Shereen El Feki – a writer, broadcaster and PhD in molecular immunology – spent five years investigating the radical upheaval of Arab society: not in the political sphere, but in the bedrooms of the region. Sex, she believes, is deeply enmeshed with religion, politics and the economy. And learning about married life, dating, homosexual circles and sex education, to name only a few of the taboo topics she explored, can give us rich insight into everyday lives and dreams. Here, in an adapted excerpt from her book Sex and The Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World (out March 16), Ms. El Feki introduces us to a famous Arab sex therapist.
Lackluster lovemaking is positively un-Islamic.
“Let none of you come upon his wife like an animal, and let there be an emissary between them,” the Prophet Mohammed is reported to have said. “What is this emissary, O Messenger of God?” a clueless believer asked. “The kiss and [sweet] words,” he replied.
If those sentiments seem to be lost in contemporary Arab society, one woman is out to breathe that pioneering spirit back into marital relations: Heba Kotb, the Arab world’s best-known sex therapist.
“We don’t have a lot of time in this world. And we practise sex, so let’s practise it in a good way,” she enthused. “Let’s transform it into the dynamo of our life and our happiness.”
Kotb and I first met at her clinic in a trendy part of Cairo a couple of years before the recent uprisings. “For now, I’m booked three months in advance. Daily, I see between 10 and 20 [patients]. In the summer [when Egyptians living abroad, and Arabs from elsewhere in the region, visit Cairo], it’s usually a mess.”
Her Egyptian patients come from all classes, locations, and age groups; although women are traditionally expected to head into sexual hibernation at menopause (in Arabic, the “age of despair”), Kotb’s clientele also includes a sprinkling of those well past retirement.
Patients have not always been forthcoming. When Kotb first set up shop in 2001, the few people bold enough to seek help were wary about putting in an appearance. “The man would ask whether he would be seen in my office or not [and], if there’s another patient on the day, whether there would be a space so that they would not overlap,” she recalled.
Now, she says, “They are waiting outside. Things change.”
This change is in part due to Kotb herself. In 2006, she burst into Arab households with Kalam Kabir (Big Talk), a weekly TV series on sexual problems broadcast by one of Egypt’s private satellite channels. The show’s dozen or so episodes openly ventured into areas where other presenters had feared to tread – online porn, oral sex, and wedding night jitters, among them. For just under an hour, a soberly suited Kotb, her hair and neck fully covered by a hijab, dispensed advice on various topics, her lengthy monologues relieved by the occasional guest expert and an imam giving an Islamic take on the issue at hand, be it masturbation or voyeurism.
For all the hardships Egyptians now face, there is a new freedom of expression, one Kotb sees in her patients: Earlier it was mainly husbands dragging in their wives for consultation; after the 2011 uprising, she found the situation reversed. “Women are more courageous now to accuse their husbands of not being good [in bed]. It is the spirit of the revolution – I have to reject, I have to refuse, I have to say no [I am not the one to blame],” she told me.
Kotb’s advice to couples is shaped by her faith.
“I love Islam,” she told me. “I admire the religion. In radical Christianity, sex is not a good thing, even within marriage. But this is not logic; people find themselves desiring something, and they couldn’t get attached to that religion, so they start to get out of that religion. In Islam, it’s the contrary: sex is something that is advised. … This makes people more religious and more loving to this religion, which is giving them all this space, which is giving them all this pleasure – and also the reward in this life and the hereafter.”