Thursday, May 1, 2008

Timeline of sex in books.

So, on Monday morning, I read this article on Alaa al Aswany. The article is lovely, in my humble opinion, so naturally I went out and purchased the book (image left, buy it on Amazon here). The article led me to believe that I was in for some sophisticated cultural commentary, and there was certainly some of that. However, there were so many mentions of heavy breathing and breasts that I was, frankly, embarrassed to read it on the subway. Ok, I thought, let's not confuse breaking taboos with sophisticated cultural commentary! Al Aswany's English teacher clearly did not emphasize showing over telling, so subtlety is not at a premium and this, for me, meant that I was not getting a narrative of individual experiences but rather al Aswany's op-ed on the problems in Egypt in puppetshow form. Almost everyone in the book seems to have sexual conquest as their primary motivation (or a slight reconfiguration, i.e. avenging sexual humiliation), with the exception of the one prominent female, who appears to have avoiding the imposition of sexual conquest as her primary motivation.

So, in sum, I was somewhat dismissive of the book. However, today I saw this article on censorship of sex at a Tehran book fair. Books are banned from the fair if they contain any mention of sex. So, while Iran and Egypt are not in any way the same, it made me think that I might have been a little too quick to dismiss al Aswany's method of cultural critique. Maybe attributing sexual conquest to everyone as a primary motivation isn't something I buy as a truth, but it's a pretty sharp condemnation of the way that al Aswany's Egyptian countrymen view the world, and looking beyond the obvious phallocentrism of the book to see it, as al Aswany wrote it, as more of a symptom of societal ill than as a characteristic in itself.


Anonymous said...

Not for nothing, but Karen Hughes used to say this was one of the most important books in helping her to understand the Middle East.

Susan said...

Anon -

that sentiment made me like it less, i think - since it was advertised to me, by the Times, as "a portrait of life in the Middle East" i was expecting a more nuanced story, as obviously it is a rare book that can help an outsider understand a foreign society. however, viewed through the lens of an "explanation of Egyptian society" i found the book simplistic and heavy-handed.

also ... i think we could have an interesting discussion about whether Karen Hughes' use of the book means that it is helpful or whether it means that Karen Hughes' understanding of the Middle East leaves something to be desired.