Skip to main content
Read page text

g e n e r a l

‘Let us deliver mankind from the ancient, universal tyranny! What ancient, universal tyranny, you cry. Why, the ancient, universal tyranny of gravity!’ Hugo is farcical, but the balloon’s symbolic association with political liberation would acquire a sombre literalism during the siege of Paris only a few years later. Surrounded by the Prussians, the city was completely cut off. It was Nadar’s romanticism, at once visionary and oddly businesslike, that led him to propose balloons as a way of getting messages to the world outside. This was an audacious and dangerous idea but it would prove a remarkable triumph, with almost seventy successful flights made in little more than three months, bearing mail, carrier pigeons and other supplies. One should not exaggerate the republican fraternity of aeronauts, mind you: Coxwell offered to organise a rival balloon corps for the Prussians, though Bismarck did not take up the offer.

Holmes ends with the terrible story of Salomon Andrée’s disastrous attempt to fly to the North Pole in 1896, a story of such overwhelming sadness that, as he says in an epilogue, it breaks the heart of even such a ‘hardened biographer’. But though the episode is unmitigated tragedy, the possibility of something very like its catastrophe shadows all the stories in the book, even the most larky. A balloon escapes the clutches of earth, an act of

Promethean aspiration; but it leaves you open to every vicissitude of the winds that blow. Richard Holmes always writes well, but especially well about figures whom he admires, such as Shelley or Coleridge, who chose to expose themselves to all the dreadful risks that accompany the most soaring human hopes. In Falling Upwards he has discovered a fine metaphor for his abiding interest in that kind of daring – its best image is of the airy French balloonist Flammarion, who, needing a light source by which to view his instruments during night flights, filled a little glass jar with glow-worms. Glaisher took a Davy lamp. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 19

OnaTurkish Airlines flight from London to Istanbul my five-year-old son demands to go to the toilet – ‘Now!’ Recognising the urgency in his tone, I spring to my feet and grab him, not realising in my haste that I have left the book I have been reading on an empty seat, face up. There are two Turkish ladies in my row: middle class, middle-aged, similarly attired. Upon returning to our seats I catch them peeking at the cover, whispering and giggling like schoolgirls. When they see me, they blush with guilt but then turn and eye me curiously. Their expressions seem to ask, ‘Are you reading a book on sex? And next to your children? What has this world come to?’ Such is the effect of carrying around Shereen El Feki’s Sex and the Citadel.

For a moment I feel a strong urge to speak with these women, to enquire about their sexual lives, past and present, real and imaginary. I don’t, but the author of Sex and the Citadel has performed this daunting task – raising ‘unabashed’ questions and searching for honest answers, trying to render visible the invisible and to give voice to the real stories behind the wall of silence.

From Gustave Flaubert’s extra-literary adventures on the bawdy streets of Cairo to the repercussions of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the writings of Sayyid Qutb, whose views have influenced religious fundamendalists for decades, the book’s early pages are cluttered and haphazard. However, the narration soon finds e l i f s h a fa k

Lifting the Veil Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a

Changing Arab World

By Shereen El Feki (Chatto & Windus 344pp £14.99)

its riverbed. From then on, El Feki offers a compelling discussion of her subject, accompanied by an array of lively characters from the contemporary Middle East: a young man in Tahrir Square holding a placard addressed to President Mubarak that reads, ‘Go, I want to Get Married’; a Moroccan sociologist who decided to specialise in sexuality after reading Wilhelm Reich in 1970s; an Egyptian wife whose life, beneath the surface of ordinariness, resembles the layers in One Thousand and One Nights; a Palestinian woman who commutes between Haifa and Ramallah, and is the founder of the Arab Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health; housewives who discuss sexuality in the privacy of their homes once they unpin their hijab; youngsters dressed to kill at all-female wedding parties where potential mothers-in-law choose brides for their sons; volunteers working at a telephone helpline to answer questions on sex; female Arab university students who both challenge their families’ conventions and feel constrained by them; Hasan, an LGBT activist from Tunisia;

NGOs helping sex workers in Unicef ’s Fight Against AIDS campaign; professionals and idealists, men and women, whose struggles and strengths reflect the complexity of Arab daily life.

El Feki, an award-winning journalist, is a scientist by training and the former vicechair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law. Although she focuses primarily on Egypt, interviewing people from diverse backgrounds, the issues she explores resonate across the entire Muslim world and beyond. Blending her personal observations with case studies, sociological analysis and statistical information – not to mention the wise sayings of Nuna Aziza, her Muslim grandmother – she presents a rich account of gender and sexuality. From chapters entitled ‘Desperate Housewives’ to ‘Sex for Sale’ and ‘Dare to be Different’, this is a journey into the heart of a region about which we talk and write so much and yet, in truth, know so little.

Throughout that region the average marriage age has risen. Films, magazines, books, social media and soap operas make it possible to raise questions about

Literary Review | m a y 2 0 1 3 32

My Bookmarks

Skip to main content