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.