Shereen El Feki: This is my summer of Hay

Shereen El Feki

This is my summer of Hay: just back from the Beirut festival and heading to Hay-on-Wye this weekend.

Beirut was a marvellous introduction to the world of Hay. I’m well-acquainted with the city, through my research for Sex and the Citadel, but this was my first opportunity to formally present the book to audiences in the Arab region.  The response was tremendous, at the three venues at which I spoke: intelligent questions, incisive comments and laughter in all the right places. The high point was a Q&A session at the Beirut Art Center, deftly moderated by Paige Kollock, at which applause met my calls for people across the Arab region to ask same hard questions of sexual taboos that they now feel free to pose of politics, even religion, in the wake of the “Arab Spring”, and vigorously nodding heads when I talked about the process of sexual evolution, rather than revolution, in our part of the world.

The pace of Hay Beirut was perfect—even in our busy schedules, there was time enough to see old, and make new, friends.  Days of surprises, for a first-time author who never dreamed of moving in such distinguished company: chatting with Helena Kennedy about sex and the law over breakfast; crystal-ball gazing into Egypt’s future with Hani Shukrallah over lunch; crossing paths with Hanif Kureishi over dinner at one of Beirut’s marvelous open air restaurants (quite literally a breath of fresh air after Cairo).

And pleasing coincidences too: I met the remarkable Rosie Boycott on our way to a live performance of Alf Layla wa Layla (One Thousand and One Nights). We were late, so I snuck into the packed auditorium, only to find myself just in time for the tale of the “Porter and the Three Ladies” . It’s one of the classics of Arabic erotica—whose heritage, little known in today’s Arab world, I discuss in Sex and the Citadel—and it was wonderful to hear the audience’s giggles of delight—a welcome step towards rediscovering a greater ease in our collective sexual skin. I’ve been longing to meet the creative spark behind the show, Hanan al-Shaykh, for years; that Hay Beirut gave me that chance was a great gift.

From Beirut, Hay took the show on the road to Amman, where I spoke at the Columbia University Middle East Research Center, expertly organized by Hanya Salah and her colleagues and chaired by Sahar Khalifeh. Another surprising event. Amman is, ostensibly, a more conservative city than Beirut. But who would have thought I’d face more probing questions about my own sexual life from the audience than I did in New York (at an event in the Museum of Sex, no less), or that zoophilia would get such a look-in? Amman—I can’t wait to return to such an unexpected city.