- Friendship Amid Frenzy: The Correspondence of Kamel Daoud and Adam Shatz
A few days ago, a Tunisian friend sent me an op-ed that had appeared in Le Monde. The text bore the signatures of a number of academics I know. These academics are a bit bien-pensant* I admit, but even so they are not your enemies—at least they ought not to be your enemies. The tone of their letter bothered me. I didn’t appreciate its style of public denunciation, which, in its leftist puritanism, reminded me of the Soviet-era excommunications. And you must know that as your friend, I wouldn’t sign such a letter against you, even though I do not at all share the opinions that you expressed in your article in Le Monde and shortly thereafter repeated, even more vigorously it seems to me, in your editorial in The New York Times.
It is very difficult for me to imagine that you could really believe what you wrote. This was not the Kamel Daoud I know, and whom I profiled in a long article for the Times Magazine. When I was in Oran, we spoke at length about the problems of sexuality in the Arab-Islamic world. But we also spoke of the ambiguities of “culture” (a word that I dislike); for example, the fact that veiled women are sometimes among the most sexually emancipated. In your recent writings, it’s as though all the ambiguities that we discussed so extensively, and which you, more than anyone, could analyze in all their nuance, had disappeared. What’s more, you did this in publications read by Western audiences who will find in your writing little more than a confirmation of their own prejudices and preconceptions.
I’m not saying you’re doing it on purpose, or even that you’re playing the game of the “imperialists.” I’m not accusing you of anything. Except perhaps of not thinking and of falling into strange and potentially dangerous traps—for example, the idea that there is a direct relationship between what happened in Cologne and Islamism, or even Islam itself.
I would remind you that several years ago a similar thing happened—not of the same magnitude, but it happened nonetheless—at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. The Puerto Ricans who molested women in the street were not under the influence of Islam but rather of alcohol. … Without any evidence that it was “Islam” that drove the behavior of the men in Cologne, it seems curious to me to put forth such propositions and to suggest that this “illness” is threatening Europe. … In her classic book, Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag demonstrated that this concept of “illness” has a somewhat dark history, often tied to fascism. Jews, as you well know, were themselves considered a strain of illness; and European anti-Semites in the 19th century, at the very moment of emancipation, were extremely preoccupied with the sexual customs of Jews and with the dominance of Jewish men over women … the echoes of this obsession make me uneasy.
I’m not saying that we should refrain from speaking at all about the question of sexual freedom in the Arab-Islamic world—of course we shouldn’t. There are plenty of writers who have addressed the subject in ways that have [End Page 67] been revelatory (the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, the Syrian poet Adonis, and, albeit a bit hysterically at times, the Algerian novelist Rachid Boujedra), and I know from our conversations, and from your masterful novel, that you are well poised to take on this subject. In fact there are very few who can speak of it with such incisiveness as you can—but after having reflected on it and in a manner that goes beyond provocation and cliché.
After I read the op-ed, I had lunch with an Egyptian author, a friend whom I know you would like, and she told me that all her young friends in Cairo are bisexual. Discreetly, of course, but they live their lives. They get their orgasms, even before marriage; they are creative...