The spirit of the 1960s touched the Arab world too, but, like castles made of sand, rapidly faded away.
As the Summer of Love faded into winter, Jimi Hendrix released Axis Bold as Love in December 1967. One of the tracks on this treasured album, which ranges from the funky and ethereal to the moving and melancholic, is the soulful and sad ‘Castles made of sand'.
Legend has it that Hendrix was inspired to write this meditative song by the beautiful Moorish forts in the sleepy and picturesque Moroccan port town of Essaouira which he, and before him Orson Welles, helped transform into a magnet for the hip and happening. Led Zeppelin were also drawn to Arab sounds and culture.
And the infatuation was mutual. Even mainstream Arab musicians started to experiment with western guitar riffs and synthesised sounds. In the 1960s and 1970s, millions of young Arab men and women followed the currents of western fashion: the then rebellious Beatle's mop-tops (which earned them the Arabic epithet khanafis “beetles” from their bewildered elders), miniskirts, sleeveless dresses, long hippy hair, tight flairs, even tighter shirts with wings for collars.
But why is it that now, in the 21st century, those early shoots seem to have failed to bloom? Part of the problem is that, as Hendrix would put it: “castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually”.
The sexual liberation of Arab youth has been held back mainly by the pincer movement of economics, family, religion and a post-colonial identity crisis. Lacking the affluence and democratic space of their western counterparts – and the discredited “old world” that was destroyed in the second world war – their rebellion against “the system” was often half-hearted.
Contrary to popular belief, perhaps the most feared institution in the Arab world is not the state, but the family. Although the most progressive end of the spectrum is open-minded and gives the young the room to be what they want, millions of Arabs live in both terror and respect of their family.
At university in Cairo, the liberal circles I socialised with went to discos, parties, rock concerts and bars, and many had an open-minded attitude to sex and drugs. But most of them hid it from their parents – and their families pretended not to know what they were up to – leading to a dual existence.
The side effect is that, rather than taking pride in their permissive lifestyle, many young Arabs feel an underlying sense of shame; that what they do is ultimately wrong. It also encourages social hypocrisy and dishonesty – “do what you want but don't openly question the system” is the general attitude. And that is also why rebellious youth too often grow up into a conventional adulthood, perpetuating the same silly values and contradictions. Personally, I – and some close friends – have tried to “live” our liberal values. For instance, when I wanted to live with my girlfriend in Cairo, I refused to engage in the sham that others agree to and pretend to be married.
And even in liberal Lebanon old attitudes seem to die hard. In Hekeh Niswan (Women's Talk) – the Lebanese version of The Vagina Monologues, one of the characters complains that: “Men here look at everything that's female, no matter what she looks like or what she's wearing. They all want to stop for a woman waiting for the bus or the taxi to see if maybe she'll ride with them. Sometimes I feel like I'm all just breasts and a …”
A bewildered Arab female blogger asks: “If men are so weak in the sexual area and so easily swayed by the sight of an ankle or a bit of hair or the view of some diffused body contour … would it not be simpler and more Islamic for the men to stay at home and cover their eyes and faces?”
The souring of the Arab secular experiment did not help matters. Despite massive strides towards personal liberation in the 1950s and 1960s, Arab secular regimes were tough on dissent and clamped down on the opposition. After the disastrous 1967 defeat, the Islamist counterculture came out from the wings and, with the confidence that comes with having God on their side, began to push the secularists more and more underground. In Egypt, the economic excesses, inequality and corruption of the 1970s, gave the Islamic current even more support.
But the progressives never went away – they just became more sidelined and cowed. However, a few brave voices kept the flame going, such as the filmmakers Muhammad Khan and Yousry Nasrallah in Egypt, Moufida Tlatli in Tunisia and Ousama Muhammad in Syria, to mention a few.
And sex has increasingly become a political weapon. While the relationship between the West and the Arab world in the post-colonial era has long been an uncomfortable one, in recent years the quest for Arab pride has moved from emulation of the West to opposition of it. And one major battlefield is sexuality. This politicising of sex (or the absence of it) has long struck me as weird. For some reason, conservatives have singled out sexual permissiveness as one of the most devastating weapons of mass destruction. This “decadence” has been blamed for everything from military defeat to poverty and scientific backwardness.
Only this week, Jordanian Islamists were up in arms at the government's decision finally to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. “This is a US-Zionist effort … to strip the nation of its ‘aqidah' (creed/faith) and culture, and to destroy the Muslim family,” railed Zayd el-Kelani, who heads the Islamic Labour Front, according to the daily al-Quds al-Araby.
I hate to burst el-Kelani's righteous bubble, but the US itself almost did not ratify the treaty because of opposition by the Christian right who feared that the convention would “legalise prostitution and open the door for the homosexual agenda”.
“The key, perhaps, to our social liberation is liberation from historical circumstances first. The post-colonial scapegoat is timeless in Arab society,” one Lebanese student wrote for a university paper.
Some people see the forces of sexual tolerance regrouping in the form of a number of taboo-breaking books and films, such as the Yacoubian Building in Egypt, as well as others in Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon. Even ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has not been spared.
“There has been a recent spate of Saudi novels discussing sexual issues, which is understandable given the context of gender segregation and tight social controls in an ultra-conservative society like that of Saudi Arabia,” Andrew Hammond, author of Popular Culture in the Arab World, told me.
Opinion is divided over whether Lebanon's export of scantily clad pop divas that dominate Arab satellite TV, such as Haifa, and more conservative Egypt's own ‘Ruby revolution‘, is a sign of changing sexual attitudes among the young or whether it is a form of visual steam control.
“The pattern in general is of creating ‘bubbles' of sexual liberation or freedom, such as Dubai, Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh, Tunisia's Hammamat, Lebanon,” Hammond notes. “I think the lines are now drawn. Islamists have pushed back the tide as much as they can. It will be perhaps years before one side recedes or pushes further the boundaries.”
But where emulation of the West failed to bring about sexual liberation, a more Islamic path shows promise of perhaps reaching the same outcome eventually. Islam has traditionally been open to the recreational aspects of sex and a quiet, sexual revolution in Islamic garb may be occurring, fuelled partly by economic necessity. Egypt has been hit by a tidal wave of “urfi” or informal marriages, often entered into between boyfriends and girlfriends to give their sexual relationships a sheen of legitimacy.
There has also been the gradual emergence or re-emergence of temporary marriages. The Shia'a have mut'a, a time-limited marriage contract, and zawaj al-misyar (‘marriage in transit') is emerging in some Sunni countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Sexual liberation has failed to make it through the front door but it could still find a back way in.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 11 August 2007.