The nameless (and unreliable) narrator of The Proof of the Honey has studied the classical Arabic erotica of al-Suyuti and al-Nafzawi, as well the KAMA SUTRA and Western works by Casanova, Henry Miller, and Georges Bataille. She also at times claims to have taken numerous lovers of both genders. These then form the bases of her addictions to stories and beds.
Her eleven chapters are "gates" she leads us through in latter-day Scheherazade style. Instead of a thousand stories, she boasts as many sexual partners. She tells us tales of an ancient mercury bed (to assist physical union) and the legalities of the temporary Shiite "marriage of pleasure". She quotes Arab songs, verses, and folk wisdom (" 'There are two kinds of women --lettuce women and women of embers' "). In free-love fashion she declares, "Some people conjure spirits. I conjure bodies. I have no knowledge of my soul or the soul of others. I know only my body and theirs." And one body she repeatedly encounters as she passes through her gates is that of the Thinker, the man whose sexual prowess caused her public and secret lives to converge. However, the Thinker is an illusive entity, a concoction, on whom this woman desires to hang her feelings and her thoughts on sex in the Arab world at large...and her in own.
Syrian Salwa Al Neimi's novel (more correctly, novella) reportedly raised a sensation when it was published in Arabic. One can assume in Islamic culture it is a daring volume. One example: it's "Ninth Gate: Linguistics" dwells on a very course word for intercourse. The narrator's Arabic spell check program won't acknowledge the word, proving, she says, that it is "programmed for dissimulation." It has "castrated the language....castrated the computer....castrated me" she rants. Whether true freedom is dependent on the ability to spew the f-word at will is highly debatable, but it illustrates well that THE PROOF OF THE HONEY is intended as an Arab-circle provocation. It desires to poke the stick at the wasps' nest in a part of the world that remains relatively insular and circumspect about sexual matters. The author, through her narrator, propounds an extreme feminist view -- with curious spears of male chauvinism protruding in some passages. Using this short volume as a barometer, the sexual revolution that shook the Western world in the 1960's and '70's may be, for good or not, edging farther into the Muslim consciousness now.
The sensual cover suggests a novella of refined eroticism and lyricism. One cannot, upon finishing the book, be entirely satisfied, however, because the thin plot is really veneer for mini essays, the thoughts are often confused and partial, and, although sexual honey and seductive lower backs are embedded (pun intended) in certain passages, for the most part, one needn't fan oneself from embarrassment. Much original English-language erotic literature is arguably far more developed and arousing than this translation.
Despite its shortcomings as fiction, THE PROOF OF THE HONEY is a unique and intriguing historical and contemporary insight into Arab perspectives on sex (and this book may play a part in causing them to shift). (3.5 stars)