In many of the new nations that emerged in the 20th century, literary fictionists were often expected to supply the myths and legends that an insufficiently imagined community needed in order to become cohesive and coherent. The Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk complains that when he decided to become a writer “literature was allied to the future: its job was to work hand in hand with the state to build a happy and harmonious society, or even nation”.
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For some, these three words are synonymous, for others they couldn’t be more different. Is it the culture that dictates the difference/similarity? Is it the subject at hand? Are the lines generally blurred?
We recently had this discussion at Daily News Egypt, prior to publishing this story: Guns, wars and chadors: the art of Ghada Amer.
Our culture editor Joseph Fahim sent me the two pictures that ran with this story with a note to check them first and tell him if they are fit for print. He said he didn’t see anything wrong with them, but wanted us to give them a closer look.
I looked, I couldn’t find anything unprintable. If you go to the article and scroll down, you’ll find that in the second picture, the multi layered drawing explores the female form, but the sexual connotation might be lost on anyone who doesn’t give it a closer look. But google “Ghada Amer” and you’ll see more of her in-your-face work available online.
She probes the female form, explores its sexuality, and challenges any form of (self) censorship.
But how would you describe her work? Sexual? Erotic? Obscene?
During the discussion, DNE Editor Rania Al-Malky correctly pointed out that ‘erotic’ is a description, while ‘obscene’ is a judgment, citing literary debates. But in our culture, would such distinction hold?
Many see sexual as erotic and in turn consider both obscene. And it’s not just the conservatism in our culture. Traces of similar attitudes can be seen — to a much lesser degree — in literary venues in more liberal societies. Even though writers like the respected and established novelist and essayist Zadie Smith have written or edited erotic stories (she edited a an anthology of erotic short stories according to her Wikipedia page), many literary journals and consumer magazines in the US and the UK that publish short stories, poems and novel excerpts have the “we don’t accept erotica” label on their publishing guidelines. The genre is often dismissed as lower or cheaper form of literature, even though the word “erotica” implies art as opposed to mere pornography.
Yet “sexual” scenes in literature are not dismissed or considered demeaning of any good piece of literature. Many classics and reputable contemporary bestsellers freely describe heterosexual and homosexual encounters without fear of denigration.
This distinction between sex-centered work and work that happens to include sex is for the most part non-existent here. Take Ehsan Abdel-Quodous for example. His work, famous for its critique of societal hypocrisies and women-centered narratives, was labeled as “Adab El Ferash” back in the 60s. It literally means “the literature of the mattresses” and was used as a derogatory term in reference to more intimate scenes in his short stories and novels.
Back then the existence of lines between sexuality, eroticism and obscenity was not even acknowledged. Forward 40 years, and the situation isn’t that different. When Alaa El-Aswany first released his sophomore novel “Chicago” in a series in El-Dostor, the tone of readers’ letters got a bit more aggressive as two of the protagonists’ relationship turned physical. The novel as a whole got the criticism of “too much sex”. Needless to say, the phrase itself is used as an insult, implying that the author is using sex to sell his literature.
But in a panel discussion following the release of the novel, Economist Galal Amin came to the rescue. He argued that sex scenes should be viewed through the eyes of the characters involved. If a man sees his daughter having sex, then the emotion shouldn’t be eroticism but the man’s own shock.
Basically, Amin argued for desexualizing the sex scenes, to remove the sexuality, eroticism, and definitely the obscenity that are always associated with similar literary depictions.
Would such endeavor find a lot of welcoming ears here in Egypt?
While it’s more probable to happen in the literary world, other more visual arts might not be as welcoming. I can’t see that the public and the critics would dissociate a local film, for example, from its more intimate scenes. Films that sell through a promise of steamy scenes would be bundled with others of better caliber that happen to include or allude to sex.
And with Ghada Amer’s work, she said she’s not expecting it to be displayed in Egypt any time soon. I’m not holding my breath either.