countries in the Gulf—United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, among them. This region has considerable influence on Egyptians through media, money, and migration and has powerfully shaped (or warped, some would argue) Egypt’s social and sexual attitudes over the past half century. And you will hear voices from other parts of the Arab region whose situations shed light on Egypt’s state of affairs.

“Excuse me if I sometimes do no more than hint at the names of the heroes of my anecdotes, and do not mention them more explicitly…. It is enough for me to name only those whom naming does not harm, and whose mention brings no opprobrium either upon ourselves or them; either because the affair is so notorious that concealment and the avoidance of clear specification will do the party concerned no good, or for the simple reason that the person being reported on is quite content that his story should be made public, and by no means disapproves of it being bandied about.”3 This disclaimer comes from Ibn Hazm, a Muslim philosopher in Spain in the tenth and eleventh centuries, whose famous treatise, The Ring of the Dove, is a user’s guide to falling in, and out of, love. A millennium later, I have followed the same policy: if it’s first name only, then that name has been changed.

I was a scientist before I became a journalist, and this book reflects that training. Wherever possible, I have complemented personal stories with hard data; as vice-chair of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, a body established by the United Nations to advocate for legal reform, including laws regulating sexuality, around the world, I was given privileged access to both. Such information is difficult to come by in the Arab region because research on sexuality here is still scarce. Many pressing questions have yet to be addressed, and results have, as often as not, ended up in a locked drawer.

The goal of this book is to help change that, as part of what millions across the Arab world are hoping will be a new era of openness and intellectual freedom. To this end, Sex and the Citadel is accompanied by a website,, where you can find a wealth of additional facts, figures, and findings on the topics at hand, as indicated in the endnotes. I encourage readers not only to visit the site but also to contribute to it by posting related news, events, and research, in Arabic, English, or French. The site aims to be a clearinghouse for information on sexuality in the Arab region and, along with this book, a resource for all those who wish to understand the past, the present, and to collectively forge a better sexual future for coming generations. Sex and the Citadel is by no means the last word on sex in the Arab world, but it is an early step at a turning point in the region’s history, for others to take forward.

Cairo, Novemeber 2012


Shifting Positions

Whoever abandons his past is lost.

—My grandmother, on remembering where you came from

Every journey across Cairo is a moving lesson in history. I’m not talking about its ancient monuments or medieval souk, its colonial villas or twenty-first-century skyscrapers. Nor even the extraordinary fashion plate of its twenty million–plus inhabitants: men in turbans and galabiyas (traditional robes) alongside boys in well-worn jeans and trendy T-shirts; women in abayas and niqabs (long cloaks and face veils), cultural imports from the Gulf and signs of a time of rising religiosity, shoulder to shoulder with girls in the latest Western fashions and freely flowing hairstyles.

What I focus on when I jostle through the city—aside, that is, from the treacherous sidewalks and mile-high curbs—is street signs. Not just because getting lost in Cairo can cost you hours, but because these dark blue plaques, with their splashes of white calligraphy, say so much about the country’s past. In a single stroll downtown, you can pass under the Sixth of October Bridge, commemorating Egypt’s face-saving attack on Israel in the 1973 war, to the glory of the pharaohs on Ramses Street, before turning the corner onto Twenty-Sixth of July Street, marking the overthrow of Egypt’s last monarch. Then it’s back to the Napoleonic invasion along Champollion Street, named after the man who deciphered the Rosetta stone, before hurtling into Tahrir (Liberation) Square, a souvenir of Egypt’s 1952 revolution against British occupation and autocratic rule.

Tahrir is now doing overtime. In the winter of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians converged on this otherwise traffic-gnarled, pollution-saturated pedestrian death trap in the heart of Cairo, demanding nothing less than national transformation. Tahrir Square was the epicenter of Egypt’s popular revolt against the thirty-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. While the uprising spread far and fast throughout the country, it was Tahrir Square that caught the world’s attention, the experiences of millions of protesters televised, tweeted, and blogged in real time. Tahrir Square turned into an eighteen-day revolutionary reality show as protesters dug in, camped out, and fought back against their own Big Brother, the Mubarak regime. “We are one Egypt,” the people shouted, as decades of frustration with business as usual brought rich and poor, Muslims and Christians, men and women, parents and children, together in a single, focused front. The achievement of Tahrir Square wasn’t just its grand political movement but the tiny personal battles fought and won against the frictions wearing down Egyptian society: between religions, classes, sexes, and generations.

In the years to come, the success of Egypt’s uprising will, in large part, be judged by how these millions of miniature victories are transplanted from the hothouse of Tahrir Square to the cold realities of everyday life. This is true of the rest of the Arab region as well, where nations are working their way through the political upheaval that began this decade. To fully appreciate whatever flowering may follow, we need to know the ground on which these gains take root. And one of the rockiest places to look is sexual life.

In today’s Arab world, the only widely accepted, socially acknowledged context for sex is state-registered, family-approved, religiously sanctioned matrimony. Anything else is ‘ayb (shameful), illit adab (impolite), haram (forbidden)—a seemingly endless lexicon of reproof. That vast segments of the population in most countries in the region are having a hard time fitting this mold—young people who can’t afford to marry, career women who don’t conform to gender expectations, men and women who engage in same-sex relations, those who sell sex to make ends meet—is increasingly recognized, but there is widespread resistance to any alternative. Even within the marriage bed, sex is something to do, not to discuss. Such collective unease with sex makes tackling the fallout—including violence, infection, exploitation, dysfunction, conjugal dissatisfaction, and profound ignorance—all the more difficult. “In the Arab world, sex is the opposite of sport,” one Egyptian gynecologist explained to me. “Everyone talks about football, but hardly anyone plays it. But sex—everyone is doing it, but nobody wants to talk about it.”

Growing up in the Arab region, you are taught to steer clear of the “red lines”: taboos around politics, religion, and sex that are not to be challenged in word or deed. But these lines are not isolated strokes. They flow and mingle like calligraphy; if you efface some of the script, the meaning of the rest changes. The “Arab Awakening,” that began this decade took a chisel to the red line of politics and started the long process of chipping away at received wisdoms: that the people of the Arab region are, by their religion, culture, and tradition, ill suited to democracy; that they would never challenge authority; that their fear of instability trumps their desire for change and its attendant uncertainties; that they cannot handle freedom. Now that those fetters are breaking, it is only natural to ask if other taboos will follow.

Since the uprising, Cairo has become a vast billboard for human rights. “Freedom,” “justice,” and “dignity” are just a few of the catchwords in the graffiti wallpapering the city. But extending these same rights—as well as equality, privacy, autonomy, and integrity—to the sexual lives of all citizens is another matter entirely. In practical terms, “sexual rights” means the freedom to access sexual and reproductive health services and to generate, share, and consume ideas and information about sexuality. It is the right to choose your own partner and to be sexually active, or not, in consensual relations. It is the freedom to decide whether you want to have children, and when; it is the right to control your own body and the liberty to pursue a satisfying, safe, and pleasurable sexual life. And all this without coercion, discrimination, or violence—a tall order anywhere in the world.1

Sexual rights are integral human rights; they are not some lesser set of entitlements that you can take or leave and still claim to respect another’s freedom and humanity. The exercise of “sexual citizenship”—the power to make one’s own decisions and demand accountability from those in authority, irrespective of color, class, creed, gender, or sexual orientation—is more than a reflection of a democratic system. It is a means of building one, by anchoring these principles at the core of human existence, where they can, in turn, shape attitudes and actions in the other domains.

But “sexual rights” are a minefield in the Arab world; for many people, they are shorthand for a Western social agenda, meaning homosexuality, free love, prostitution, pornography, and the slippery slope toward undermining Islam and “traditional” Arab values. Such differences are reflected in World Values Surveys, which gauge attitudes on a wide range of issues in more than ninety countries. When two American academics, Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, looked at the results from surveys conducted from 1995 to 2001, they found that the greatest difference of opinion between the Islamic countries polled (which included Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt) and the West (North America, Australasia, and Western Europe) was over not democratic values but rather gender roles and sexuality—the acceptability of abortion, divorce, and homosexuality, for example. There has been little change in these positions in subsequent waves of World Values Surveys.2 As the authors concluded, “The cultural gulf separating Islam from the West involves Eros far more than Demos.”3


Sex has long been a divide between the Arab world and the West. Today, the former seems busy denying the flesh, while the latter appears content to let it all hang out. What is often overlooked in these mutual recriminations, however, is that such positions are fluid; at other times in history, East and West traded places.4 Two journeys made in the first half of the nineteenth century—one by a Frenchman, the other by an Egyptian—illustrate this shift.

In 1849, Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary and other classics, traveled the length of Egypt, from Alexandria south to Wadi Halfa in Sudan. Aside from Luxor’s ancient ruins, Flaubert wasn’t much impressed by monuments. (“Egyptian temples bore me profoundly,” he recorded in his diary in March 1850.)5 Nor was he particularly interested in his official mission: to collect information for France’s Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. (“Near me, about ten millimeters away, are my ministerial instructions, which seem to be waiting impatiently for the day I’ll use them as toilet paper,” he wrote to a friend back in France.)6

For a man of Flaubert’s romantic tendencies and wide appetites, commercial fact-finding was an unsatisfactory occupation. What really interested the budding author was people at their earthiest and most intimate. Luckily for Flaubert, Egypt gave him a “bellyful of colors” in this respect.7 But it was another part of his anatomy that did most of the touring. Fresh off the boat, Flaubert spent a night in a brothel with Turkish prostitutes whose “shaved cunts make a strange effect—the flesh is as hard as bronze, and my girl had a splendid arse,” as he reported home.8

Flaubert proceeded to fuck his way up the Nile. He wrote at length of the prostitutes in the southern village of Esna, and especially of his time with Kuchuk Hanem, “a tall, splendid creature, lighter in coloring than an Arab … her skin, particularly on her body, is slightly coffee-colored. When she bends, her flesh ripples into bronze ridges. Her eyes are dark and enormous … heavy shoulders, full, apple-shaped breasts.”9 Flaubert’s visit to Hanem’s house of pleasure featured music and striptease (a bare-all version of a traditional Egyptian dance called the bee) in addition to the business at hand: “I went down with Safia Zoughairah [one of Hanem’s colleagues]. She is very corrupt, writhing, full of pleasure, a little tigress. I stain the divan. [And then] the second bout with Kuchuk. I felt her necklace between my teeth as I clasped her shoulders. Her cunt corrupted me like rolls of velvet. I felt ferocious.”10

When Flaubert wasn’t having sex, he was observing it at almost every turn. Cairo’s bawdy street life caught his imagination: skits about whores and buggering donkeys; children playing, the girls “making imitation fart sounds with their hands”; a boy pimping his mother (“If you’ll give me five paras,fn1 I’ll bring you my mother to fuck. I wish you all kinds of prosperity, especially a long prick”).11 In addition to the common round of mosques and pyramids, Flaubert did some unusual sightseeing. In Kasr al-Ainy Hospital, where my own family still practices medicine, he toured the syphilis ward; on cue from the doctor, the male patients “stood up on their beds, undid their trouser belts (it was like army drill), and opened their anuses with their fingers to show their chancres.”12

Not that this deterred Flaubert from same-sex adventures. As he wrote to a friend: “Here it is quite accepted. One admits one’s sodomy, and it is spoken of at table in the hotel. Sometimes you do a bit of denying, and then everybody teases you and you end up confessing. Travelling as we are for educational purposes, and charged with a mission by the government, we have considered it our duty to indulge in this form of ejaculation. So far the occasion has not presented itself. We continue to seek it, however.”13 Flaubert’s research included taking in a performance of Cairo’s male prostitute-dancers (“charming in their corruption, in their obscene leerings and the femininity of their movements, dressed as women, their eyes painted with antimony”) and an interesting time at the hammam, where the masseur “lifted up my boules d’amour to clean them, then continuing to rub my chest with his left hand he began to pull with his right on my prick, and as he drew it up and down he leaned over my shoulder and said ‘baksheesh, baksheesh,’ ”fn2 an opportunity Flaubert declined because the man wasn’t young or handsome enough for his tastes.14

Today, Flaubert and other nineteenth-century commentators on Arab sexual culture rank high on the Orientalist hit list. Orientalism, once a neutral term used to describe the study of the Arab region and parts farther east, became something of an insult after Edward Said published his book of the same title in the late 1970s. In it, he took generations of Western scholars to task for projecting the Arab region through their own prism of racial and religious prejudices and political interests, making Orientalism “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”15 The result, according to Said, was the transformation of the Orient into a “living tableau of queerness,” including its sexual mores, thereby asserting Western superiority and justifying Western hegemony over the region and its peoples. Said was particularly critical of Western commentators and their sexed-up accounts of Arab life, cruising the colonies for kicks they could not get in the straitlaced climate of home.

While Flaubert and his contemporaries found much to applaud in the apparent sexual ease of the East, some Arab visitors admired aspects of Europe’s sexual culture for the opposite reason. In 1826, Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi, an Egyptian imam, arrived in Paris for the start of a five-year stay, part of a forty-strong delegation of Egyptian students sent to learn the language and pick up other useful knowledge. Al-Tahtawi was one of the more apt pupils, an accomplished writer and translator who would later be a leading light in educational reform back home. His record of this state-sponsored junket is part insightful observation, part Idiot’s Guide to Europe. Al-Tahtawi was enormously curious and wrote about everything from politics to restaurants, gala balls to slaughterhouses. There were aspects of French character he applauded (punctuality, honesty, and gratitude) and those he disdained (indulgence in personal pleasures, as well as a greater faith in philosophers than in prophets).

Al-Tahtawi generally took a dim view of relations between men and women in his home away from home. “Among French women there are those with great virtue and others who display quite the contrary. The latter are in the majority since the hearts of most people in France, whether male or female, are in thrall to the art of love.”16 Nor was he particularly impressed by their stand on premarital relations, which they considered “part of the [human] faults and vices rather than a mortal sin.”17 Nonetheless, al-Tahtawi seemed to have a soft spot for the ladies, those “paragons of beauty and charm,” and pinned much of the blame for their failings on the weakness of their men, who, in his opinion, gave them too much sway.18

While their relations with women might be questionable, al-Tahtawi had nothing but praise for Frenchmen’s strong stand on interactions with one another. “They do not have any propensity towards the love of boys or the celebration of its pursuit. This is a lost sentiment among them and one that is rejected by their nature and morals. Among the good qualities of their language and poetry is that they refuse to extol homosexual love. Indeed, in French it is highly inappropriate for a man to say, ‘I fell in love with a boy.’ This would be considered repugnant and troublesome.”19

Al-Tahtawi went on at length about French zero tolerance on this point. “The French consider homosexuality to be one of the most disgusting obscenities. As a result, they only very rarely mention it in their books, and when they do it is always in veiled terms. One will never hear people talking about this.”20 In his account, al-Tahtawi noted that the French aversion to homosexuality was the “one [thing] they truly have in common with the Arabs.”21 This is something of a whitewash, though, given how well documented same-sex relations were in nineteenth-century Cairo, not just by curious foreigners like Flaubert, but by local chroniclers as well.22

What’s interesting, in this ebb and flow of history, is how stereotypes have changed. The Arab world, once famous in the West for sexual license, envied by some but despised by others, is now widely criticized for sexual intolerance. It’s not just Western liberals who hold this view. It has also become a keynote in some of the “Islamophobic” discourse of conservatives in America and Europe, the self-proclaimed last stand in the battle between “Western” values and the depredations of “radical” Islam, particularly as they relate to the rights of women.23 And the West, once praised by some in the Arab world for its hard line on same-sex relations, is now seen by many as a radiating source of sexual debauchery from which the region must be shielded. Perceptions, however flawed, are shaped by position. Western views of Arab sexuality, and vice versa, have shifted in part because attitudes within their respective societies have also changed.

What happened in the Western world is common knowledge. I am too young to have lived through the sexual revolution, but I understand how dramatic a break it was from the past through stories of my mother’s youth. When she was growing up in the 1930s to ’50s in rural Wales, sex was never discussed, but everyone knew that good girls waited until marriage. In an age before the Pill, in which contraception was hit-or-miss and abortion illegal and complicated to procure, this was as much a question of practicality as morality. When my mother was a teenager, contact with young men was strictly supervised, curfews were rigorously enforced, and chaperones were in full force at village dances. Homosexuality was a deep, dark secret and my mother, who was once propositioned by a female teacher, was all the more stunned because she had never heard of such behavior.24

My Egyptian friends under forty are astonished by this history. Having been brought up on American movies, then music videos, and now the Internet—all post–sexual revolution—they simply cannot believe that Western society was once as conservative about sexual matters as theirs is now. The parallels are striking; taboos against premarital sex, masturbation, homosexuality, unwed motherhood, abortion, and a culture of censorship and silence, preached by religion and enforced by social convention, are as strong in today’s Arab world as they were in my mother’s youth.

But they are equally surprised when I tell them stories from my father’s youth in Cairo of the 1930s to ’50s or regale them with my Egyptian grandmother’s riper sayings—anecdotes and proverbs that weave through this book and reflect sexual attitudes and antics not far off Flaubert’s descriptions, however much anti-Orientalists might protest. “What is fascinating is that our Arab ancestors were not like us, and their attitude about sex was one full of freedom and openness,” wrote Salah al-Din al-Munajjid, one of the first modern Arab historians to take a good look at the region’s sexual heritage, comparing even my father’s day to ages past. “They were never embarrassed when speaking about women and about sex or when writing about them. I believe that this great freedom of theirs is the cause of this strictness we find today.”25


What accounts for this reaction? How did the Arab world get itself into such a twist over sex? In search of answers, I went to see the man who quite literally wrote the book on the subject. Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, a Tunisian sociologist, is best known for his 1975 work, Sexuality in Islam. There had certainly been books on the subject before, and there have been plenty since, but Bouhdiba’s work is arguably the most popular, translated into more than half a dozen languages.

Through his reading of the Qur’an and hadiths—accounts of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad—and other sources, Bouhdiba argued that matters of the flesh in general and sexuality in particular are not just compatible with Islam but essential elements of faith. “The exercise of sexuality was a prayer, a gift of oneself, an act of charity,” he wrote. “To rediscover the meaning of sexuality is to rediscover the meaning of God, and conversely.”26 But somewhere along the line, Arabs lost this spiritual dimension: “This open sexuality, practised in joy with a view to the fulfillment of being, gradually gave way to a close, morose, repressed sexuality…. Furtive, secretive, hypocritical behavior assumed an ever more exorbitant place…. All freshness, all spontaneity were eventually crushed as if by some steamroller.”27 To get back on track—politically, socially, economically, and spiritually, as well as sexually—Bouhdiba reckons a dramatic rethink is in order: “To emerge from this malaise we must at all costs rediscover the sense of sexuality, that is to say, the sense of the dialogue with the other partner, and the sense of the faith, that is to say, the sense of the dialogue with God…. For sexuality properly performed is tantamount to freedom assumed.”28

In his brown corduroy trousers and houndstooth jacket, with a neatly knotted tie and clipped grizzled hair, Bouhdiba doesn’t come across as a sexual radical. He looks and sounds, with his carefully chosen words and thoughtful pauses, more like a university professor—which is exactly what he was before he retired. “I am not a man of provocation…. My style is restrained, a style in which I say shocking things, but with a lot of discretion,” he told me. It has proved a successful formula: Sexuality in Islam was well received, even in the Arab region. For all the book’s academic acclaim, Bouhdiba’s most gratifying review came from an unexpected quarter. “I was at Djerba [in southern Tunisia],” he recalled, “waiting to leave for Tripoli [in Libya] by boat. Someone said, ‘Bouhdiba? Author of Sexuality in Islam?’ and began to embrace me. He was a professor at the University of Sarajevo. He said he had translated my book by candlelight, with a rifle in one hand and a pen in the other. He sold two thousand copies in fifteen days. He said, ‘I found two things in the book: pride in our belonging to an open religion and a joie de vivre—two things we badly need today.’ ”

As Bouhdiba points out, both were in ample supply during the Abbasid Empire, whose golden age lasted from the eighth to the tenth centuries and whose power once stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean to the borders of India. Baghdad, its capital, saw a flourishing of Arab thought and culture the likes of which the region has yet to see again. The city was home to Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom), a famous library, and its scholars helped to rescue the classics of Greek and Persian thought from oblivion. The giants of mathematics, medicine, astronomy, chemistry, and engineering of the age provided broad shoulders on which subsequent generations would stand. The Abbasid period was a time of lively religious debate, when several of the main schools of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), the foundation stones of law in the Arab world, were established and when independent religious interpretation (ijtihad) flourished. The arts blossomed—including works of a highly sexual nature.

There is a long and distinguished history of Arabic writing on sex—literature, poetry, medical treatises, self-help manuals—which has slipped out of sight in much of the Arab world. Many of these great works were by religious figures who saw nothing incompatible between faith and sex. Indeed, it behooved these men of learning to have as full a knowledge of sexual practices and problems as they did of the intricacies of Islam. There is nothing academic about their writing: with surprising frankness, and often disarming humor, these works cover almost every sexual subject, and then some. There is precious little in , or any other taboo-busting work of the sexual revolution and beyond that this literature didn’t touch on over a millennium ago.