Observers of the first turbulent days of the Arab awakening could have been forgiven for predicting the triumph of Western values of liberty. Scenes of girls fearlessly marching on the palaces of the anciens régimes evoked the French Revolution. Women led rallies heralding Tripoli’s liberation from 42 years of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s dictatorship and earned their place at the tables of Cairo’s coffeehouses, long a bastion of Egyptian males. The angry reaction to soldiers in Cairo who chased female protesters and subjected them to virginity tests showed just how much the public mood had changed.
But two years on, the promise of individual as well as national liberation still hangs in the balance. The secular youths who braved the batons and bullets seem mere stalking horses for the Islamist cavalry bent on regulating according to God’s word not only the public life of Arabs but their private predilections as well. Among the first victims were Alexandria’s statues of bare-breasted mermaids, which for more than a century had borne a hunky Zeus on a marble platter. During the French Revolution, women bared their breasts; during Egypt’s, iconoclasts covered them up.
Rather than welcoming the tempests of change blowing the idea of liberty from Europe, the Arab world seems to have succumbed to the puritanical sandstorms that have since ancient times periodically blown in from the Sahara, cleansing like pumice stones the epicurean ways of the southern Mediterranean with rugged monotheism. Clerics railed against the Western colonial mores that earlier Arab revolutions had failed to root out. Although hundreds of thousands of European settlers had been swept out in the 1950s and 1960s, by the eve of the Arab Spring 30 million tourists were being invited in each year. Helped by natives, these tourists played out their Oriental fantasies, bronzing, boozing and bonking on North Africa’s beaches.
The desert-born faith is threatening to suppress immoral conduct as remorselessly as the Saharan sands that buried the pharaohs’ fertility cults and the Romans’ mosaics of bacchanals. Jolanare, a young lecturer in belles lettres dressed in cowboy boots and a miniskirt, berated the youths in Tunisia, once the most sexually liberated country in the Arab world and the first to rise up against its dictator in December 2010, for losing control to the Islamists. “Instead of bringing freedom for all, the revolution has propelled us back years, burying the progress I thought I’d acquired,” Jolanare said. In response to the change, her blog sports an illustration of a woman’s pubic hair shaped as an Islamist’s beard. “I never thought that one day I would have to defend my basic right to exist as a sexual person, with breasts, lips and an ability to think.”
For a Western pleasure seeker, arriving in Morocco—a mere eight miles from southern Europe—is like diving into the shallow end. Cultural battles that rage elsewhere in the Arab world peter out by the time they clamber over the western edge of the Atlas Mountains. Islamists swept the elections at the height of the Arab Spring, but their influence in Morocco is contained by an imperious monarchy whose current ruler had a reputation in his youth as a playboy. As crown prince, Mohammed VI wore slick piano ties and had royal bouncers escort him from his advisor’s flat to the VIP lounge at Amnesia, the most risqué discotheque I know of in North Africa. His love of water sports was so widely known that when he became king his subjects called him “ma-Jet-Ski.”
But once he became king he surfed the Islamist wave with remarkable dexterity. He was proclaimed commander of the faithful and donned a chaste white caftan, the traditional woolen tunic, while allowing his subjects to continue to live in a land where anything goes. Marrakech, a rose-red city on the Sahara’s edge, is where former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn sated his lust, and even the normally temperate Financial Times chose the city as the site of its luxury conference. Islamists in Morocco find themselves the butt of secular ridicule, not least from the leaders of a movement for Berber rights who promote their indigenous, pre-Islamic culture, decry Arabic as an Eastern colonial implant and call themselves “beerberistes” to emphasize their rejection of Islam’s prohibition of alcohol. The bars at the back of the bourse in Casablanca, the country’s commercial capital on the shores of the Atlantic, seem to bask in more red lights than Amsterdam. Down the coast, past the mammoth Hassan II Mosque, one of the largest in the world, lies what may be the Muslim Arab world’s only transvestite bar, Le Village, run as a family business. Lady-boys in bras gyrate to African women banging tom-toms between their legs.
“What does he think of us?” I ask Latifa, a filmmaker by day and my guide through Morocco’s seedier side by night, as she hands the keys of her sports car to a valet garbed in a peasant’s scruffy tunic. “That you’re a Western source of corruption, and I’m your pute,” she replies, languidly wrapping an arm over my shoulder to leave no room for doubt.
Yet even here there is the furtive pitter-patter of the killjoy’s advance. The kingdom’s new Islamist prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, entered politics by campaigning for the contestants in a local beauty pageant to replace their swimsuits with woolly caftans, turning their hourglass figures into body bags and hooding their hair. The intervening years have mellowed him into a merrier swashbuckler. His information minister marked Women’s Day by giving his female employees a box of chocolates and a red rose, and his justice minister likes women so much he married two. But “immodest” women still make Benkirane flinch. He reduced the number of women in his cabinet from his predecessor’s relatively profligate seven to a cautious one, whom he predictably appointed to head a women’s affairs ministry. At his inauguration ceremony in January 2012, Benkirane accused a bareheaded female journalist seeking an interview of molesting him.
And though government officials insist they will not formally apply Islamic law for now, they are eagerly looking for alternatives to tourism—or “sex travel” in the words of a Moroccan official—the kingdom’s foreign-currency mainstay. In an attempt to rein in the country’s avid bikini culture, a relic of Morocco’s former French rule, Benkirane’s justice minister won a legal battle to allow veils at the beach. “The king has 23 palaces,” he says. “At least let us have sand castles.” On Fridays, prayer mats jostle for space with beach towels. “Forsake not God’s law on the beaches,” rants a bearded doomsayer who stalks bathers at Mehdia, a popular resort north of Rabat. “O faithful, bare not your nudity.” The sermon of Abd Al Samad Mirdas, a Casablanca preacher, reverberates from a car radio, likening women to devils.
Morocco’s Kulturkampf is mild compared with that of Tunisia, 1,000 miles to the east, as it lurches from fundamental secularism to fundamental Islam. Though he ousted the French colonialists, Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, preserved their values with relish. He banned core Islamic practices such as the veil and polygamy and discouraged fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Unique in the Arab world, women in tight-fitting jeans frisk men at airport security check-ins. Bourguiba’s successor, a dour policeman named Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, took subservience to Europeans one stage further, prostituting his subjects to their whims. His beaches served up “bezness boys” to offer relief to aging white women. (The French guidebook Routard helpfully lists where to find them.) And investors developed the southern isle of Djerba, where, legend has it, the “honey-sweet fruit of the lotus” seduced the mariners in Homer’s Odyssey and, in more recent years, seedy bars help Europeans retracing the epic achieve a similar “state of lethargic bliss.”
Two years after chasing out Ben Ali, Tunisians remain torn between their desire for liberation from European bondage and dire necessity. Tourism, which plays a major role in the country’s economy, declined 30 percent in the revolution’s first year. In the Place de l’Indépendance, the heart of the capital city of Tunis, a stone likeness of the medieval Tunisian philosopher Ibn-Khaldu¯n—perhaps the Arab world’s greatest thinker—stands encircled by armored cars and webs of barbed wire, pondering in which direction to turn. Just as Bedouin tribesmen burst out of Arabia in Khaldu¯n’s time, today Islamist hordes from the East seem poised to overthrow a value system cultivated in the West.
In the flea market that straddles the tracks where the last train arrived in the city of Menzel Bourguiba two decades ago, a former cave mate of Osama bin Laden’s sells scarlet-colored women’s panties. Musab is tall, diffident and prematurely old. He has an apologetic smile, wears a black leather jacket over a red shirt and takes a shine to my guide, Farida, an unveiled female journalist who, like Musab, had fled Ben Ali’s dictatorship and returned to her hometown only after his departure. Both had also spent time in Europe, where Farida discovered the secular highlights of Paris, and Musab, after dabbling in drugs, met a Belgian imam—before meeting Bin Laden in a Kandahar cave. In 2001, following the U.S.-led toppling of the Taliban, he was captured, held at a Pakistani military base and extradited to a Tunisian jail. He escaped in a breakout that followed Ben Ali’s overthrow in January 2011.
Though mild and understated, Musab is a hero to local unemployed kids who wear military fatigues and sport bum-fluff beards as old as the revolution. Anwar, his aide-de-camp, a sort of Sancho Panza to Musab’s Don Quixote, operates his own perfumery opposite Musab’s stall and runs a sideline in fashionable sequined face veils. Like Saint Augustine of Hippo, another North African rake turned eremite, Anwar found God after tiring of a life of debauchery. His youth is evocative of that of Black Hand, an illegal immigrant immortalized in “Clandestino,” a Manu Chao song beloved across Tunisia for depicting the fate so many share. Like Black Hand, Anwar reached “Babylon, a northern city,” after traveling across the sea in a dinghy. He survived by trading cocaine, until one day an imam from an Italian mosque in Turin saved him. Following the flight of Ben Ali and his security apparatus, Musab and Anwar acquired a following that they fashioned into a morality squad. They wrested control of Menzel’s main mosque, warded off looters (who had torched the local bank) and harangued a local bar until it stopped selling alcohol.
Few towns reflect the ebb and flow of Tunisia’s fortunes more than Menzel Bourguiba. The French called it Ferryville, after the 19th century French prime minister and imperialist who considered it his “duty to civilize inferior races” and turn their coastline into naval bases. After independence, Tunisia’s first president, Bourguiba, called it his home—in Arabic, Menzel Bourguiba. In keeping with his love of French customs, he kept its provincial French air. Cast-iron railings still enclose prim bungalows; in the graveled central square gardeners manicure the shrubs that circle a bandstand and whitewash the trunks of geometrically positioned plane trees; old codgers still play boules in their shade.
But since the revolution, Musab’s ideology—that of jihadi Salafism, which espouses holy war to re-create the world of the prophet Muhammad—has challenged that decorum. Having conquered Menzel Bourguiba, his Salafis are now targeting nearby Bizerte, northern Tunisia’s largest city, which was once famed for its relaxed secular ways. The city’s Monoprix grocery store (part of the French supermarket chain) was torched for its commercial ties to Ben Ali’s family. It has reopened—but only after liquor was removed from its shelves. Bizerte’s red-light district lies abandoned; bootleggers and pimps have fled underground. Fewer women venture out unveiled. Even the Islamist movement, Ennahda, which won recent elections in Tunisia, is worried about the new antidemocratic and misogynist radicalism of the Salafis. A banner flutters from the balustrade of the local Ennahda office, reminding fellow Islamists that half the population is female and that the other half emerged from them.
Back in Tunis, bons vivants drink to forget. A rare sight in the Arab world: By mid-afternoon the bars brim with women as well as men, the tables laden with beer bottles. In the Red Light Salon de Thé on downtown’s Avenue de la Liberté, couples smooch around small arabesque coffee tables beneath neon signs of silhouetted naked girls holding the words Red Light District—Amsterdam. Girlfriends pet lovers, and waitresses in velvet waistcoats chase customers around the tables. On weekends, fathers take their families to La Plaza, a resort restaurant in a suburb of Tunis. While their children splash in its bayside pool, the men sneak into the disco below, where girls wrap themselves around them like ivy around drainpipes, licking and fawning over their fares. Disheveled drunks keel over onto the floor with their whiskey bottles. “Nothing has changed,” says the doorman when I ask about the advancing Islamist wave.
Yet conversations inevitably return to the obscurantist threat advancing through the provinces. Newspapers report that in Jendouba, a town 100 miles to the west of the capital, Salafis in starched white tunics chased away the police, imposed Saudi-style laws and sliced off the hand of a suspected thief. The nearby town of Sedjenane, Musab tells me, had declared itself an Islamic emirate and converted the town hall into a sin-bin for drunkards. Like the Fatimids (Islamist upstarts who used Tunisia as a base to conquer North Africa a millennium ago), these moralists consider Tunisia the launchpad for their future theocracy.
“The problem is that they just don’t get laid,” says Amina, who makes candles for boutique hotels, as we chat in Le Light, the elite’s cocktail bar in the Villa Donna hotel. “They need a fuck.” Others think the solution is less simple. Farida, who drove me to Menzel Bourguiba in her sports car, calls Amina and her Westernized ilk the Last of the Mohicans. She fears that her own nighttime clubbing is a swan song and has kept her apartment in Paris, she says, just in case.
Even in the capital, the new Islamism seeps through the cracks. CD stalls in the market not far from the statue of the sagacious Ibn-Khaldu¯n have stopped playing Western pop after reports that one had been torched for “distracting Muslims from the mosque.” As a precaution, the fruit-juice shacks broadcast Koranic chants, and in a city where only a few years ago a veil was cause for official suspicion, jilbabs (head scarves) are commonplace. During the first Ramadan since the revolution about half the restaurants closed for lunch, up from 10 percent a year earlier. And the tranquil and well-to-do village of La Marsa—its picturesque jumble of pale blue-and-white plaster walls perched precariously over a turquoise bay frequented by French impressionists—has become the unlikely front line for a cultural showdown on the edge of the capital.
It began when Lofti El Hafi, La Marsa’s bookseller, impishly decorated the window of his shop with volumes of Les Femmes au Bain, a collection of nude paintings with bare-breasted beauties on its cover. When an angry Islamist passerby took offense, El Hafi was initially sympathetic. “It’s just the early buds of freedom,” he explains, attributing the protest that followed to a hothead from the nearby working-class suburb of Al Karm who had returned from jihad in Iraq a trifle deranged. Like Musab, the rabble-rouser had recently emerged from Ben Ali’s jails. El Hafi moved the books to a back shelf out of deference—and at the urging of the police. Anyway, he adds, putting a brave face on the intrusion, “the attention was good for sales.”
But a few weeks later the hothead was back with hundreds of other hotheads in the art center next to the bookshop, pounding at the gates of an exhibition that ridiculed the Islamists’ rise. One artist had painted God’s name as an army of ants; another had stuck images of women’s faces on punching bags and strung them inside a boxing ring. Thanks to Twitter, secular activists quickly formed a counter-demonstration. While police were busy trying to separate the protesters, the Salafis torched the police station. That evening, authorities imposed the first curfew since the revolution and rounded up dozens.
Efforts to find middle ground have largely backfired. An attempt by President Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist, to host a joint workshop for operators of Islamist Facebook pages (which have hundreds of thousands of fans) and their rival secular bloggers (who muster just a few hundred) degenerated into farce. The Islamists walked out after Jolanare—the lecturer and blogger—accused them of treating women like jawari, or concubines. At Manouba University in the capital, phalanxes of bareheaded versus fully veiled women clashed after Salafi toughs ejected the dean from his office for banning women from wearing the niqab, a covering that hides a woman’s face as well as her hair. “You can’t make me free if you take away my rights,” read the placards carried by the veils. “Get back to the dark ages,” yelled the bareheads.
In an attempt to pacify an increasingly polarized population, the new Islamist government tries to reassure everyone with doublespeak. Fearful of scaring off tourists, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has inaugurated tourism conferences where alcohol flows liberally. But his ministers speak of quarantining tourists in resorts turned into ghettos guarded by checkpoints—thus protecting Muslim innocents from contamination by debauched Europeans. (A World Bank official calls this “market segmentation.”) Others court Gulf investment for halal, or religiously pure, tourism, which has already funded the construction of a vast but drab alcohol-free and disco-less entertainment complex on land reclaimed from Tunis’s estuary. Next summer, predict hoteliers, some Tunisian beaches could be segregated.
The authorities are also quietly engineering a cleanup of the capital’s media—they detained a newspaper publisher and an editor for printing a photo of a German-Tunisian soccer star cupping his naked girlfriend’s breasts—along with its brothels. Sex workers in Tunis say police told them Jebali’s government has declared Friday, the Muslim holy day, and Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, as times of rest. One Friday I visited Tunis’s officially authorized red-light zone on Abdallah Guech Street, near the dilapidated former Venetian consulate where I lived in the late 1980s. The red-light district has survived, despite attacks by Molotov-cocktail-wielding Islamists within weeks of President Ben Ali’s flight. The muezzin was broadcasting his call for prayer, and all but a few of the scores of booths that open onto the alleyway were tightly shut. At one of the open doors, a peroxided woman wearing slacks and clipping her toenails shooed me away before the beards found us. At another, a bawdier madam stopped washing the red tints in her hair, ushered me hurriedly into her cabin and offered me an alternative place to prostrate for 20 dinars.
A minority of Tunisians are striking back at what they perceive as an alliance between two shades of Islamists—the government’s statist version and the more antiestablishment Salafis—to quash the last fires of hedonism. An indignantly risqué magazine, Femmes de Tunisie, aspires to spawn a sexual revolution by sporting a front cover with a seductress wearing nothing but 1920s pearls and by offering women advice on the best way to chuck unsatisfying lovers. Farida plans a protest of her own: a trip to the beach with her girlfriends all kitted out in “le string”—their skimpiest thongs. And a wave of new bars and cabarets are opening across Tunis—including Le Regent, behind the Ministry of the Interior, where a husky-voiced woman sings and acts out the lyrics to Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” At the Peace and Love nightclub on the capital’s outskirts, waiters in bow ties bear champagne ice buckets across the dance floor between Tunis’s lithest bodies. Above them a DJ projects lewd images onto a giant screen to frighten off the Islamists: Photos of a pole dancer, a bikinied bum and the turntable are interspersed with images of a woman’s tongue and the words Lick my deck; a crab with stiletto legs for claws entraps its prey. For a few raucous hours there’s not a head scarf in sight.
After the Maghreb’s fleshpot safe havens, the public space in post-Qaddafi Libya feels sexless and arid. Along with millions of migrant workers, the Moroccan girls who worked at Tripoli’s nightclubs fled the fighting that toppled the colonel. The rebels who took Qaddafi’s place claimed their legitimacy in part by highlighting their godliness over the colonel’s perversions (including his attempt to create heaven on earth with a harem of 72 female bodyguards).
Yet the rebels have proved to be strangely prone to temptation, as I discovered on a flight from Tripoli to Kufra, a trading post 800 miles deep in the Sahara. Libya’s initial revolutionary leadership, the National Transitional Council, appropriated Qaddafi’s private jet, which came with cream-colored leather sofas and the services of a beautiful and curvaceous flight attendant, Ayad Abdel-Rahman. Even the Islamists on board found it hard not to drool over her tall, slender form, her doe eyes and her crimson skirt cut above the knee. Ten pairs of male eyes followed her between the sofas as she prepared and served three-course meals. Unlike her previous employer, we were clearly not worthy of her attention. “He would never get angry,” she recalls wistfully. “He wasn’t as wild as you people say.”
Other Libyans are also trying to secure their share of the colonel’s assets and rebalance 42 years of unequal distribution of pleasure. Libya’s militiamen have yet to disband—a reality all too vividly revealed by the killing of Chris Stevens, America’s ambassador to Libya and perhaps its most engaging diplomat, in his Benghazi safe house. When they are not busy targeting foreigners, they prey on the former palaces of the colonel’s offspring and sycophants, daubing their walls with the words Holy Property in an effort to give their theft religious legitimacy. In the vestibule of the Tripoli mansion of Qaddafi’s daughter, guards lounge on the love seat she had commissioned in the form of a golden mermaid with a face cast in her image. South of Tripoli, another militia guards the hunting pavilions and leopard zoo where the Qaddafi family spent its weekends. Ten-foot-long Russian missiles poke through the long grass. West of the capital, Libya’s Berber fighters use their newfound status and arms to fend off Salafi party poopers who seek to disrupt their frolics on isolated beaches with “fiancées” and bootlegged whiskey. As in Morocco, they dismiss such Islamist intrusions as cultural colonialism and use their control of the western border to smuggle Djerba’s prostitutes in for the night. And at their all-female wedding parties, zamzamat—female troubadours smelling of whiskey and hashish—regale the bride with their ululations and tambourines.
Even so, such are Libya’s desert rigors that the sight of Alexandria—the first city to the east of the country—left me feeling almost as excited as Antony, the Roman general, arriving in the ancient port to court Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen who staved off Roman conquest by conquering her invaders in bed. Behind generations of grime, Alexandria’s stately buildings and antique drinking parlors still ooze the decadence of their louche 19th century colonial patrons. The restored opera house, palaces and royal seat of government offer a window on the sensual past of what Lawrence Durrell, a British wartime agent, novelist and husband to two of Alexandria’s offspring, called his “dream city.” The Sporting Club—the city’s colonial hub, which another Alexandria denizen, E.M. Forster, described as “tennis courts thronged by day, brothels by night”—still tries to exude exclusivity. Wizened waiters in green velvet smoking jackets and bow ties serve drinks on silver platters in the clubhouse, gardeners mow croquet lawns with the care of barbers, and only the flutter of newspapers and the squeak of polished leather disturb the quiet in the library as elderly members slumber on sofas, their pates glistening beneath the chandeliers sparkling overhead.
Fleeing Europe’s economic crisis, the city’s Greeks, who numbered 150,000 before the 1952 revolution, have begun trickling back, tempted by a city where their pensions are actually worth something. In the marina’s Greek club behind the Qaitbay Fort, John Siokas, a leader in the Greek community, has opened a restaurant serving chtapodi xydato—grilled octopus—and has plans to turn a dance hall favored by Egypt’s last king, the debauched Farouk, into a nightclub called Fever. “Alex is Europe, Cairo is Africa,” explains a taxi driver when I ask him why Alexandria, unlike the capital Cairo, seems to have rediscovered its joie de vivre since President Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 fall, despite the Salafi surge. “Half its population,” he adds by way of embellishment, “are the offspring of Greek, Jewish, Cypriot, Italian, Armenian and English bastards. A Western temperament is in their genes.”
That said, the latest arrivals are outnumbered by the departures. Since the bombing of an Alexandrian church in 2011, the exodus of Copts, one of the Arab world’s oldest Christian communities, has accelerated. Salafis, complains the Sporting Club’s maître d’, are defying the board’s efforts to exclude them, with as much insistence as the Egyptian revolutionaries who in 1952 nationalized the exclusive British club and made themselves members. The club demolished its bar in the 1980s, built its first mosque a decade later and recently stopped horse racing on its grounds under pressure from opponents of gambling. Peer pressure has reduced displays of supposed licentiousness such as bikinis, female gymnastics and swimming for girls over the age of 14. And from the royal box where the playboy King Farouk once frolicked with his mistresses, a female professor from Egypt’s Islamic Al-Azhar University lectures on family values. “The colonial past means nothing; it’s gone,” says a Salafi member of the club who works as a lawyer to secure permission for speculators to tear down the facades of the last colonial villas and erect faceless towers in their place. Revolutionaries who torched the city land-registry office have given his business a boost.
Where they have not swept away Alexandria’s history, Salafis sternly ignore it. Karmouz, a poor neighborhood where Salafis rule, has built a high wall around Pompey’s Pillar, the giant ancient column that stands among the ruins of the pagan temple of Serapis, a Greco-Egyptian god of the underworld. A local Salafi preacher whom I persuaded to join me on a tour beat a hasty retreat when we stumbled across a sculpture of a ram’s head in a shrine dug into the rock beneath the pillar.
And yet after two months of traveling between liberals and Salafis, I began to wonder whether I had misread North Africa’s Salafi school. Launched in Alexandria by five students from the city’s medical college, was it just another of the fertility cults the city had spawned over the centuries? Far from frowning on sex, as their Western counterparts might, they enjoy a spicy alternative form. The black covers hide a secret world of sexuality. Drawn from the Koran, the Salafi vision of paradise is an epicurean’s delight, promising an afterlife spent reclining on jeweled couches, served by dark-eyed houris with swelling breasts and immortal youths whose cups overflow with wine. Ibn Kathir, a stern-faced 14th century Syrian exegete whose Koranic commentaries are a fundamentalist’s gospel, describes an orgiastic paradise of girls whose “breasts are fully rounded, not sagging.” According to Jalaluddin al-Suyuti, an Egyptian expositor who died in 1505, “Each time we sleep with a houri we find her virgin, the erection eternal, and sensation of lovemaking so delicious that were you to experience it in this world you would faint. Each chosen one [i.e., Muslim male] will marry 70 houris, besides the women he married on earth, and all will have appetizing vaginas.”
The absence of female flesh on the streets, Salafi men told me, only increases the desire to uncover at night. Indeed, Salafi preachers see sex everywhere. The campaign fliers for the handful of Salafi women standing for election in Egypt substituted roses for their faces. (The women were relegated to the bottom of the party list to protect voters’ highly charged appetites. Women, like Christians, says a spokesman for the movement, could not be ministers since neither could dominate Muslim men.) Salafis proscribe some inanimate objects too, allegedly issuing fatwas against markets that display sexually suggestive items such as eggplants and sliced watermelon. A shop assistant in Mondiana’s, perhaps the largest in a row of downtown Cairo’s notoriously risqué lingerie stores, says 40 percent of his customers are Salafis, a percentage that is larger than their share of the total population. In the shop window, crotchless fishnet tights jostle for pride of place with gossamer-thin see-through panties and knickers with only a string at the front and back for covering.
Salafi manuals that have sprouted on the sidewalks outside North Africa’s mosques provide the most intimate details on sharia-compliant lovemaking. (“In God’s name,” the groom should pronounce when he consummates his marriage.) Mehdi Boushaib, a religious graduate from the University of al-Karaouine, Morocco’s premier divinity college, runs a stall in Casablanca’s bazaar that offers homemade aphrodisiacs. Based on the recipes he learned from a quack who abandoned her own stall for Paris, he recommends bouwa—powdered chameleon—as an alternative to Viagra. Roast it on burning coals, raise your tunic over its fumes and smoke your genitalia for 20 minutes, he instructs. Then shower, sleep and wait for your genie to rise from its slumber.
Across North Africa I stumbled on Salafi acolytes who had repented for their bezness-boy lifestyles only to find fulfilment in the strangely dissolute Salafi code of conduct. Anwar, the former drug trafficker, attracted male recruits with the promise of God-given rights to polygamy and muta, a temporary “pleasure” marriage that opponents condemn as prostitution. Sympathetic sociologists note that muta offers a much-needed release for lovers unable to marry because of the prohibitive cost of housing and wedding ceremonies. Tunisia’s Center for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women recorded unprecedented growth in the practice, particularly on college campuses, after the 2011 revolution. In northern Tunisia a Salafi-run paper, al-Jala, helpfully gives a rundown of the doctors offering the best “virginity recovery services.”
In a related bid for popular support that his followers considered a liberalization, Libya’s first post-Qaddafi leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, lifted the colonel’s ban on marrying four wives in the same speech in which he declared the country liberated. Cheering the move, Salafi preachers took to their pulpits insisting that polygamy provides a critical social service in a country with tens of thousands of new war widows. Ezzedine Arafa, a short, balding chemistry professor who recently returned to Libya from Scotland, praises the new order for licensing his polygamous dating agency, something the Qaddafi regime repeatedly refused to do. I found him one Saturday afternoon in his office situated above the courtyard of a 19th century Tripoli mosque replete with a gently spitting fountain. “Write what sort of girl you want—tall or fat, young or mature,” he says, handing me a form. Having surveyed my own vital statistics, he advises me that my prospects are fair. In his first two months of operations, he signed on 120 women and just 30 men.
Indeed, sometimes I find myself wondering whether it is the liberals or the Salafis who are leading the morality campaign. Secular gynecologists blame Salafi pleasure marriages for a spike in teenage abortions. Students, a Tunisian doctor tells me, are being lured into fleeting relationships based on assurances written on a sheet of paper that claim their marriages are underwritten by God. I met another gynecologist in Alexandria’s Cap d’Or mirror bar who was celebrating the end to another lucrative week repairing veiled women’s hymens. And secular Egyptian editors reduced a Salafi parliamentarian to a laughingstock after he was alleged to have taken Sama al-Masri, one of Egypt’s more riotous belly dancers with a bouncy cleavage, as a second wife. (His Salafi colleagues, seemingly more exercised about the plastic surgery he had on his bulbous but God-given nose, stripped him of parliamentary immunity for unwarranted interference with the creator’s handiwork.)
By the time I reached Cairo, I realized I was becoming increasingly titillated by alternative Salafi tendencies. Fearing for my sanity, an American journalist advised me to seek refuge in Cairo’s Jazz Club, but that only added to my confusion. On a small stage, a live band crooned such dulcet melodies as “I fuck this, I fuck that, I ram my cock into her twat.” With no veil of decency to hide behind, I ducked for cover behind my laptop screen, only to be accosted by Kim, a Californian aid worker and part-time preventer of morality and purveyor of vice. Promising to replace my laptop with lap-dancing, she led me to the Armada, a Nile cruiser turned discotheque, for a further assault on any vestige of adherence to Salafi values.
My final stop, in beleaguered Gaza, was intended to offer an antidote. Once the ancient crossroads of Africa and Asia and a locus of cross-fertilization, over the past decade it has been forced into splendid isolation by the construction of Egyptian and Israeli walls. Locked behind these portcullises, 1.7 million people live under the rugged rule of Hamas, the Islamist movement that won power through a combination of ballots and bullets in 2006 and 2007. It has clung to power religiously ever since, and despite being pummeled by Israeli sieges, incursions and most recently a bombardment waged from land, sea and air, Hamas succeeded in forming and preserving the first Islamist government on the Mediterranean. Initially, God squads scoured the beaches, searching for female skin. Vigilantes interrupted lovers and hauled them into court. “When a man and a woman are together, their first thoughts are of fornication, so we have to take care,” explains a guard outside rows of beach chalets where, he claims, Hamas’s corrupt secular predecessors—Yasir Arafat’s security guards—had swapped wives by locking them in their chalets, dropping the keys in a bucket and playing lucky dip.
And yet once ensconced, the Islamists slowly relaxed. Despite the frowns of the religious affairs minister, Gaza clothes shops fill their windows with scarlet dresses and heart-shaped cushions to celebrate Valentine’s Day, or as Palestinians call it, the Love Fest. Gazans call Hamas women “two jays” because they wear jeans beneath their jilbabs. Long bereft of cinemas and bars, Gaza at night bubbles with the honks of wedding parties touring the streets; the beaches where a few Gaza girls once dared to wear bikinis are now lined with resorts that celebrate mass weddings. Most curious of all, I discovered that what claims to be the Mediterranean’s largest polygamous dating agency is government-subsidized—it sports a photograph on its walls of Gaza’s Islamist prime minister, Ismail Haniya, handing over a $100,000 check. The agency’s owner, Fahmi al-Atiri, cites Hamas’s stocky interior minister, who was reputed to have found at least one of his six wives through the agency (to keep within Islam’s statutory limits, he divorced two). Having put me in a sufficiently sympathetic frame of mind, al-Atiri gives me a guided tour of his “marriage-facilitation charity,” proudly plying me with albums of the women on offer. He suggests I assuage my wife’s doubts by letting her choose the second, in the name of equal opportunity. It had worked for him, he says, noting with relief that his wife had selected a pretty divorcée 12 years his junior. Islamism and puritanism, I was beginning to learn, are far from one and the same.