Sex in the Middle East

by garrycraigpowell

This is Nizwa, one of my favourite towns in the Middle East, an Arabian Nights city that is still reputed to be full of wizards and witchcraft. (This picture is on the back cover of Stoning the Devil, which is at the printer’s and will be published on Monday.) Thinking about this place reminded me of an incident that befell me and my then-wife there, some ten years ago. We had been up in the mountains of Jebel Al Akhdar, and our brakes had failed. I’d managed to pull the car off the road safely, but we were miles from the nearest town. We flagged down a car, and the driver brought us into Nizwa, where I arranged for a tow-truck to fetch the car. I went back up the mountain with the driver to locate the truck while the young man who had given us the lift took my wife to a “hotel” to wait for me. Looking back, it was perhaps a foolish thing to do. As she waited in the lobby she noticed young women coming in and out after very short stays in the bedrooms, and it became apparent that the place was a brothel. Luckily, nobody bothered her while I was away, although she was very young, very attractive, and a foreigner to boot. What’s more, we stayed in another “hotel” in Oman which clearly also had at least the ancillary function of brothel. In fact many of the hotels in the Middle East–and elsewhere, I realize–provide other “services” for men. In the cheaper hotels, the skin trade tends to be more openly engaged in; in the luxury hotels of Dubai, you’re likely to find more discreet call-girls. My purpose here is not so much to reflect on the hypocrisy of a society that claims to be virtuous, but isn’t, in which the social condemnation of sex outside marriage leads inevitably to prostitution–we all know about that, because the West was like that until fifty years ago too. Instead I’d like to consider sex in the Middle East in general, as far as I understand it.

I’ve just had an interesting experience. I had to re-read Stoning the Devil to correct the proofs as they were on the way to the printer’s, and I realized, somewhat tardily, that almost every chapter is about sex. Even in the ones in which sex is not an overt theme, there’s an undercurrent of sex. What’s more, I realized, not exactly to my horror but to my surprise, almost all the sex is rather nasty: it’s abusive, obsessive, forbidden or unhealthy in some way. (If it surprises you that I was so unaware of the character of the book I had written, bear in mind that when an author finishes a book, it’s nearly impossible for him or her to judge it objectively. You’ve been so close to the material, for so long, that all you see are the details. At any rate, it was only re-reading it, so long after completing the writing, that I understood that sex, and particularly sex as an expression of power, dominance, and objectification of women, was really the dominant theme of the book.) I must admit too that I felt slightly defensive on realizing this: what if my readers thought that I was like my characters, particularly the male ones? What if they thought I was some moral degenerate who relished this horrible sex? But of course I hadn’t been writing with pornographic aims. Though the sex in the book is sometimes graphic, it’s never pornographic; its purpose is never to arouse. I often tell my students that there should be more sex in their stories, that sex is a vital part of human behaviour, and one of the best ways of expressing character, and power relationships. And I hope that this is what I did in my book. I’d like to think that the sex helps the reader understand each character, and that the nature of the sex is nothing more than an expression of the unhealthy relationships that prevail in the Middle East, not only between Arab men and women, but also expat men and women, and indeed same-sex couples too. The more I think about it, the more I understand that my subconscious purpose in writing the book was to show how patriarchal values, along with rigid religious public morals and a hyper-materialistic way of life, are bound to pervert human beings’ natural drives to love and healthy sex lives.

This isn’t to affirm that all sex in the Middle East is unhealthy, obviously, or to suggest that it’s far worse than in the West. Indeed, Islam has a healthier view of sex than Christianity. It’s not regarded as sinful, a priori, as it is in Christianity, and women are not seen as the vessels of sin and temptation, as they are in Christianity, or Judaism for that matter. In fact, considering when Mohammed had his revelations, in the early seventh century, the views expressed about women were remarkably enlightened, certainly more so than those expressed in the Bible (both testaments.) The repression women have undergone in the Middle East has been caused more by the patriarchal nature of Arab society, though men have manipulated, distorted and perverted the teachings of Mohammed for their own benefit. (Again, it’s not hard to see parallels with Christianity and Judaism.) The upshot of this is that unlike Victorian wives, say, sex is not unmentionable to a modern Muslim woman, and married women feel that they have the right to be sexually satisfied by their husbands. I spoke to married women–mostly students–who were remarkably frank about this. Still, I think, as does my friend Naomi Shihab Nye, that women suffer doubly in the Middle East, because they are oppressed not only by their governments, but also by their fathers and husbands, on the whole.

Of course things are changing. As women have access to the internet, with smart phones, Facebook and the like, and drive their own cars (which in most Arab countries, they can do), they are able to find lovers if their husbands treat them badly. Their veils are not so much the terrible imposition that western women think, but enable them to travel incognito and lead their lives as they wish. Women are taking power for themselves, by any means possible: open rebellion, manipulation, slyness and deception–all is fair in love and war, as the proverb says. And again, this is a major theme in Stoning the Devil.

Sex and sexual strife are the engines of the plot; but what emerges is a panorama of women struggling to be free.