Reporting from Cairo — Take a glimpse across Egypt's sexual landscape and you'll see the devil's ploys, unrequited passions, mundane marital rhythms, tempestuous affairs, the threat of God, the shame of society and, in one wrenching scene, a village girl circumcised by a man wielding a knife.
Sex in most cultures is balanced between sanctity and sin, that precarious, often titillating, terrain veering from the virtue of the family to a bondage fetish captured on a cellphone and dispersed across the Internet. We become the hidden strands of our desires. Sexual tastes around the world navigate religion, rigid gender roles, centuries of tradition and fears over the allure of Western permissiveness. But in Islamic countries, such as Egypt, these lines are more constrictive and firmly drawn.
"Sex Talk," a new documentary by director Amr Bayoumi, is an earnest peek into the Egyptian bedroom. Not perhaps entirely candid, the film shadows the faces of its subjects, including university students, an accountant and a cafeteria worker, to protect their identities. Chatting about orgies, masturbation, unresponsive spouses and first sexual encounters is not done with the unabashed confessional fervor peddled on American reality TV shows.
"Sex is talked about more and more, but the discussion remains under the ceiling of religious and social codes," said Bayoumi, whose 2007 feature film, "Girls," followed the travails of provincial coeds enrolled in a Cairo university. "You can't speak against these. There are taboos."
A slight man with a cigarette voice, Bayoumi, 49, who has directed 10 documentaries, said: "I started out to make a small film of three or four women discussing orgasms. It was too narrow a focus. I wanted something larger. I went to the social studies center and found books on rape and sexual abuse but nothing just on normal sex. So I decided to film ordinary people talking about their sex lives."
The movie was shown at the 2009 Dubai International Film Festival but has yet to find a distributor in Egypt. It has had several private screenings in Cairo. In a review, the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm said the film was technically flawed but that Bayoumi had the courage to expose the "vagueness, denial and outright shame Egyptians so closely associate with sex, be it pre- or post-marital, as well as the rampant double standards that have come to define men and oppress women."
"Sex Talk" finds that restrictions lead to contradictions, sexist impulses and odd euphemisms, such as the boy who, when his parents closed the bedroom door, was told, "Dad's putting eye drops in mom's eyes." The documentary seems to wince and wonder as it watches a young man explain why he can't marry the girlfriend with whom he's been having sex because she's not a virgin, and a twentysomething woman contemplating the intimacy of making love: "I have what's called amongst Eastern girls the virginity complex," she says. "I think I'm like that. I never see [sex] as spontaneous. . . I call myself liberated, a feminist defending women's freedoms, but to me [sex] is still mixed with fear and terror."
She and the other hidden faces in the film want to strip away inhibitions against the confines of family and culture. Their tales carry the idiosyncrasies of Middle Eastern society but also speak to universal themes of sexual joy and frustration that could be found in a bungalow in Los Angeles or a hut on the Serengeti: The wife repelled by her husband's touch but who is "acrobatic" with her lover; the husband who disappears in the afternoon with his mistress so he can endure his marriage.
But "Sex Talk" is a deeper comment on globalization's kinetic reach into conservative cultures and how Western-framed ideas of sexuality, which Christian preachers fought decades ago with the rise of round-the-clock media, are challenging the religious authority of imams and enraging Islamic fundamentalists. How do words in a sacred book compete with imported, hard-core images that can be accessed in nanoseconds?
"The picture is growing into the blueprint for the reality," said Adel Elseewy, an artist and one in a mosaic of experts scattered throughout the film to offer insight to the musings of the shadowed faces. "We need to reevaluate, especially in these current times when we don't produce this type of picture, yet we've fallen under its influence."
Take, for example, Egypt's porn surfers, who, the documentary says, are among the busiest in the world, trailing only their Vietnamese counterparts. One of the film's shadowed faces suggests that many Muslim men become "second selves," downloading "100 gigabyte" films in voyeurism that numbs until gratification exists solely in the virtual realm. With that, "Sex Talk" warns, come cautionary tales, such as the husband who wanted to liven up his marriage by cajoling his demure wife into watching porn with him. She did. Then she divorced him, complaining that his prowess was severely lacking when compared with the men on screen.
Many Egyptians live with the belief that men are macho, women are chaste, and it is the men who decide the roles. Young men are often consumed with "wedding night trauma" and seek Viagra to improve performance. Meanwhile, women, who grew up with mothers whispering "protect your hymen,"' pray their new husbands will be convinced of their chasteness.
This leads to tension, turning a promised night of bliss into hours of worry. It is also behind the marketing of the "artificial virginity hymen kit," an inserted pouch that leaks a blood-like liquid onto the honeymoon bed. The Muslim Brotherhood condemned the $29.90 Chinese mail-order gadgets as an affront to Islam that promoted promiscuity by allowing a sexually experienced woman to trick her husband into believing she's pure.
As it defines much of Egyptian life, Islam, with the call to prayer echoing five times a day, permeates gender roles and sexual attitudes. Premarital sex is haram (forbidden), and depending on the cleric and his fatwa (religious edict), oral sex can be harmless or a dark, dark sin. One sex therapist offers a ridiculous treatise on masturbation that cautions against wearing out one's organs (no wonder Egyptians are a bit confused), while others quote from the Koran with such expressions as: "Wives are your tilth, go in unto them howsoever you please."
In "Sex Talk's" most disturbing scene, a man holds open the legs of a young girl while another man slices away part of her clitoris in a centuries-old tradition of genital mutilation believed to dampen promiscuity and sexual desire. Nearly 95% of married Egyptian women have been circumcised, according to the country's Ministry of Health and Population. Although the government has banned the practice and many clerics oppose it, a father told the camera: "Circumcision is important, but not full circumcision. There's even a saying by the Prophet that goes, 'cut in moderation.'"
Unlike other Middle East countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where sexual attitudes are much more repressed by fundamentalist authorities, Egypt drifts between secularism and piety. In the 1970s, miniskirts and backless dresses were common, films were sexually suggestive and there was openness in the arts. But today, after years of the rising influence of Islam, most Egyptian women wear hijabs, and there is rarely a flash of skin on the streets.
Human rights groups say this atmosphere has led to increased sexual harassment by men and boys who receive no formal sex education in school. This vein where ignorance meets obsession and religion hovers over desire has produced these kinds of headlines: "Catastrophes of a society that veils its head and bares its legs" and "Satan's influence on a man's reproductive system" and "Do you suffer from schizophrenia in bed?"