Book Quote:

” ‘Whence springs love?’ asks Ibn Arabi.

” ‘I love what fills me with light and increases the darkness deep within me,’ answers Rene Char.

“Between the question and the intimation of a reply, I moved ever closer to the Thinker, becoming more aware of the dangerous game that was defining itself in the space between us.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew (AUG 8, 2009)

The nameless seductress of The Proof of the Honey declares, “In my life I have been addicted to beds and stories.” She has studied the classical Arabic erotica of al-Suyuti and al-Nafzawi, as well the Kama Sutra and Western works by Casanova, Henry Miller, and Georges Bataille. She also makes wild and saucy claims of having taken numerous lovers of both genders. These then form the bases of her addictions and a discernable core to her wandering writings about sex in the Near East.

Readers will find themselves trying to “swim” in a sea of contradictions and illusions under the pen of this intentionally unreliable narrator. Pushing us to frequently re-orient ourselves and reevaluate her provocative pronouncements reinforces the mysteries of sex and the vagaries of cultural pressures concerning its expression.

Her eleven chapters are “gates” she leads us through in latter-day Scheherazade style. Instead of a thousand stories, she boasts as many sexual partners. She tells us tales of an ancient mercury bed (to assist physical union) and the legalities of the temporary Shiite “marriage of pleasure”. She quotes Arab songs, verses, and folk wisdom (” ‘There are two kinds of women — lettuce women and women of embers’ “). In free-love fashion she declares, “Some people conjure spirits. I conjure bodies. I have no knowledge of my soul or the soul of others. I know only my body and theirs.” And one body she repeatedly encounters as she passes through her gates is that of the Thinker, the man whose sexual prowess caused her public and secret lives to converge. However, the Thinker is an illusive entity, a concoction actually, on whom this woman desires to hang her feelings and her thoughts on sex in the Arab world at large…and her in own private, swirling enclosure of passionate creation. She contemplates, “I read what I have written and it occurs to me that I have made the Thinker into an allegory….I said, ‘Be,’ and he was.”

Syrian Salwa Al Neimi’s novel (more correctly, novella) reportedly raised a sensation when it was published in Arabic. One can assume in Islamic culture it is a very daring volume. One example: it’s “Ninth Gate: Linguistics” dwells on a very crass word for intercourse. The narrator’s Arabic spell check program won’t acknowledge the word, proving, she says, that it is “programmed for dissimulation.” It has “castrated the language….castrated the computer….castrated me” she rants. Whether true freedom is dependent on the ability to spew the f-word at will is highly debatable, but it illustrates well that The Proof of the Honey intends to foment controversy in Arab society. It desires to poke the stick at the wasps’ nest in a part of the world that remains relatively insular and circumspect about sexual matters.

When a scholar named Sohar says she has heard the narrator intends to write about ” ‘love as seen by the Arabs,’ ” she (Sohar) is confused because there are already ” ‘ lots of books on the subject.’ ” The narrator interrupts with “deliberate rudeness” and corrects her: ” ‘I am writing about sex as seen by the Arabs.’ ” Sex. Not love. Again, she is about the body, about erotic literature, about framing a combustible thesis and goading its debate. The Proof of the Honey‘s author, through her narrator, propounds an extreme feminist view — with curious spears of male chauvinism protruding in some passages. Using this short volume as a barometer, the sexual revolution that shook the Western world in the 1960’s and ’70’s may be, for good or not, edging further into Muslim social consciousness now.

The sensual cover art of The Proof of the Honey suggests a novella of refined eroticism and lyricism. One cannot, upon finishing the book, be entirely satisfied, however, because:

1) The slight plot about an expat in Paris (the author, by the way, has herself lived in Paris since the 1970’s) one also readying a research paper on “ancient Arab books on sex” for a scheduled conference in the U.S. is thin veneer; it is a platform for the author’s mini essays.

2) The author’s/narrator’s thoughts are often confused and partial.

3) Although “sexual honey” and seductive lower backs are embedded (pun intended) in certain passages, for the most part, one needn’t fan oneself from embarrassment. Much original English-language erotic literature is arguably far more developed and arousing than this translation.

Despite its shortcomings as fiction, The Proof of the Honey is a unique and enticing historical and contemporary insight into Arab perspectives on sex…and this book may play a part in causing those existing perspectives to shift.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Europa Editions (April 28, 2009)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Publisher’s page on Salwa Al Neimi
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More books of interest:

Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

The Isle of Dogs by Daniel Davies

The Inner Circle by T. C. Boyle


August 8, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Debut Novel, Iran, Translated, Unique Narrative, World Lit

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