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
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
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
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.