The Liberation of Erotic Literature
The novel The Proof of the Honey by Syrian author Salwa al-Neimi is celebrated by some as a milestone of modern Arabic literature and condemned by others as scandalous prose. In an interview with Rim Najmi, the author explains that despite the lightness of its literary style, her novel poses fundamental intellectual and political questions
Your first novel, The Proof of the Honey, attracted a great deal of attention from both readers and critics alike. The most frequent response had more to do with your "courage" in tackling one of the greatest taboo themes in Arab culture and less with the literary qualities of your novel. What do you think was the decisive factor for all the attention?
Salwa al-Neimi: Thank you for this question. I always say the success of the book is primarily based on its language and style. I make this claim even though most of the critics tend to emphasize the theme of the novel and the fact that it crosses the red line. Unfortunately, they have little interest in the actual text itself. Some critics constantly talk about freedom of expression, although this often turns out to be just an end in itself. When it comes to a contemporary text, it is often judged in terms of moral categories, which is just another form of censorship.
By Arab standards, your novel, The Proof of the Honey, sold in record numbers in only a short time. It has also been translated into many languages. What does the international publication of your work mean to you?
Al-Neimi: First and foremost, I wrote The Proof of the Honey for Arab readers. The novel was well received and much read, whether in book form or over the Internet, even though it was banned in the Arab world, with the exception of the Maghreb. This pleased me immensely, after all, I write in Arabic. Only later was the book translated into 19 languages.
Foreign publishers interested in a translation based this on the fact that the novel breaks the stereotypical images of Arab culture. This pleases me as well. By focusing on old, classical Arabic works of erotic literature in my literary work, I wanted to show that it is quite possible to write about sexuality and intimacy in Arabic. After all, sexual lust – beyond any sinful or impure thoughts – always held a high place in Arab culture. I wanted to hearken back to the forgotten masters of Arabic erotica, such as al-Sujuti and al-Jahiz.
Most Western publishers are primarily interested in scandalous, supposedly taboo-breaking themes from the Arab world, especially when the works in question deal with religious or sexual issues. Don't you think that such a constricted view of the Arab world ignores the variety of its culture?
Al-Neimi: So Western publishers are interested in courageous Arab books? Why not? After all, these books don't just appear from nowhere, but are part of contemporary Arabic literature and were written for the Arab reader. In addition, I would like to stress that the works of important Arab writers, starting with our mentor Nagib Mahfus, have already been translated into other languages. One can see here that these are the same authors that also made their mark in the Arabic literature scene. If there truly is a limitation in perceptions within Arabic literature, then it has to be attributed primarily to the constricted perspective of Arab creative artists themselves.
Unfortunately, certain well-known writers and critics in the Arab world take the position that translations of books that do not correspond to their own world-view are the work of the Western devil, who is intentionally trying to distort the picture of Arab culture.
If my novel had not garnered the attention of Arab readers, then foreign publishers would not have become aware of my work. Without the lively debates in which the book has been described as the first erotic Arab novel, a milestone of contemporary Arabic literature, scandalous prose and so on, my book would never have reached the international book market. In itself, though, writing about supposed taboo themes like sex or religion hardly suffices to qualify as literature, but, at most, merely makes for a topic of conversation.
As a consequence of The Proof of the Honey being published, many publications and novels have come to light that also deal with the topic of sexuality, such as the magazine Jasad by the Lebanese poet Joumana Haddad, the poetry anthology Erotica by Saadi Youssef and the novel Garden of the Senses by Abduh Wazin. Is this just a mere coincidence, or are we currently experiencing a moment of literary liberation from the taboo status of sexuality?
Al-Neimi: I believe that there is no coincidence here. Literature does not take place in a vacuum, but always picks up on present social currents. Nevertheless, I was at first surprised by the intensity of the commotion surrounding The Proof of the Honey, as I had assumed that writing about sexuality was no longer considered taboo in our society. Perhaps this is because I no longer took Arab censorship seriously in the age of the Internet.
I began with the same degree of freedom that I observed in classical Arabic erotic literature. Incidentally, I also found this freedom in contemporary literature among authors such as Nagib Mahfus, Tayyib Salih and Emile Habibi.
To what extent can literature contribute to a revival of the Arab cultural heritage, which has been lost in modern times?
Al-Neimi: I think that The Proof of the Honey poses fundamental questions concerning our relationship to the Arabic language and our Islamic heritage. How did this break between our present and our cultural heritage – a break that distorts us and poisons our perception of our own bodies – come about? This is not only an intellectual, but also a political question that lies behind the lightness of the book's literary style.
Today, more than three years after the publication of my novel, I understand what a shock it must have been for the Arab reader to be able to read about sexual experience in this way. I am constantly reminded of this whenever I follow heated debates about my novel on Internet forums. It is almost as if I had brought to light elementary questions about sexuality that had previously been hidden in Arab society. When a young reader writes that The Proof of the Honey has reconciled us with our bodies, then I am happy.
Beyond any moral or societal condemnation, I think that it was absolutely necessary to contribute to the liberation of erotic literature by writing The Proof of the Honey and invoking classical Arabic literature. So yes, books truly do have the power to question apparently sacrosanct literary, societal and political norms.
Interview: Rim Najmi
© Qantara.de 2010
Salwa al-Neimi is a Syrian journalist who lives in Paris. She studied Arabic Philology, Islamic Philosophy and Theatre in Damascus and Paris. Her dissertation was on Arab women's novels. She regularly writes for the newspaper Barid Al-Junub and the magazine ARABIES.
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de