Interview with Salwa al-Neimi, Controversial Syrian Erotic Novelist

News article, posted 07.25.2010, from Syria, in:
Quantra Magazine

Salwa al-Neimi is a Syrian journalist who lives in Paris. She studied Arabic Philology, Islamic Philosophy and Theatre in Damascus and Paris. Her dissertation was on Arab women's novels. She regularly writes for the newspaper Barid Al-Junuband the magazine ARABIES

The novel The Proof of the Honey by Syrian author Salwa al-Neimi is celebrated by some as a milestone of modern Arabic literature and condemned by others as scandalous prose. In an interview with Rim Najmi, the author explains that despite the lightness of its literary style, her novel poses fundamental intellectual and political questions.

Your first novel, The Proof of the Honey, attracted a great deal of attention from both readers and critics alike. The most frequent response had more to do with your "courage" in tackling one of the greatest taboo themes in Arab culture and less with the literary qualities of your novel. What do you think was the decisive factor for all the attention?

Salwa al-Neimi: Thank you for this question. I always say the success of the book is primarily based on its language and style. I make this claim even though most of the critics tend to emphasize the theme of the novel and the fact that it crosses the red line. Unfortunately, they have little interest in the actual text itself. Some critics constantly talk about freedom of expression, although this often turns out to be just an end in itself. When it comes to a contemporary text, it is often judged in terms of moral categories, which is just another form of censorship.

By Arab standards, your novel, The Proof of the Honey, sold in record numbers in only a short time. It has also been translated into many languages. What does the international publication of your work mean to you?

Al-Neimi: First and foremost, I wrote The Proof of the Honeyfor Arab readers. The novel was well received and much read, whether in book form or over the Internet, even though it was banned in the Arab world, with the exception of the Maghreb. This pleased me immensely, after all, I write in Arabic. Only later was the book translated into 19 languages.

Foreign publishers interested in a translation based this on the fact that the novel breaks the stereotypical images of Arab culture. This pleases me as well. By focusing on old, classical Arabic works of erotic literature in my literary work, I wanted to show that it is quite possible to write about sexuality and intimacy in Arabic. After all, sexual lust – beyond any sinful or impure thoughts – always held a high place in Arab culture. I wanted to hearken back to the forgotten masters of Arabic erotica, such as al-Sujuti and al-Jahiz.

[See URL for full interview.]