The Lost World of Arab Erotica

No Arab book has ever been sold for so much money to foreign publishing houses. Though it is part of the current trend that is witnessing both real and fictional erotic confessions by women writers storming the best-seller lists, Salwa Al Neimi's novel has substantially more to offer than the mere lurid sensationalism of some of its competitors. By Stefan Weidner

Salwa Al Neimi (photo: T. Langro)
A sexual intifada? Salwa Al Neimi's novel "Honey Kiss" has caused a stir in the Arab world (photo: T. Langro)

​​ Born in Damascus in the late 1950s, writer and journalist Al Niemi has lived in Paris for many years. With Borhân al Asal she has written a book with an elusive quality that defies simple categorisations of it as either autobiographic or pornographic and, though it avoids sensationalism, the book's impact has certainly been sensational.

The story is told by a nameless woman whose anonymity is Salwa Al Neimi's only concession to the Arab world's conventions of decency and propriety. The narrator works as a librarian, first in Damascus and then in Paris, but spends her working hours in secret bouts of reading, delving into the world of classical Arab erotica. Though the existence of such material tends to be forgotten nowadays, and it is likely to be sought for in vain on the Arab book market, it does exist, and has done so in copious quantities since at least the 9th century. In classical (as opposed to fundamentalist) Islam, sexual desire, not least female sexuality, is viewed as a gift from God, a foretaste of the delights of paradise.

Eroticism in word and deed

The discovery of these books and a meeting with a man she calls "the thinker" (who later turns out to be more than one) sets a process of sexual self-liberation in motion. Not only does she now become aware of her sexuality, and able to enjoy it freely and uninhibitedly, but, inspired by her reading of the erotic classics, she also discovers a way of putting this into words.

​​ On the one hand we have the narrator's relation of the sexual adventures of herself and her girlfriends, and on the other, what amounts almost to an essayistic plea for the revival or recovery of a language of sexuality, a language that once existed but which has now been lost to the Arab world. "In the 13th century, Sheikh Al Suyuti wrote a book on the art of love especially for women. Modern readers coming across it now would not understand a word – a bit like expecting a caveman to understand computer science! How can we speak of sexual education when the people don't even know the simplest basics of anatomy?"

Ultimately the book is an appeal for change, for putting an end to this kind of ignorance and creating a basis for the sexual liberation of men and women.

Postmodern games

The library director decides to send the narrator to a conference in America where she is to give a lecture on the old Arab erotic textbooks – to air the topic in public. Due to security considerations however, we find out she will not be able to take part in the conference, but Borhân al Asal, the book that contains this story within the story, so to speak, itself represents the essay that the narrator should have written, though, admittedly, augmented by her personal experiences. It also represents, at one and the same time, a revival of, and a postmodern game with, the old erotic literature; the chapter headings reading almost as if they were quotations from the literature itself – "On teaching and learning", "On wiles and ruses". This pattern is broken, however, when we come to the ironic "Sex and the Arabic City" chapter.

Salwa Al Neimi's message has a relevance that reaches beyond the Arab world. Were a feminist to read this plea for sensuality and sexual freedom says the narrator at one point, "she would damn me as a slave to male ideology and declare all out war on me." Salwa Al Neimi's plea for promiscuity may well cause eyebrows to be raised and not just among those who prefer to adhere to the classic concepts of family and relationships. The book is both surprising and provocative, an intelligent mix of essay and narration – what it is not, however, in spite of the subtitle, is a novel.

Stefan Weidner

© 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Salwa Al Neimi: Der Honigkuss. Translated from Arabic by Doris Kilias. Published by Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg 2008, pp. 126 14.95 euros

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