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Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World Hardcover – March 12, 2013

4.1 out of 5 stars 40 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Journalist El Feki, with familial roots deep in Egypt, delves into a sensitive, rarely addressed topic in this tour de force on Arab life. She begins with a brisk history of sex in the Arab world that will likely be eye-opening for Western readers. By showing the roots of sensuous and sexual literature that date back to the tenth century, and noting scholarly opinions that a rebuke to colonialism provoked a shift toward conservatism, she prompts readers to question the sexually conservative roots of their own governments and politics, regardless of geography. From women meeting behind closed doors to discuss spousal disappointment and abuse to doctors all too familiar with surprising sexual practices, El Feki peels back every layer. Her research is wide-ranging and relentless. She did not accept official statistics on such topics as prostitution, STDs, or abortion, instead seeking out the opinions and experiences of countless individuals in clinics, suburban neighborhoods, beauty parlors, and the media in multiple countries and socio-economic levels to get a truth that is complicated but undeniable. Mandatory reading for anyone seeking to truly know the Middle East, Sex and the Citadel should knock the doors off assumptions held dear by so many Westerners. --Colleen Mondor

Review

**Kirkus Best Books of the Year (2013)**

“El Feki has spent four years investigating an intriguing and potentially explosive subject: changing sexual attitudes and behavior in the Arab world. . . . A thoughtful study not to be treated as titillation.” —Library Journal 

“A clear wakeup call.”
Publishers Weekly  

“El Feki, with familial roots deep in Egypt, delves into a sensitive, rarely addressed topic in this tour de force on Arab life. . . . Mandatory reading for anyone seeking to truly know the Middle East, Sex and the Citadel should knock the doors off assumptions held dear by so many Westerners.”
Booklist, starred review

“Shereen El Feki has done something important, brave, and necessary. By investigating what sexual experiences and values are in the Arab world, rather than projecting views on them ideologically, she insists on our taking seriously and urgently major social issues—from cliterodectomy to adultery in a traditional context to passion itself—that are shrouded in myth, taboo, and disinformation. She has done a major service to those who care about feminism in this region, about human rights, about sexuality, and about the human condition.”
—Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth 

Sex and the Citadel captures the vibrancy of contemporary issues being faced by those living in Muslim societies today. El Feki brings to life the hopes, fears, and challenges of a wide range of individuals as they deal with sex, love, and relationships. There is much here to learn for both Muslims and non-Muslims. This book explores how views on contemporary life vary across different Muslim communities.”
—Tewodros Melesse, director-general, International Planned Parenthood Federation 

“A daring new study. El Feki embarks on her subject with healthy doses of humor and irony. She looks at the tensions between what is halal (permitted under Islamic law) and haram (forbidden) or zina (downright debauchery). She also discusses sex education, abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and even lingerie and cross-dressing. A surprisingly open, extremely timely examination of the sexual coming-of-age for Egyptian youth.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“An engrossing book with a powerful interrogation of intimate relationships and politics in Egypt. Sex and the Citadel brilliantly explores the complex conjunction between contemporary history and personal lives.”
—Pinar Ilkkaracan, co-founder, Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR), and the International Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies  (CSBR)

“Ambitiously broad in its scope…A timely, thought provoking, and highly readable study.” –New York Journal of Books  

“Cheekily titled, eminently readable…While her subject is titillating, her treatment of it is not: A former vice chair of the U.N.'s Global Commission on HIV and Law, she is frank, nonjudgmental and unsentimental, eschewing the kind of stagey shockability that might have tempted a lesser writer when dealing with topics as unsavory as female genital mutilation or domestic violence…intriguing.” –San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Conversational yet informed, witty without succumbing to frivolity, and buttressed every so often by statistical findings, Sex and the Citadel emerges from a five-year, somewhat desultory investigation of sexual mores in a region undergoing political transformation...She brings to her subject an indignant sensibility recalling in some ways that of the social revolutionaries.” –Boston Globe   

“Once inside the book, you’ll still find plenty of humor, but it’s harnessed to an impressively researched work of sociology. El Feki, a scientist, journalist, and academic, has traveled far and delved deep through the Arab world for half a decade trying to get a handle on the customs, laws, attitudes, hang-ups, and religious dicta that shape the sex lives of the region in general, and Egypt and Cairo in particular. Through this understanding, she intends to shine a broad light on what makes the region tick, politically and socially…It’s a serious topic, and El Feki has done a gargantuan and gutsy job of research. She treats her subject with respect but also with a lively irreverence, which is the appropriate tone for a book about sexual customs and foibles. Toward the end, as she becomes increasingly intent on shoring up her thesis, the book grows more serious and loses a bit of the light touch that makes the bulk of it so readable. But she’s fearless, calling a spade a spade and wading into neighborhoods, both physical and topical, where angels might well fear to tread.” –Santa Fe New Mexican  

 “Will the Arab spring precipitate a sexual as well as a political revolution? It is an intriguing question, which the award-winning Cairo-based journalist Shereen El Feki explores in this account of a highly sensitive and still mainly hidden facet of the Arab world...Dr. El Feki's position as a western-educated female Muslim, both insider and outsider (she grew up in Canada, the daughter of an Egyptian father and Welsh mother), gives the book an invaluable perspective.” –Guardian  
 
“A fascinating survey of sex that is rich in detail…Understanding the attitudes and practices of Egyptians when it comes to sex is intriguing in itself. But Ms. El Feki also uses sex as a means to understand better a country and society that has been rocked by revolution.” –The Economist

“Fascinating.” –The Globe and Mail    
 
“Sex and the Citadel is a bold, meticulously researched mini Kinsey Report, rich in anecdote and statistics.” –The Spectator 
 
“The frisky title of Shereen El Feki’s book, with its allusion to Candace Bushnell and Sarah Jessica Parker, is a measure of what you get. El Feki is an immunologist turned Economist journalist specialising in health issues. She is also an English-language presenter for Al Jazeera, and a member of the United Nations Global Commission on HIV and the Law...As one would expect from this background, she has broad sympathies. She also has a bold, punchy way of expressing herself.” –Telegraph

“This survey of sexual habits across the Arab world is as serious-minded as it is entertaining.”—The Independent
 
“A cogent account of sexual liberty in the Arab world.”—The Sunday Telegraph
 
“But in talking to ordinary people as well as sex therapists and sociologists, El Feki has been able to produce an original portrait of the region’s youth.” –Financial Times
 
Sex and the Citadel is a fascinating exploration of sexual culture, based on a well-balanced mixture of history, statistical information gleaned from the few surveys conducted by various NGOs, and first-hand interviews, which in many cases show that the official studies have barely scratched the surface.”—Daily Star Lebanon
 
“This is a principled book, robustly educative and illuminating without consenting to the kind of vacant voyeurism that the intimate life veiled by Islam can provoke in unthinking outsiders.”—Times Higher Education Supplement, Book of the Week
 
“Combining thorough reportage and sure-handed critical views, El Feki excels at sketching primary themes in images that stick…a supremely eye-opening book.”—The Chronicle of Higher Education
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (March 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307377393
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307377395
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #704,992 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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El Feki has a unique perspective with access to frank discussions with her father's relatives and the ability to compare with Western mores based on being raised in Canada with a Welsh mother. She ties attitudes towards gender roles to the ability to create a democratic society after the overthrow of Mubarak. She found that for many in the Arab world, Western values include homosexuality, sex before marriage, mixing of the sexes, women's liberation and pornography. They're believed to undermine Islam and traditional Arab values, observed Shereen El Feki. She spent two years interviewing Arabs about sex for her book Sex and the Citadel. The irony, she adds, is that discussion of sexual pleasure and "so much of what they brand as dangerous foreign ideas were features of the Arab-Islamic world long before they were embraced by Western liberalism." She notes the fear of Western ideas was coupled with a feeling of inferiority that followed Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the British occupation from 1882 to 1952. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s, Hassan al-Banna taught that part of the reason for loss of political power was Egyptian's sexual immorality and that the solution was to follow Shaira law. (Surveys indicate about a third of Arab young men are sexually active before marriage, compared to about 20% of young women).
Most Egyptian young women now cover their hair, while their mothers and grandmothers didn't and could wear short skirts without being harassed. In the 1960s and `70s sex was an accepted aspect of films until the rise of Islamic conservatism and official censorship. A return to Islamic fundamentalism was a form of protest against dictatorship, the most extreme form taught by the Salafi movement.
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I had the pleasure of hearing Shereen El Feki interviewed on Fresh Air soon after the release of this book and was so impressed by her conversation with Terry Gross that I downloaded a copy and dived into it that same evening.

If the events of this past decade have instilled in you a thirst to learn more about other people and cultures, you would do well to consider this book a resource.
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I write thrillers and have a protagonist in Morocco and a Bedouin woman in Spain; I'd like the Bedouin to be a voice of Muslim feminism. Sex and the Citadel is the third book I've read, and the most recently published, building support for the voice I seek; it's the most approachable, and great fun to read. Sex and the Citadel is also a powerful resource for the young and curious woman in the Middle East.

Shareen El Feki, a half Welsh, half Egyptian woman, does a marvelous job of reaching analytically into the sexual mores of the Arab Muslim world. She spent two years, asking and listening, with Arab women from Egypt and across the Middle East . On this mental journey, through the lens of a thoroughly modern Muslim woman, El Feki leads the reader on a fascinating examination of the attitudes of Muslim women about sexuality, and more.

El Feki can really write. Time spent as a journalist for the Economist seems to have been well spent; the story flows cleanly and maintains the reader's interest. She's smart; an early doctorate in molecular immunology from Cambridge attests to that.

The modern phenomenon of Internet Cloud-connected `everything' allows fascinating discussions of the impact of new knowledge flowing into the Muslim home, beyond the censoring control of the governments. The reader is exposed to several modern web-oriented paths used to educate the budding Muslim feminist. One is Muntada Jensaneya, the Arab Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health. There are others discussed.

Some parts of the book catch one by surprise by evoking a sudden guffaw. El Feki's story of Muslim women searching the internet for information on 'sexual aids' is special, as efforts to translate descriptive material labor.
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If someone wrote about sex in the Western world, I would want it to be Shereen El Feki. El Feki's familiarity with both Egypt and the West has made her the perfect guide to the strangely familiar world of the Middle East bedroom. Rather than take a critical view of the region or treat the region with kid gloves by denying any problems that arise from cultural attitudes, she frankly seeks out Arabs who are dealing with the sexual life of the region and frankly lays out the situation. Though there are a lot of sexual hangups in the Arab world, it is far from neutered. There are a plethora of groups trying to transform Egypt and the Arab region politically, socially, and sexually. What is most remarkable about El Feki's take on Arabl sexuality is that it is viewed as a part of a larger society, which just like the West, is always in flux.

I would recommend this book for the curious and for anyone who enjoys reading about sexuality.
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By Bunbury on January 29, 2014
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The topic is interesting. This is a little dry and slow to get into. There is a lot of exposition, but I would have liked more details, anecdotes, and hard data as opposed to impressions and opinions. Overall, it was informative and a good beginning to a topic we need to hear more about.
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