The Proof of the Honey by Salwa Al Neimi (Translation by Cal Perkins)

I’ve been wanting to read more translations, so when I was out browsing and saw The Proof of The Honey, it seemed to fit the bill. It purports to examine the sexuality of women in Arabic countries, and so I decided to look past the fact that it was also billed as erotica—a genre with which I haven’t had much experience, and gave it a read. I had no idea what I was in for, but I was pleasantly surprised with this thoughtful book on female sexuality, the way that it has been depicted in classic Islamic texts, its translation into modern Arabic women’s marriages and experiences. I often read books where Arabic women are in extreme situations. They have nothing resembling a dating or a sex life, and they usually aren’t in any marriages which aren’t ruled by domination and fear. It good to get an alternative perspective.

The narrator in The Proof of the Honey, by Salwa Al Neimi, is a Syrian scholar living in France and working as a librarian at a university as she completes her studies. While at the library, she ruminates on an old love affair with a man she calls The Thinker. She begins secretly exploring classic Arabic texts on sexuality which confirm her own thoughts and feelings, that “Arabic is the language of sex”. The novella has an episodic feel as she explores the changes that her relationship with The Thinker has had on her life, while mining the marital and sexual experiences of her friends not only for her own personal research, but also for the project that she is putting together at the request of her boss.

The Proof of the Honey is definitely a bit of a puzzle piece for the reader. You have to decide for yourself whether in fact you can trust the narrator. It took me several pages before I could even settle upon gender identity, and I don’t know that I was ever really sure of anything. The narrative flows back and forth in time and at different parts of the novel, the narrator is either married, a widower, or completely footloose and fancy-free. I was particularly interested in the sexuality presented here because so often the glimpses that Westerners get into the Arab world is one of repression and a life curtailed of education, freedom and expression. It was nice to get an alternate picture and to see stories that related much more complex marital and sexual relationships, even though a lot of the women were also living in European countries.

Now as for this being erotica – I don’t really have a clear definition of what that means- but it seemed much less explicit than most romances bearing turgid members and throbbing manhoods, nor was there sex on every other page.  If you can handle a racy romance, then this is well within the parameters of what you would expect to find.

The overarching plot here is thin but the novella is very interesting in terms of shedding new light on women’s relationships and sexuality in Arabic culture through women’s personal reflections on their lovers.  The vignettes that the women offer here are varied and engaging. The novella is an arresting meditation on the sexual evolution of a woman deeply affected by an intense love affair.  Though not perfect its execution, The Proof of Honey is a thought provoking book to contemplate on an afternoon.

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