Obsessed with sex, and yet entirely unwilling to talk about it: the judgment of writer Baraa Ashraf on modern Egyptian society.
There is a joke about a famous Egyptian anchorwoman who decides to take on the subject of “human rights and equality” for her upcoming TV show. She goes out on the streets of the capital to ask people about their thoughts on the idea of equality. She takes a comb with her, as a concrete illustration of the prophet Muhammad’s famous maxim that “All people are as equal as the teeth of a comb.”
She meets an old man; she hands him the comb and asks him, “tell me, sir, what does this comb remind you of?”
The old man replies: “It reminds me of sex.”
She is shocked by the answer, but decides to risk another uninhibited response by questioning him further.
“Why does it remind you of sex?”
“No particular reason,” says the old man. “Everything reminds me of sex.”
That, to me, is the best joke I’ve ever heard about Egyptians; it is the most beautiful, deep, and accurate encapsulation of us. I’ll tell you why.
These days, I have been spending a lot of time on the internet looking for jokes and fatwas, because our jokes and our fatwas[religious legal judgments]are what really get to the heart of the issues that torment us.
As I expected, I have discovered that these days jokes and fatwas have a lot in common. Both are frequently hilarious, often vapid, and are generally about sex.
All of which only increased my interest in the creative process that goes into making up jokes and fatwas. Both, it seems clear, require authors with a vivid imagination.
A person who comes up with a new joke needs an imagination to invent a joke’s special script, come up with its special way of revealing our society’s particular thinking and behavior.
And a person who comes up with a fatwa needs the same kind of imagination. Though with a slight difference, and not just because fatwas are about religion: creating a fatwa requires imagination both on the part of the person who comes up with the scenario and asks for the fatwa, and on the part of the mufti who delivers it.
For a while, I was obsessed with the fatwa that came from the guy who asked an imam if it was religiously permissible for him to watch the woman he was planning to marry while she bathed. What kind of fevered imagination had seized hold of this man’s soul? I wanted to ask him directly-“what kind of devil has taken over your brain, dear brother, to make you even ask a question like that? What kind of drugs are burning out your mind, leading you to imagine such a depraved relationship?”
But I have to say, it was the Sheikh’s answer that was the masterpiece. He told the prospective voyeur: “Yes, dear brother, you are permitted to watch the woman you want to marry while she bathes, in order that you might inspect and scrutinize, and thereby be certain of your choice of wife.”
This same sheikh belongs to a religious school of thought that considers the very sound of a woman’s voice a violation of her chastity. Perhaps the venerable sheikh (all these sheikhs are always described as venerable) should warn the honorable person asking the question (all these questioners are always described as honorable) to make sure that his fiancée remains silent while she bathes. After all, if she were to speak, it would be a violation of her sexual chastity [awra].
So there we are again: everything reminds us of sex. And take a minute to think about that expression: “reminds us.” Doesn’t being reminded of something imply that you’ve temporarily forgotten about it? Do we really forget about sex for long enough to need to be reminded about it?
A friend of mine, a pious guy who doesn’t have an issue with religious fatwas, tells me that he has been feeling very unsatisfied with Egyptian satellite TV programs of late. Don’t worry, I told him; they’re going to stop talking about politics very soon. “If they stop talking about politics,” he replied sarcastically, “what the heck will there be left to talk about? Sex?”
And sex, in our lives, is a pretty pathetic story to talk about.
A few months back, numerous news sites were running an important breaking news story. Their headlines were all preceded by the words “WITH VIDEO!” They had obtained surveillance camera footage from the pedestrian tunnel in the city’s Al-Haram district. What in God’s name was the shocking spectacle taking place inside the tunnel? Were weapons being smuggled? Drugs being sold? Well, not exactly. Al-Haram tunnel is far indeed from the tunnels of the Gaza Strip.
The spectacular leaked footage was this: it showed a young man walking next to a young woman inside the tunnel. When he seemed to be sure that no one else was nearby, the young man leaned toward the girl’s face and gave her what appeared to be a brief stolen kiss. Truly, I swear to god!
The same scene was then repeated with another couple, and then a third. Good lord! It appears that this is actually some sort of trend. A young man, a young woman, into the tunnel, and there it is: a kiss. God preserve us.
When you study the video, you can, without any doubt, make out expressions of happiness on these young faces. Happiness derived from a 3-second long kiss, not a moment more. A very expensive kiss, a kiss that had to be smuggled through a tunnel, like the weapons, the drugs, the gasoline, the electricity…A kiss like a suicide bombing. Such a sad little kiss.
But wait, dear reader! I will say it for you, before you need to make an effort to write it for me in the comments. “Would you allow this if it were your own sister?”
Ah, the killer question. Why is this inevitably the first thing that comes to your mind after you watch this video? Do you know that there is actually a historical origin for this particular question?
Here is the story. A young man who wanted to have sex, and wasn’t embarrassed about it, went to the Prophet, then the head of state, and told him, “I want to have sex now, and by that I don’t mean tomorrow. What can I do?”
The Prophet did not tell him, “Well, go ahead and do it,” or conversely “come on , show some respect!” Instead, he pressed him to think about the question in a wider sense by asking him, “would you allow this if it were your own sister?”
In Egypt, we have retained the question without remembering the context that it originated in. A man who wants to have sex? God preserve us!
We have reached a crisis point, where the fact that someone wants to have sex is effectively a crime, and where it is society’s role to raise as many obstacles, build as many barriers as possible between a person and his desire to have sex.
Our society fundamentally frowns on the very idea of sex. Sex is an absolute infamy, something that must be kept locked away, unreachable, from everyone; adults, children, men and women, only to be used in our jokes and our fatwas.
If you go back and read the Islamic religious texts, you will nowhere find all of these expressions and new concepts that today are pronounced religiously unacceptable. Take for example the very troubling expression “gender mixing.” There is no such concept in the Quran, or in any of the words and deeds of the Prophet. It is a recent concept, just kind of thought up a few days ago.
And I wonder who was the person who woke up one day and invented it? The person who looked at what happens on our streets, in our schools, in our clubs and our offices, and decided that this was “gender mixing” and that it must be totally and permanently forbidden?
Certainly, I do not know the name of this person, but I know plenty about him; I can say with certainty that he was a person haunted by sex, so obsessed with it that any proximity between a man and a woman might as well be a complete sex act, and must be immediately stopped.
Inventing one new concept always brings others with it. And so with “gender mixing,” we have also acquired another, now even more famous concept, “sexual harassment.” “Sexual harassment,” a phenomenon which has become all too familiar to us recently, is described as a direct result of “gender mixing.”
And suddenly society has decided that we must divide men and women. Classes for boys, and separate classes for girls, and as far apart as possible. Do not put matches next to gasoline, we are told. Even if scientifically we know that merely putting matches next to gasoline will never produce anything; what you need to keep away from gasoline is flames. Flames that need to be put out.
And suddenly the natural relationship between men and women has turned into a relationship between flammable products. Imagine a young man walking down the street, thinking of himself as gasoline, and imagine a young woman leaving her house, and thinking of herself as a match. Doesn’t it make sense that the gasoline will go and harass the match? Or vice versa?
Of course the relationship between the genders has been disfigured, because no boy is gasoline, no girl a match. We’re actually human beings, not petroleum products.
In a normal society, people have sex naturally; it is not something we only talk about in jokes or in fatwas. A society where people live their relationships naturally, where nobody is snooping on kisses stolen in tunnels. A society where relationships are made easy, where getting married is made easy, a society that knows forbidding “gender mixing” is nonsense.
On our TV screens these days, there is a certain omnipresent lady, a psychotherapist who is not actually a specialist on sex, even though most of the questions viewers ask her are related to masturbation.
One day, she read out a letter from a young man who said: My wedding is ten days from now, and frankly, I don’t know how to tell my wife that I am very much looking forward to having sex with her.
The TV doctor stayed silent for a moment, looking embarrassed, and then the ghost of a smile crossed her face, and she said “Don’t worry, your bride probably knows that you are looking forward to having sex with her.”
Isn’t this just the peak of sadness? Such a depressing question, and the answer is simply ludicrous.
If I had been there in place of the psychotherapist, I would have asked the young man: why are you actually getting married? And who are you getting married with?
That is why it shouldn’t surprise us that discussions of freedom are mingled with discussions about sex. When you mention the idea of liberty (in general, or abstract), you always get the same reply: “Are you talking about sexual liberties?” Little by little, it seems, all of the demands for personal and civil liberties have been transformed into some kind of promotion of ‘sexual liberties.’
Can we forget the first of the accusations that were hurled at the Tahrir protestors in the early days of the revolution, famous TV stars and actors screaming on live TV “We must stop this immediately! People are having sex in the open, they are actually copulating in Tahrir square!”
As if all of those multitudes had gone down to Tahrir square just to have sex. And this of course is because everything reminds us of sex.
Baraa Ashraf Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard
12 Nov 2014