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Beyond your wildest dreams
Muslim women have always had sex lives, but they have not always spoken openly of them


June 24, 2005
Muslim women have sex lives. There’s proof of it now: an Arab woman has just written a pornographic book. To judge by the attention now being paid to the The Almond, in the West this constitutes a stunning revelation.

I must confess here that I am prone to one prurient habit above all others: watching the West watching Middle Eastern women. The publication of two recent books, The Almond and Embroideries, is giving me fresh opportunities to indulge.

The Almond is a semi-autobiographical novel first published last year in France by a North African woman writing under the pseudonym “Nejma.” It has sold 50,000 copies in France and has been translated into eight other languages, including English. It’s just come out in the States, where it will no doubt find many eager readers.

Even to those of us with more than passing familiarity with Muslim women, The Almond holds many surprises -- but not the kind you might think. However graphic its details, it is not the story that so shocks so much as its author’s accomplishment in telling it in so public and international a venue. This is why you should pay attention even if this is not your usual kind of reading material.

How could such a book come to be? It turns out that is not a simple story. In an interview for The New York Times earlier this week, “Nejma” explained that her decision to write in French rather than in her mother-tongue was essential in freeing her voice and that she could not have written the book in Arabic. She is also firmly convinced that had she written in Arabic, she would never have reached an audience, for no Arabic publisher would ever accept the book.

Muslim women have always had sex lives, but they have not always spoken openly of them. An autobiography, even one that like The Almond presents itself only as a partial truth and shrouds its author in a pseudonym, is for a Muslim woman arguably the most public and therefore radical way to explore the theme of sexual freedom. Tell-all confessions may be a staple of contemporary American literature, but among memoirs written by Muslim women they are exceedingly rare.

Embroideries, the latest installment of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiography, shares many of The Almond’s thematic concerns and has similarly attracted a great deal of both critical and popular attention in the West [See excerpt: "There's no meter down there"]. On the face of it, the two books seem worlds apart. The Almond is politics written as pornography. Embroideries is politics written as comedy.

Like its precursors Persepolis and Persepolis II, Embroideries is dainty in its dimensions and can easily be read in a single sitting. Satrapi’s illustrations are rendered in black and white and, like her earlier work, display an unobtrusive aesthetic sensibility. It’s a charming and funny book, and a subversive one all the same.

Humor functions in Embroideries like the French language and pornography function in The Almond: humor is the medium that makes it possible for Satrapi to talk about sex, and also the form that endears her to a broad Western audience. One might be tempted to dismiss Embroideries for its seeming levity, except that in this mode Satrapi manages a brilliant rendering of all the oblique and peculiar ways Iranian women talk about sex.

The conversations that make up the body of Embroideries all occur over the course of one afternoon. While their husbands retire for their naps after lunch, a group of women settles in to chat beside the Samovar. Iranian readers will recognize this immediately as the hour of women’s confidences, of loose tongues and titillating revelations. This is where I learned more or less everything I know about the women of my own family -- or at least the most interesting bits. Iranian women are incurable gossips, and the stories we tell about other women always tell a great deal about ourselves. Satrapi gets all this exactly right.

She manages also to represent a wonderful mix of Iranian women: the prude, the liberated vamp, the witless young bride, the long-suffering wife. They are all here, and so is Satrapi herself, clever but without guile, a most winning host to the gathering. With deceptive simplicity she tackles such vexed issues as virginity, marriage, divorce, plastic surgery, and adultery.

Many autobiographies by Iranians in the past have aspired to chronicle vast sweeps of history and are perhaps best left to the historians and, in some cases, to the stalwart royalists among us. The focus here seems initially less ambitious, but in the end Satrapi’s candor is truly extraordinary and makes this an exceptional book among the ever-growing list of titles by Iranians living abroad.

American reviewers have adored Satrapi, but one aspect of her work that’s rarely mentioned is her depiction of the West and of the many curious and often tragic ways that Iranian and Western lives have become entangled in modern times. Embroideries tells many stories about Iranian men who leave for Europe and America, only to return seeking Iranian brides and wreaking various forms of havoc.

Iranians have been sending their sons abroad for decades, but Embroideries suggests that in the last few decades girls in Iran are perhaps more vulnerable than ever to men promising not only love, but homes abroad. “I wanted so much to leave for the West,” whines one young woman in the book. “Every time I watched MTV, I told myself that life was elsewhere.” For all her good humor, Satrapi does not suffer such fools easily, but neither does she make light of the social, political and economic realities that breed these particular strains of foolishness.

So beware: Muslim women have sex lives, and their sex lives can be complicated beyond your wildest dreams.

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To Jasmin Darznik

Jasmin Darznik




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Crowning Anguish
Taj al-Saltana, Memoirs of a Persian Princess 1884-1914
edited by Abbas Amanat

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