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Has sensuality deserted Muslim lands?

Latest update : 2008-05-29

Salwa al Neimi takes on the current intellectual orthodoxy in the Muslim world which, according to her, betrayed the sensuality redolent in several classical Arab texts. Her latest novel, "Proof by Honey," draws on those ancient erotic traditions.


“Arab erotic literature is the opposite of what we are told about Islam," says Salwa al Neimi, a Syrian poetess, with a mischievous smile. More than just a rebellion against the austerity of contemporary Islam, al Neimi’s latest novel invites the reader to discover classical erotic Arabic literature.


Banned at the 2007 Damascus book-fair, al Neimi’s novel has been censored in most Arab countries, except in North African Arab nations - such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia - and Lebanon. In Jordan, for example, the book can only be found at the street vendor stalls.


In “Proof by Honey,”  the narrator, a Syrian librarian living in Europe, explores her sensuality with lovers named The Palestinian, The Thinker and The Traveler. Mystery novel? Fiction or reality? Al Neimi smiles and swears that it is all invented. But the lascivious narrator and the author share an enthusiasm for classical Arabic erotic writers such as Almad al-Tifachi, Ali Ibn Nasr, al-Suyuti and al Tijani. But these writers are also, significantly, sheiks or imams who represent freedom for al Neimi.


She adeptly takes a classical story and adds her own decisively modern, wry commentary to the original text. It is this hybrid that, according to al Neimi, has shocked the Arab world.

Sex was never a sin

As al Neimi has discovered, her favorite classical authors support her thesis: that sex is not a shame in Muslim literary tradition. Her references to ancient texts lend her book a certain legitimacy against critics who accuse her of Westernization.


When, for instance, the author quotes Aicha, Prophet Mohammed’s favorite wife, in connection with the Prophet’s kisses, it’s not to provoke a scandal but to affirm that sensuality is a part of Islamic thought. "Islamic society never regarded sex as something sad or sinful,” she says.


Today, al Neimi, a press relations officer at the Paris-based Institut du Monde Arabe, regrets that even Arab intellectuals ignore Islamic erotic tradition. "Sometimes, when I re-tell some of ancient texts,” she notes, “people exclaim that it’s not possible."

Islamists imbibing Western notions of guilt

“Proof by Honey” has been ambiguously received across Arab world. If numerous Arabic book-fairs have snubbed the book, the author maintains that many readers can get hold of her novel thanks to the Internet as well as in some bookshops that discreetly stock her book.


For her, the supposed austerity of contemporary Islam explains the reception to her book – or rather rejection in the established Arab world. The old erotic authors were far from being the marginal writers. Quite the contrary, the authors cited by al Neimi were men of power and sound judgment – often sheiks, or tribal chiefs.


Al Neimi believes that if today Islam is not as liberated as it was before, it’s the Islamists to blame for leading their sexual lives in secrecy. "Arab society today has interiorized all the Western notions of sin and guilt associated with the body,” she maintains. The author deplores this Westernization, but she blames the masters of modern Islamic thought for imbibing these values. That’s the paradox, she concludes with a smile.



Date created : 2008-05-29