In Arabian nights

Sexuality in the Arab World
Edited by Samir Khalaf and John Gagnon 
Saqi Books, 312pp, £35
ISBN 086356948X

Available from or

Reviewed by Brian Whitaker
New Statesman, 20 November 2006

Other people’s sex lives have always been a source of fascination, and nowhere more so than in the Middle East, where early travellers brought back tales that shocked and titillated Victorian England. Later, in the 1920s, Rudolph Valentino brought the first of many oversexed sheikhs to the cinema screen, and now we have the ubiquitous image of Muslim women: repressed, submissive and silent.

Popular though these exotic stereotypes may be, they shed little light on the reality in the Middle East today - a reality further obscured by taboos that make Arabs reluctant to discuss sex in public. This is the situation that “Sexuality in the Arab World” sets out to redress. Its approach is academic, as would be expected from a collection of essays based around a conference held at the American University of Beirut, and its professorial style might deter some readers, but it makes up for that in the originality of its content.

One ground-breaking chapter considers the live-in maids (typically from Sri Lanka or the Philippines) who form an essential but socially invisible presence in better-off Lebanese households. With little or no privacy and even less opportunity to develop sexual relationships, many are consigned to sleeping on balconies or kitchen floors. Often they are regarded as asexual beings, though in some households they are viewed as a potential temptation for husbands and teenage sons.

Such glimpses into everyday Arab life may be interesting in themselves but they are more than just a matter for idle curiosity, as the book indicates in a quotation on its opening page: “As sexuality goes, so does society. Equally, as society goes, so goes sexuality”. That is the nub. Attitudes to sexuality reflect the state of society and society, in turn, is intimately linked to politics. It’s no good complaining about religious extremism, the lack of democracy and so on, unless we understand the society that fosters them. Political reform requires social change, too.

One hopeful sign from the book is that there are pockets, at least, where change is already happening. More widely, traditionalist attitudes are coming under pressure from globalisation and the challenges of modernity - including foreign travel, satellite TV and the internet.

The ensuing tug-of-war takes many forms. It can be seen in Tunisia, where the book describes young women torn between two competing visions of feminine beauty: the svelte “western” look popular among students and the plump “voluptuousness” favoured by their families. For some, this results in a constant struggle to lose or gain weight as they alternate between home and university, risking their health in the name of social acceptability.

Given the book’s origins, it is inevitable that much of the authors’ research focuses on Beirut. In some ways this is fortunate because the Lebanese capital is not only a key interface between east and west but also, for a variety of reasons, the place where contending views of sexuality in the Arab world are most apparent. 

Beirut is surely the only Arab city where university students can be persuaded to talk frankly in their classroom about sex. Their views, documented in Roseanne Khalaf’s essay, range from traditional insistence on chastity before marriage to approval of sexual experimentation and “the freedom to choose same sex partners”. In between these extremes, there’s a student whose parents allow relationships “as long as no sex is involved”. The parental definition of “sex”, in this case, includes hugging and kissing.

The wildly divergent attitudes in Beirut are epitomised by two female students - a shy Druze whose face is masked by a white veil and a daring postmodernist with piercings in her tongue. For both women, Khalaf notes, these highly visible statements of lifestyle became an impediment to expressing their views, since the rest of the class could barely understand what they said.

In one of two chapters about homosexuality, Sofian Merabet explores the creation of “queer space” in Beirut - a half-private, half-public world of illicit encounters which the authorities generally prefer not to notice, despite a Lebanese law forbidding “all unnatural intercourse”. Though Merabet does not make a connection, there are striking similarities here with pre-legalisation Britain, as described in Matt Houlbrook’s recent book, “Queer London”.

Another chapter, by Jared McCormick, examines Beirut’s embryonic gay community and the growth of Helem, the first gay and lesbian rights organisation to function openly in an Arab country. A “gay identity” is clearly emerging in Lebanon, but there are questions as to how much of it has been borrowed from the west. In this, as elsewhere in Arabs’ changing perceptions of their sexuality, the internet seems to be playing a major role.