Wednesday, November 08, 2006

saqi's 'sexuality in the arab world'

Hot from the stable of Saqi Books comes the new title 'Sexuality in the Arab World', complete with torrid cover. The publication of this book, hard on the heels of Briain Whitaker's 'Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East', suggests that Saqi is carving a niche for itself in the vital but understudied (in the academic sense) area of Arab sexuality. The new book is edited by two prominent sociologists: Samir Khalaf, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Behavioural Research at the American University of Beirut, and John Gagnon, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who is described as 'a leading figure in the sexual research field.'

The book is a collection of papers which were presented at the three-day conference on Middle Eastern sexuality held in Beirut in December 2003. That conference was a follow-up to a conference held at St Antony's College, Oxford University, in June 2000 with funding from the Ford Foundation. Khalaf presents a strong case for an open and informed public debate on Arab sexuality. But despite the popular media, feminist groups, human rights advocates, medical and public health practitioners, NGOs and policy makers making repeated appeals to address the dire consequences of some of the problems around sexuality in the Arab world, little has been done to heed such calls. 'Sexuality remains a mystified, taboo and unexplored dimension of Arab culture,' Khalaf writes.

Professors Khalaf and Gagnon have each provided a valuable introduction to the book. In his introductory chapter 'Living with Dissonant Sexual Codes', Khalaf explores the ways in which in the Arab world 'the sexual realm, particularly in recent years, has been subjected to conflicting and dissonant expectations and hence has become a source of considerable uncertainty, ambivalence and collective anxiety.' Gagnon's chapter 'States, Cultures, Colonies and Globalization: A Story of Sex Research' put the study of sexuality in the Arab world in a global and historic context. Even in the US, where research into sexuality was pioneered, the field of sex policy especially in relation to HIV/AIDS is a politicla and religious minefield.

Susannah Tarbush

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