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.