Christmas Gift: Youssef Rakha’s Arab Porn *Remixed*

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Youssef Rakha. A stock photo of a woman in niqab is made up of versions of Aliaa Magda Elmahdy’s iconic picture, her act of protest of 2011.


Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.
– Plato, BC 427–347

Always I have and will
Scatter god and gold to the four winds.
When we meet, I delight in what the Book forbids.
And flee what is allowed.
– Abu Nuwas, AD 756–813

The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence; by asking this question one is merely admitting to a store of unsatisfied libido to which something else must have happened, a kind of fermentation leading to sadness and depression.
– Sigmund Freud, 1937

The revolution is for the sake of life, not death.
― Herbert Marcuse, 1977

Eros is an issue of boundaries.
– Anne Carson, 1986

Scene–1

“Hi, I’m writing a piece on Arab porn and would love to get your input…”

“Why would I be relevant to Arab porn?”

“Porn meaning explicit web content, or sexual self expression in general.”

“I see. Well, okay. I’d like to read what you’re writing but I don’t want to contribute. Not because I’m against the idea. I just don’t feel like revealing anything at this point, or I don’t have anything to reveal. I don’t want to explain myself or my sexuality or whatever.”

Scene–2

And so I know nothing of the force behind this fortuitously encountered social media account. Which, while not containing full nudity as such, is among the most powerful examples of web erotica I have come across in recent years. 

Once your request for access is granted, you can see the beautiful young woman who is both artist and model belly dancing in revealing underwear, in the kitchen of a comfortable family house suggestively holding a girlfriend while the Quran resounds in the background or – in Gulf-style black hijab – sitting at a café table with her lips around a large biscuit and the caption, “Do you serve dicks for breakfast?” 

In an installation-like video with no distinct picture, you can even hear her having an orgasm.

Dialogue–1

This remains a perfectly casual web channel, kept virtually unknown (with an incredibly low follower count) by remaining protected and, I suspect, using the block function frequently. But it is also a perfect example of what I like to call Arab porn: lo-fi, homemade web content that, while not being part of a money-making or web traffic-driving enterprise, is nonetheless intended primarily to cause arousal. 

Even when they are morally suspect – posted without the models’ consent, for example – such videos, I feel, perform an essential function. They affirm female sexuality and individual agency; they carve out a space for otherwise forbidden knowledge; they uncover ethical and social contradictions; they afford access to publicly inadmissible truths. 

Porn has a crucial function at least in the context of Arab society (Egypt being my offline example), where the predominant forces continue to insist on closeting libido, making personal realities the hostages of a premodern and dysfunctional sense of right. This means denying desire as a necessary condition for creativity, vitality, even productivity. 

It also means treating women’s bodies – for the most part head- and increasingly face-covered by default – as property to be transferred from father or brother to husband, for a price; only specimens with their freshness seal (that is, their hymen) intact are allowed on the market. The transaction also requires the establishment’s sectarian stamp of approval in the form of a marital contract, without which no one can safely admit to copulating or demand the right to do so in peace. Contracts are available only to couples who belong to one or the other of the two officially recognised creeds; no inter-faith union can be had, and only conversion from Christianity to Islam, the majority religion, is allowed. Making sex the exclusive privilege of rich and well-connected men, marriage nonetheless remains a financially prohibitive and socially complicated undertaking. This tends to blow the significance of even a passing sexual encounter out of all proportion. It also encourages criminalising sex even when it is consensual and unpaid, since anyone having it out of wedlock is potentially shortchanging those who paid for it through legitimate means, whether by jeopardising women’s virginity or granting men unable or unwilling to marry the same privilege.

In this context, public or semi-public sexual self-expression by women becomes a necessary antidote not only to duplicity and hypocrisy in personal affairs but, more importantly, to the homicidal impulse that results from systematic deprivation in the long run: terror of disgrace, persecution, ostracism, guilt, despair and self-hatred. Because it is precisely by renouncing desire while affirming an aggrieved sectarian identity, rewarding homicide with slave girls in this life and houris in the next, that a society ends up producing Daesh

Dialogue–2

And yet when it comes to individuality and the body, the nominally secular opposition has never been any different from the regime. Neither is ready to question the deeper malaise of which authoritarianism, corruption and abuse in politics are symptoms; in reality it is undeniable that the same behavioural patterns occur (often with even greater frequency and intensity) outside the corridors of power. But neither the opposition nor the regime has the courage to address systematic incompetence, intergenerational entitlement and – oil-funded fanaticism aside – the methodical elimination of difference. Neither is willing to admit that not recognising libido for the tremendous force it is will inevitably contribute to social, cultural, even economic dysfunction. 

Standing in quiet and admirably unpretentious contrast – not only unselfconscious about its role but also often unconscious of it – Arab porn tackles the social-cultural truth head on. It gives the lie not only to religion and tradition but also to (nationalist or Islamist) ideology. It exposes the mechanisms that justify collective mortido, veiling all kinds of deathliness in such values as righteousness, belonging and loyalty.

That’s why this young woman strikes me as more heroic than Arab Spring revolutionaries. They did no such truth telling. Instead they offered themselves up to security and vigilantes with suicidal fatalism. They eagerly served Islamist interests, and repeatedly expressed their willingness to go to war with their compatriots. They consistently rejected the presence among them of such body-oriented activists as Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, who posted a nude picture of herself as a contribution to the revolution. 

Warriors for democracy they might’ve been, but they had no respect for human life and no interest in what gives it meaning. The girl I am talking about, by contrast, is a warrior for joy and, in however low-key a way, for the truth. Her courage moves me, never mind turning me on. And I don’t care what her political views are. She is a heartening reminder that, while the Arab Spring turned out to be a manifestation of Thanatos, Eros lives on in Arab porn.

Scene–3

Eros’s exhilarating presence comes through in a video series of and by one remarkably provocative girl some sites call Sirine. Predating the social media account I’ve been describing by about a year, these videos are the phenomenon’s fully public, hardcore face. They benefit from the same cosy setting, imparting the sense that a family house or, in this case, a marital bedroom (since Sirine has a ring on her left hand) can double as a space for individual exhibitionism. They function as the same kind of visual soliloquy, with no one else present (though at times there is the subtle suggestion of a sexual partner on the unseen computer screen in front of her). And they contain the same cliche-defying sexuality, transcending not only received notions of romantic love but also the prescriptive choreographies of commercial porn. 

Sirine, who at no point says anything to anyone, is confident and clear-headed as she unhurriedly performs her sexuality to standards which, however “male”, are freely chosen. Her brief is to thoroughly demonstrate how she would like to be made love to, and she takes expert, efficient pleasure in undressing and arranging her body in various penetration-ready positions, tasting herself and proffering her anus. Artlessly, almost emotionlessly, she adjusts the web cam and smiles at it before appropriating the male gaze for a more or less comprehensive session of concerted lovemaking. She leaves you in no doubt at all that she’s enjoying herself as she replaces her fingers with an aerosol can or swivels to bring her breasts into view, too self-possessed to be called shameless. 

Her intensity is comparable to that of an online activist setting out his idea of utopia online. But, from where I stand seven years into the Arab Spring, it is infinitely more convincing.

Pause: Five Sentences from a Previous Text

(1) When you type “Arab” on a porn site, the screen changes.
(2) The hijab does not reduce lust; it increases it.
(3) “They feign scruples when it is they who are desirous.”
(4) Desire can subvert power without having to oppose it.
(5) In porn you can hear the Arab world whispering to itself.

Dialogue–3

Both activism and porn were initially confined to cyberspace. At one point activism managed to make an impact in the real world, but to do so, as it turns out, it had to uphold the patriarchal impulse, cowing to moral and material violence. Changing nothing.

Because even the web-savvy activists who kick-started the revolution in Egypt in January 2011 were no different from the opposition at large. They could not see beyond power abuse. They did not consider the possibility that it is the suppression of individual and sexual identity, and not or not just the lack of political participation, that has been holding back the country and the region. And even now the revolutionary camp continues to preach the myth that if not for autocracy as such, Arabs would be living in a paradise of freedom and equality. In fact the revolution’s disastrous outcome has had as much to do with the limitations and falsehoods of this perspective as anything.

Conservative if not reactionary at heart, I don’t think it would be unfair to say that, all things considered, the Arab Spring activists sided with the lie. 

Instead of trying to replace the reigning morality, they objected to faults in its implementation. Instead of questioning the composition and nature of the power structure, they took issue with the people who happened to occupy it. Instead of subverting the quotidian, they contested the Islamists’ piety, the military’s patriotism and the patriarchal convictions of both. And so they ended up seeking power, only to be readily used by more credible power seekers. All through, what is worse, their self expression was compromised if not by profit as such then by an equally ignoble commerce in follows, likes, shares – and slogans. 

It’s true. 

There was a time in Cairo when by claiming to live-tweet from demonstrations or using a certain combination of insults and hashtags you could instantly turn into a celebrity. Protests that were triggered online had brought about the impossible, after all, forcing Hosny Mubarak – the inviolate head of state for thirty years – to step down. The young and privileged cybernauts who had prophesied and pushed for this – hitherto routinely derided in a classist, ageist culture – seemed suddenly at the helm of history. And Egyptians without wifi or without Facebook eagerly logged on so they could hear the forecast. 

But the tide turned quickly as economic and security losses failed to pay off. The only beneficiaries were the Islamists, who were far less competent than the ancien régime and whose agenda was clearly more retrograde and repressive. In Syria, Libya and Yemen, open-ended civil war broke out. The activists began to look like secret agents or useful idiots, and mainstream, nationalist forces quickly reasserted themselves. The eventual result was an even more virulent version of the status quo ante, complete with power abuse and a new inviolate head of state. 

Dialogue–4

Meanwhile, porn! 

It emerges simultaneously with online activism through the first decade of the aughts. And, even if it can never be as high-profile precisely because it is truly subversive, it too is clearly a way of bypassing mainstream channels to say the unsayable (the even less sayable than “Down with Mubarak”!) In an infinitely more radical way, as it seems, porn interrogates the received discourse about what is real, right or true. And because its makers have no vested interest in the moral high ground, it involves no virtue signalling, no monopoly on the truth, no kowtowing to a local or global status quo. 

All over the Arab world, young women and men seeking freedom in the realm of the senses – to borrow the title of Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 film: an appropriate reference – have been staging an alternative spring. They use the internet not to question political authority but to affirm their bodies as a creative and life-giving force. And in the light of the revolution’s outcome, this feels like a more viable strategy for long-term change. Topple the regime as many times as you like, you cannot change a country by telling a single black-and-white story of political oppression and resistance. Unless all you want is to replace persons or groups in an otherwise fixed network of relations, you have to look beyond good and evil. 

Compared to the activists’ picture of reality, at least porn tells a complex story.

Scene–4

An attractive nurse who hasn’t had time to take off her hijab lies back on an examination table while a young doctor films himself penetrating her. His gaze emphasises her face. On which, mixed with fear of a possible scandal (since they seem to be behind a locked door in an otherwise busy and noisy working environment), the effects of him sliding his penis into and out of her belie any possible significance of the religious garment on her head. There is shame in her voice as she murmurs his name, but there seems to be unbearable pleasure when, following the example of his hand, she starts pulling at her nipples while he fucks her. A commercial-style cum shot ends the proceedings, which is when the doctor steps far enough back for you to see the whole of her body for the first time. 

The scene draws on an old genre of commercial pornography and contributes to the emergence of a new one. In its amateurish POV way, it recalls doctors-and-nurses porno chic. But unlike the expansively performed, overproduced classics of the American Golden Age (1969–1984), there is something extremely real-life about it. Besides the obviously low-tech picture and sound, there is the secretive ambience, the performer’s reluctance and the feeling that both hospital and hijab are incidental to the sexual activity taking place. All this gives the action the taboo-ridden urgency of something not supposed to be happening or (if it is happening against the odds) not supposed to be seen. 

As Arab porn it is perfect. It excites and exposes in equal measure. It says more about life and lust than any canned consumerist product ever can.

Thanks to the refugee crisis occasioned by the Arab Spring – irony of ironies! – since its appearance in 2015 this video has heralded the emergence in mainstream adult entertainment of hijab porn. Whether as a newly hallowed genre with dedicated sites like arabsexposed.com or as a popular sub-genre in teen porn, the image of an otherwise naked, darker skinned young woman having sex with a headscarf on her head – while not entirely unprecedented – has become a staple of all kinds of smut tubes. And with titles like “21 year old Refugee in my Hotel Room” and “Hungry Arab Woman Fucks for Food”, it is clear they are playing to the idea of exploiting newly dispossessed women fleeing the ravages of revolution.

Dialogue–5

I am writing this in April 2018. By now Arab Spring activists are fully absented from the public sphere. Defeated, they brood – in private if not in prison – dreaming of emigration or murder. Whether because of smear campaigns or disappointment in their spectacular lack of vision, there is no love lost between them and “the people”. Once the sound of hope, the activists’ online voice is now so depressing – and their rhetoric of martyrdom in the face of tyranny so atavistic – they’re starting to come across like discursive zombies. 

The need for secular dissent is greater at present than it ever was under Mubarak, but no one is under any illusions. These people’s moralistic posturing and Islamist-addled politics hold absolutely no promise. 

As evidenced by the social media account described at the start of this essay, by contrast, Arab porn is making byways into the non-pornographic web. In the broadest range of tones, it is modulating its central message. Despite religion, tradition and ideology (the message says), despite the lie of perfect chastity, it is desire – female desire – that will win out in the end. 

This, despite greater security intervention online and more state repression in the moral as much as the political sphere. But can it really be said that explicit web content provides an alternative cue to the kind of social change that has eluded mass protest? 

My thesis is simple. Arab porn is part of the drive – conscious or unconscious, widespread or niche, actual or virtual – to acknowledge and assimilate the reality of desire. The process is important both because it promises to relieve society’s otherwise suppressed libido and because it provides a more realistic and meaningful picture of individual lives than any official or socially acceptable reference point. Who knows how much it can help Arabs break out of the death drive that seems to have taken historical hold.

For centuries the Arab world has lacked a binding work ethic, a coherent value system, a collective sense of achievement or any positive identity. More and more through the second half of the twentieth century, as a result, the region has proved itself capable of producing all kinds of horrors in lieu of a contribution to contemporary civilisation. These include not only suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, not only honour killings and genital mutilations, but also – and since 2011 directly through the efforts of “well-meaning” and “liberal” activists – civil wars and sectarian genocides. 

At least potentially, Arab porn feels like an integral part of the campaign to close down the jihadi production plants.

Scene–5

Apparently to preserve her retail value, one girl – filmed with her legs pushed back – is being penetrated anally. Compared to the doctor mentioned above, her lover-cameraman is unsteady on his feet and rather artistically inclined. His imagery recalls Dogma 95 methods, which gives the action an unsettling video art-like quality. 

The focus is less on the subject’s face than her clitoris and labia which, stimulated by finger and penis tip, induce subtle jerks and moans that both complement and contrast with her “virginal” desecration from behind. Neither her face nor her body register any pain, though there is something movingly stoic about the way she looks at her lover, as if she is going through a rite of passage: some necessary ritual or sacrament. The feeling that she’s doing this because she believes in doing it comes through in such a powerful way it leaves no doubt as to the life-affirming message it contains. Calm though she remains, her expressions are remarkable. They are so smooth and spontaneous they successfully deflect attention from the insanity of a girl being sodomised in order to preserve her innocence! 

But the most overwhelming feeling remains, this is a spectacle the world needs to see.


This piece was written for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Quarterly, where it was published in German translation. It is being published in the original English here for the first time.