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Sex and the Citadel
Cover of Sex and the Citadel
Sex and the Citadel
Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World
Borrow Borrow

**Kirkus Best Books of the Year (2013)**
If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.
 
As political change sweeps the streets and squares, the parliaments and presidential palaces of the Arab world, Shereen El Feki has been looking at an 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, tradition, politics, economics, and culture, so it is the perfect lens through which to examine the complex social landscape of the Arab world. From pregnant virgins to desperate housewives, from fearless activists to religious firebrands, from sex work to same-sex relations, Sex and the Citadel takes a fresh look at the sexual history of the region and brings new voices to the debate over its future.
 
This is no peep show or academic treatise but a highly personal and often humorous account of one woman’s journey to better understand Arab society at its most intimate and, in the process, to better understand her own origins. Rich with five years of groundbreaking research, Sex and the Citadel gives us a unique and timely understanding of everyday lives in a part of the world that is changing before our eyes.

**Kirkus Best Books of the Year (2013)**
If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.
 
As political change sweeps the streets and squares, the parliaments and presidential palaces of the Arab world, Shereen El Feki has been looking at an 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, tradition, politics, economics, and culture, so it is the perfect lens through which to examine the complex social landscape of the Arab world. From pregnant virgins to desperate housewives, from fearless activists to religious firebrands, from sex work to same-sex relations, Sex and the Citadel takes a fresh look at the sexual history of the region and brings new voices to the debate over its future.
 
This is no peep show or academic treatise but a highly personal and often humorous account of one woman’s journey to better understand Arab society at its most intimate and, in the process, to better understand her own origins. Rich with five years of groundbreaking research, Sex and the Citadel gives us a unique and timely understanding of everyday lives in a part of the world that is changing before our eyes.

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Excerpts-
  • Introduction

    Introduction
    “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 some of the region’s most entrenched regimes—in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen for starters—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. 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.” 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...

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 for The Economist and a presenter at Al Jazeera English. She is former vice-chair of the U.N.’s Global Commission on HIV and Law, and a TED Global Fellow. She divides her time between London and Cairo.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 26, 2012
    "When it comes to sexuality," El Feki writes, "the Arab world can seem like a citadel." For her assault upon that fortress, she mobilizes medical expertise, reportorial skills, and personal experience as a Cairo-based journalist (currently vice-chair of the U.N.'s Global Commission on HIV and Law) and the daughter of an Egyptian father. It's all here: matchmaking, diverse forms of marriage ("official," "unofficial," "summer"), anal sex, oral sex, sexual positions, sexual dysfunction, impotence, infertility, domestic violence, virginity (testing, proving, losing, restoring), female genital mutilation, abortion, illegitimacy, sex education, prostitution, "legal sex work," and LGBT issues. In linking young Middle Easterners making "rebellion against the head of state and openly defying the heads of their families," she makes a case for "sexuality a mirror of the conditions that led to uprisings." "Not an academic tome, nor a slice of Arab exotica," El Feki warns, as she dips into history (Flaubert's travels, al-Katib's thousand-year-old Encyclopedia of Pleasure), talks with diverse contemporaries (beauty parlor owner, female genital mutilation practitioner, herbalist, sex therapist, lawyer, talk show host), and bits of family history. Though El Feki's breadth and detail is wearying, she delivers a clear wakeup call: "The Arab region began this decade with a political big bang; how that will shape, and in turn be shaped by, sexual life is an open question." Agent: Toby Eady, Toby Eady Associates, U.K.

  • Library Journal

    May 1, 2014

    From the subtly provocative cover to the fascinating (yet respectful) content, this survey of changing attitudes toward sex in Egypt and other Muslim countries is groundbreaking and indispensable.

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal "El Feki has spent four years investigating an intriguing and potentially explosive subject: changing sexual attitudes and behavior in the Arab world. . . . A thoughtful study not to be treated as titillation."
  • Publishers Weekly "A clear wakeup call."
  • Booklist, starred review "El Feki, with familial roots deep in Egypt, delves into a sensitive, rarely addressed topic in this tour de force on Arab life. . . . Mandatory reading for anyone seeking to truly know the Middle East, Sex and the Citadel should knock the doors off assumptions held dear by so many Westerners."
  • Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth "Shereen El Feki has done something important, brave, and necessary. By investigating what sexual experiences and values are in the Arab world, rather than projecting views on them ideologically, she insists on our taking seriously and urgently major social issues--from cliterodectomy to adultery in a traditional context to passion itself--that are shrouded in myth, taboo, and disinformation. She has done a major service to those who care about feminism in this region, about human rights, about sexuality, and about the human condition."
  • Tewodros Melesse, director-general, International Planned Parenthood Federation "Sex and the Citadel captures the vibrancy of contemporary issues being faced by those living in Muslim societies today. El Feki brings to life the hopes, fears, and challenges of a wide range of individuals as they deal with sex, love, and relationships. There is much here to learn for both Muslims and non-Muslims. This book explores how views on contemporary life vary across different Muslim communities."
  • Kirkus Reviews, starred review "A daring new study. El Feki embarks on her subject with healthy doses of humor and irony. She looks at the tensions between what is halal (permitted under Islamic law) and haram (forbidden) or zina (downright debauchery). She also discusses sex education, abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and even lingerie and cross-dressing. A surprisingly open, extremely timely examination of the sexual coming-of-age for Egyptian youth."
  • Pinar Ilkkaracan, co-founder, Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR), and the International Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR) "An engrossing book with a powerful interrogation of intimate relationships and politics in Egypt. Sex and the Citadel brilliantly explores the complex conjunction between contemporary history and personal lives."
  • The Independent "This survey of sexual habits across the Arab world is as serious-minded as it is entertaining."
  • The Sunday Telegraph "A cogent account of sexual liberty in the Arab world."
  • Daily Star Lebanon "Sex and the Citadel is a fascinating exploration of sexual culture, based on a well-balanced mixture of history, statistical information gleaned from the few surveys conducted by various NGOs, and first-hand interviews, which in many cases show that the official studies have barely scratched the surface."
  • Times Higher Education Supplement, Book of the Week "This is a principled book, robustly educative and illuminating without consenting to the kind of vacant voyeurism that the intimate life veiled by Islam can provoke in unthinking outsiders."
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education "Combining thorough reportage and sure-handed critical views, El Feki excels at sketching primary themes in images that stick...a supremely eye-opening book."
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