Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 August 2000
Issue No. 494
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Travellers' tales

Sexual Encounters in the Middle East, Derek Hopwood, London: Ithaca Press, 2000. pp308

Sexual Encounters in the Middle East gives the impression that both the British and the Arabs, once they sought to travel and live in the other's country, were affected sexually. Or was it that, already sometimes sexually unusual, the characters described in the book turned to other climes and countries in which to work out their sexuality? The author shows the majority as being over-sexed, under-sexed or oddly-sexed. However, it all makes for a most entertaining book that introduces to its reader a number of fascinating figures, some of them famous and others comparatively unknown.

The writer's introduction opens with the words (from a Sudanese visiting Britain for the first time): "One thing I noticed was that you can never understand a people well enough ... until you are in bed with a woman. It is a time when people get over the masks they are wearing and ... become normal human beings." The writer, however, goes on to point out that whereas human sexuality can unite by bringing together two people in an intimate relationship, it can also alienate, mislead or separate people from different backgrounds. The Arabs and Europeans, the subject of this study, generally shared similar inherited ideas about each other -- the kind of stereotypes that have formed the subject of other reviews in this supplement, for example. These ideas and attitudes were started very early on among Europeans and they still exist, be it in modified form, today. The writer refers to "a kind of sexual revenge which some Arabs are trying to take in the post-colonial period." Later on in the book he analyses in some detail the novel Season of Migration to the North by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih and describes it as "openly a book of revenge, of Sudanese revenge for colonial ills." This novel, however, cannot -- in my opinion -- be so easily pigeon-holed.

Sexual Encounters deals with a varied collection of well-known figures, among them the 19th century British writer Edward Lane, compiler of what has been described as the greatest ever lexicon, a translator of the Qur'an, and the writer of the invaluable Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. He showed an extraordinarily puritanical reticence when making his translation of The Thousand and One Nights, unlike Richard Burton, another 19th century British writer and translator, who entered with what has been seen as excessive gusto into its more ribald parts. When dealing with the wholly negative attitude of Lord Cromer, the British colonial administrator, towards Egyptians in general, the writer remarks "As Cromer could neither read nor speak Arabic one wonders on whose opinion he bases his judgements about the coarseness of modern Egyptian society." He excuses Cromer by stating that he was unable to view Egypt "outside the framework of his own sex, class and time," something after all which only someone who is something of a rebel can achieve, and says of the man that he was "probably not overburdened with a sexual drive."

A section of the book devoted to "Soldiers' experiences of the Middle East" deals, first of all, with the French who accompanied Napoleon on his 1798 expedition and who misbehaved badly under the naive assumption that local women were easily available. The historian El-Gabarti had things to say about their behaviour. However, the British who took their place behaved no better. More than a hundred years later some two to three million British soldiers spent time in Egypt and their presence certainly did nothing to improve relationships between the two countries. In fiction, Naguib Mahfouz, in the first volume of his Trilogy, describes the outrageous behaviour of the average British Tommy in Cairo; all that can be said in their defence is that they were for the most part uneducated, far from home and living under conditions of stress and danger.

In the chapter dealing with "French experiences" the writer devotes several pages to Isabelle Eberhardt, who, though not actually French, became so by marriage and adoption. Surely one of the most intriguing figures to be caught up in the so-called magic of the Middle East, she was a bewildered girl, seduced by the romantic novels of Pierre Loti, who longed from an early age for some milieu that would provide her with a different and more colourful life. This she found in Algeria where she went in 1897, dying there tragically some seven years later after converting to Islam and joining a Sufi order. The tradition started by Pierre Loti of depicting the Middle East as a venue for exotic escape was later carried on with greater literary skill by André Gide in such novels as L'Immoraliste. While both the British and the French had their own set of prejudices about the people of the Middle East and were incapable of seeing them simply as other human beings, the British frowned on any sort of permanent liaisons; the possibility of intermarriage was of course remote or impossible, particularly between British men and Muslim women. The French, who perhaps thought of their stay in such countries as Algeria as of a more permanent nature, had a more relaxed attitude to such matters.

Theodore Chasserian, Bathing Women, Gezira museum collection
T E Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia", of course occupies quite a few pages in the book. The writer, however, seems to be unable to pigeon-hole him satisfactorily and describes him "as unique in his behaviour and it is difficult to discern the psychology behind it." On the question of wearing Arab dress -- something that obviously Lawrence enjoyed -- the differing views of such men as the British writer Wilfred Thesiger are given.

A section entitled "The influence of the [British] public school" is interesting in that almost without exception the men who were sent out to the Middle East came from backgrounds that automatically sent their sons to such schools. Among those who suffered the ravages of such a schooling and wrote about it are the poet and critic Robert Graves, Thesiger, Richard Burton and Wilfred Blunt. The British critic Cyril Connolly wrote of it that it created "permanent adolescence." An interesting character -- one of the few in this book who was known slightly to me, and whom I once wrote up in the weekly paper Sphinx - was St. John Philby. Of a completely different mould from most of the other people in this book, Philby was by nature a rebel with, according to the author, "a very strong sexual drive which dominated his life." It is of course as a traveller in Saudi Arabia that Philby made his name. The picture of him as given in this book -- hot-tempered and careless of other people's feelings -- led him to quarrel with the British government and to become an early supporter of King Abdel-Aziz Ibn Saud.

Less space is given to those women who influenced British policy in the Middle East because, of course, there were fewer of them. The writer Gertrude Bell of course features. An extremely talented woman -- she was the first woman ever to take a First in History at Oxford University -- she was also an emotional woman who nevertheless led a life devoid of physical sexual relations and eventually committed suicide in Baghdad, the capital of the country with which she was most intimately associated. Another well-known British woman in the Middle East was Freya Stark, the leading female travel writer of her time, who was sometimes compared unfavourably with Bell. She too led an unsatisfactory and sexually frustrated existence, eventually marrying at the age of 54 a well-known homosexual eight years her junior. Understandably, the marriage was never consummated and ended in divorce.

The book also deals with the reverse traffic i.e., Arab men who paid visits to Europe, beginning with Rifa'a El-Tahtawi who wrote his famous description of the French capital under the title Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Bariz. From modern Arabic literature Tawfiq al-Hakim's Usfur Min Al-Sharq portrays a young man who succumbs to the sexual temptations of the West and yet feels driven to return home. In a similar story, Qindil Umm Hashim, the fellow Egyptian writer Yehia Haqqi tells of a young man who is sent to England to study medicine. He is told by his father, "Beware of the women of Europe deceiving you. They are not for you and you are not for them." In England of course he has a relationship with an English girl and returns to Egypt to live out his life as best he can, having been changed by his experience in the West. Finally the writer of the present book deals with a lesser known novel which was written in English by a young Egyptian Copt. Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali is a well-written account of two friends who, dissatisfied with life in Cairo during the time of Nasser, come to London. They are both alienated by the air of unaccustomed sophistication that surrounds them. Returning to Cairo the characters find it difficult to readjust themselves, particularly in their relations with the opposite sex. The novel makes easy reading, but the real-life position of the author -- Waguih Ghali is a nom de plume -- is by no means lighthearted. The real story of the author has been vividly set down in a book by Diana Athill entitled After the Feast which describes the young man's self-destructive life in London. (In fact, I was invited by a mutual friend to meet the author at a dinner party, but the arrangement was cancelled because of the writer's suicide).

Sexual Encounters in the Middle East, printed in Lebanon and of a mere 308 pages without pictures, for all its interest and the very readable way in which the stories of these men and women are told, is however grossly overpriced at L35.

Reviewed by Denys Johnson-Davies

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