The “Tyranny of Sex” in the Saudi Novel

The “Tyranny of Sex” in the Saudi Novel May 17, 2010

This story was written by M. Lynx Qualey and originally appeared at Arabic Literature (in English).

Al Jazeera reports that the cultural pages of Gulf newspapers are brimming with talk about sex. Or, rather, they’re brimming with talk about talk about sex.

This is because sex has been a growing phenomenon in Saudi literature. Earlier this year, noted Kuwaiti novelist Laila al-Othman decried the increase in sexual content in Saudi women’s lit. Al-Othman, whose Wasmiya Comes Out of the Sea was one of the Arab Writers Union’s “top 105,”  is apparently not wrong to point to an increase. According to Al Jazeera, a Gulf organization’s study noted that in 2007 there were 55 Saudi novels dealing with sex, in 2008 64 novels, and last year about 70.

Not exactly an erotic book in every pot. But, sure, it’s something.

The writers being blamed for this phenomenon are mostly women. The Al Jazeera piece mentions Others, by Siba al-Harz (a pen name), Love in the Captial, by Wafaa’ Abdel Rahman, Zaynab Hanafi’s Features and Immoral Women, by Samar al-Muqrin.  Youssef al-Mohaimmeed, who sometimes writes from the point of view of a woman, also made the list of sexy writers with his Pigeons Don’t Fly in Buraydah.

Cultural critic Mohamed Al-Menkeri told Al Jazeera that it’s “regrettable that some people think sex is the most important component” of this conservative society, and don’t look to issues like the search for religious freedom, class divisions, educational failures, or gender.

It was government cultural head Mahmoud Al-Watan who complained of “the tyranny of sex in the Saudi novel,” saying it falls to those without talent to slap some sex onto the page and “call it a novel.”

I might grant that class and gender and education are important issues, yes. But—even if all other things were equal—storytellers (usually) have to grab the reader and pull them along: Sex and love are two of the easiest ways to do it. And who can resist writing about the forbidden?

Of course, there is a potential downside. Some Western readers devour anything having to do with “sex under/behind the veil.” So there is, perhaps, a self-Orientalizing possibility, particularly following the success of Girls of Riyadh. But, of the books listed above, only Others has been translated into English, and not to much fanfare. In the main, this seems to be a Saudi issue. Writes Kuwait University grad student Yahya T. Ali in an online response:

“Writings such as these are to stir up controversy for sales only”; that’s the default Islamist accusation to any book they don’t like. These writings are a symptom of the Saudi Arabian society and its issues; the issues are reflected, not directly in the diegesis of the novel, but in the context in which it exists. That sex is discussed in the novels, AND in readings of the novels, means everybody is involved, not just the “controversial” author.

While you’re at it, you can read a story of Al-Mohaimeed’s on his website. It’s not very sexy, though.

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