A diversity of themes and an eclectic array of writers ruled the roost at the recently-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival. Kanika Sharma caught up with three authors, from across the writing spectrum. While one peeped into the bedrooms of Cairo to spot the seed of the Arab Spring Revolution, the other was saddened by the genre of non-fiction being bamboozled by voyeurism, and the third author found Venice’s Indian counterpoint
How the Arab world has sex
Shereen el Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel attended the Festival’s Behind the Veil discussion that canvassed women writers of the Islamic world. Half Egyptian and a Muslim, she was brought up in Canada, and has recently penned the book that delves on whether the Spring Revolution really sprung from Arab bedrooms. Excerpts from an interview:
Jaipur Literature Festival had a footfall of 2,20,000 visitors this year ensuring packed full sessions despite the chill
The book’s premises is highly unusual. How did it come to you?
The idea of looking at the Arab world through sexuality came from my personal and professional background. Personally, I am half Egyptian, and a Muslim but I grew up in Canada. And then 9/11 happened and I hadn’t really thought much about the Arab world until that day. Professionally, I am an immunologist and I worked for many years for The Economist magazine. Part of my job was writing about HIV Aids and then I became interested in HIV Aids in the Arab region, as it is on the rise there whereas it’s plateauing in the rest of the world.
Shereen El Feki
What lies a lot behind this is, sex and the taboos behind sex, which are a huge obstacle in dealing with the HIV epidemic. HIV gave me a white coat of respectability to go in and start talking to men and women about sex. More than the physical act, it’s about desires and fantasies. And I soon realised that, what’s happening inside people’s bedrooms, is happening in the broader society and the socio-political context.
Can you tell us some unknown facts about Arab women, since they are the focus of your book.
First is female genital mutilation, which is only tangentially related to HIV. The fact is that 80% of 15 to 17-year-old girls are circumcised and there is this idea to control their sexuality. They don’t want girls to have sex before marriage. And that is the idea of citadel in the book (hence, the title). The only socially acceptable concept of sex is within marriage. And it’s problematic because an increasing number of people are not inside the citadel.
Second was that if you go to a shop in downtown Cairo, you will get one of the most fantastic lingerie. It could be described as tarty — as in, it was completely lurid. Amazing, frilly, fruffy objects — bras, when you push them they’ll play the rhyme, Old MacDonald Had A Farm. I was amazed. The women wore these because they said, ‘We can’t really say to our husbands that, look we want to have sex but when I wear this lingerie, I immediately send out a signal that I want to have intercourse’.
Do you agree that India mirrors the Middle East in terms of sexual conventions?
Our sexual cultures are very similar: where I am not only talking about Muslim India but the rest of India as well. I think the difference between the Arab world and India is that you have a democracy and the key is to have an active civil society. So, for instance, we have very similar sexual problems when it comes to crime. We are only beginning to tackle sexual issues that we are yet not dealing with in the Arab region.
Looking beyond The Secret
In a world, where Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, top charts and topple sales figures, Reza Aslan begs to differ. Famous for his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan spoke on an issue he routinely teaches at the University of California — non-fiction. The theme of his talk was how, with the genre being on an ascent, was knocking off fictional titles when it came to the moolah.
“Storytelling, itself, is changing. The very notion of what the story can do and how it can transform a person and society is clearer, which is why people are becoming more interested in ‘true stories’ rather than fiction. We don’t have a choice but to put ourselves in the role of the protagonist’s story. When the protagonist is a real person, it allows us to have a wholly new experience with a culture, religion, and race, that we never would have had the opportunity to have. That’s why non-fiction is becoming so much more important. Particularly in diverse cultures like India.”
Quiz him on whether the Internet is an alternative to such information, he disagrees, “Every single study of the Internet has proven that instead of expanding our horizons, it’s collapsing it even more. The idea that the Internet is a place where you can go and learn about other beliefs and cultures has proven to be false. When you go to the Net, you go and read what you already believe or already know.”
Yet, the international bestselling author, admitted that the digital media has its uses: “The Internet has created a culture of sharers. You know, look at my Facebook post, my life... And so, that too has had an effect in which readers when they look at two books — non-fiction / memoir and novel — they’ll probably go for the memoir because they have started to grow up in a culture where sharing has become deeply embedded.”
He terms the pattern completely voyeuristic and opines that it is also encouraged by publishers. “It satisfies this weird and insidious desire of people to look into the windows of other houses which is why memoirs, especially, are so dramatic. For example, ‘my 30 years of sexual abuse / 10 years of drug use’ — those are the memoirs that rise to the top. It’s not because they are better written but rather they give people an opportunity to peek.” Aslan concludes that there is a plethora of good writing in non-fiction to be read, given that it is true to the story and has a devoted reader.
“Venice & Varanasi are twin cities”
A popular panelist at the Jaipur Literature Festival and a writer with a huge fan following, British author Geoff Dyer spoke to us while braving the cold winter weather. The Guardian columnist, whose book, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, won him fans worldwide, asks for a simple thing from us — to sit in sunlight in order to thaw our frozen circulation systems. Doing that, we ask the ruminative and quintessential ‘postmodern’ writer, as literary critic James Wood puts it, on his reluctance to write: “I find writing extremely difficult; I got into writing because I couldn’t do anything else. Maybe it comes with age, don’t you think so?”
His penning of the essay, Out of Sheer Rage, about the early modern writer DH Lawrence is equally famous for his oscillation between writing and un-writing. Known to be a prominent genre bender, we ask his take on literary festivals. “I actually love festivals. They let me near my favourite authors and actually talk to them, as I have better access than most audiences. Last year, I met Annie Dillard who I am a huge fan of. She won the Pulitzer prize at the age of 28 and now she must be 60,” replies the writer, who has several awards in his kitty, including the National Book Critics Circle Award.
He admits that he treasures autographs of his favourites like Martin Amis and John Berger. He also loves being in India and has lately traversed from Kerala to Goa, Kochi and Varanasi. “As you know, Varanasi figures in my writing: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. To me, Venice and Varanasi are twin cities. Both are pilgrimage cities and are water-bound,” he shares.