Sex, Nudity, and the Arab (Graphic) Novel
Two novels that I’ve read of late, one from Egypt (Mona Prince’s So You May See) and one by a Syrian (Fadi Azzam’sSarmada), have depictions of sex that would give many God-fearing Anglo readers a coronary. And the atheists, too.
I haven’t seen Hanan al-Shaykh’s interpretation of 1,001 Nights, but English-language reportage on its staging seems full of titillated, heart-fluttering winks.
If 1,001 Nights is one of the foundational texts of Arabic literature, and if Arabs are generally not as terrified of sex as Anglos, then it’s reasonable to expect interesting “sexual content” in Arab novels. Is some of it taboo-breaking for the sake of gaining attention? Well, probably. Is some of it a self-Orientalizing mask for the sake of gaining (Western) attention? Oh, why not.
Still, most of this writing labors in obscurity. Censors pass it by. Parents, librarians, government officials, and other guardians of morality don’t lift their eyes. What intellectuals do in their closets…well!
Sex talk in the Egyptian theater, inspired by The Vagina Monologues, has received some attention from censors. And yes, individual guardians of the public interest at print shops across Egypt will stop a sex scene (or perhaps let it run for a few pounds). But none of the literary (shocking) depictions of sex have gained attention in the manner of one simple, not-particularly-shocking image of a nude twenty-year-old girl.
Youssef writes about this image in The Arabophile, noting, “Had Alia Mahdi appeared nude on an adult dating or porn site, had she sent the picture privately to a million people, had she shown shame or reluctance, no one would have tut-tutted or smiled, neither intellectuals nor horny prudes of the cyber realm.”
What Mahdi’s appearance—and the anger surrounding it—reminds me of is not sex in the Arab novel, but instead the battleground of Magdi al-Shafee’s pioneering graphic novel Metro, and how al-Shafee plays with 1,001 Nights in a piece he penned for the collection Autostrade. Graphic novels, although they are still ignored by most Arab publishers (too expensive! just for kids!) have the potential to set a new literary battleground.
I’m not talking about breasts or sex; I’m not talking about Habibi; I’m talking about literature that was previously kept behind the closed door of (just) words.