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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Proof of the Honey

Salwa Al Neimi

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To purchase The Proof of the Honey

Title: The Proof of the Honey
Author: Salwa Al Neimi
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 141 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Proof of the Honey - US
The Proof of the Honey - UK
The Proof of the Honey - Canada
La preuve par le miel - France
Honigkuss - Deutschland
  • Arabic title: برهان العسل
  • Traslated by Carol Perkins

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Our Assessment:

B- : decent idea, but not coherent enough in its presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Al-Ahram Hebdo . 28/10/2008 Ahmed Youssef
Le Monde . 14/6/2008 Robert Solé
TelQuel . 24/10/2008 Aïcha Akalay

  From the Reviews:
  • "Cette œuvre représente une tendance littéraire, notable chez les femmes arabes, d’effectuer un retour aux sources, non seulement linguistique mais surtout philosophique et intellectuel, vers une sexualité devenue avec le temps un tabou à la fois inaccessible et incompréhensible. (...) Le style de l’auteur reste d’une fluidité remarquable et d’une capacité sans précédent d’habiller les mots osés que nous ne pouvons même pas prononcer d’un charme littéraire surprenant." - Ahmed Youssef, Al-Ahram Hebdo

  • "Voilà donc le triste résultat qu’est ce "premier roman érotique écrit par une femme arabe". Hélas ! Il ne nous reste plus que nos yeux pour pleurer. (...) Le premier livre érotique écrit par une femme arabe ? Il est définitivement encore à faire. Mesdames, à vos plumes !" - Aïcha Akalay, TelQuel

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

Long live progress, and the abolition of our taboos in deed, word, reading, writing, and seminar topics.
       So writes the nameless female narrator of The Proof of the Honey -- and so, presumably in the spirit of progress, she writes about Arabic attitudes towards sex, and her own sex-life and -thoughts.
       A scholar, she's always had a thing for erotica, finding that far from the puritan society the Arab world is widely described as being there are an enormous amount of books from this culture which positively revel in sex. And:
     Every time I venture into this terrain I am more convinced than ever that those who read the old books on sex will be sure to avoid the pitfalls of deprivation. It follows therefore that bringing these books out into the light is a matter of public well-being. We must no longer fear them, but recite from the publicly. We must no longer hide them but bring them into the open.
       Describing her own reading, referring to and quoting from many of the works as she recounts her own sexual exploits and thoughts, and charged with "writing a study of ancient Arabic books on sex" to accompany the BnP's L'Enfer de la Bibliothéque, Eros au secret-exhibit, the narrator does her best to bring all this (and all her own little secrets) into the open. Whether the pitfalls of deprivation are thereby avoided remains, however, an open question.
       Bookish sex-obsession has its obvious limitations -- as even the narrator acknowledges:
     When it came to the question of coition, theory was my disguise. I quoted from books or gave examples from other people's lives. But my parallel life was hidden in a lamp that I rubbed only when I was alone, when I would release the genie of memory.
       But then: "Along came the Thinker and I told him 'Yes.'" ....
       The wisdom of endowing the ideal(ised) über-lover-figure with a nickname as freighted as 'the Thinker ' surely also has to be questioned, but admittedly, despite a relationship that seems entirely carnal, there is a constant background-patter of philosophizing and quoting from those old Arabic masters (which does help liven things up). Mostly, though, their relationship is about sex, the narrator unfettered in word and deed regarding anything to do with him, as he represents the final release from that old (and apparently still generally prevalent) value-system. Despite the bit of talk between them, this is a primal relationship -- and she doesn't care who knows it. Yet her revelations often sound more like male fantasies, as she paints herself as little more than a sex-creature (dressed up in a bit of scholarship). So, for example:
I would come to him completely wet. It was enough for me to think of him and I would be ready for love.
       And the Thinker once mentions to her:
I've never before known a woman whose face proclaimed her 'erection.'
       That's the idea, apparently: that she is a new sort of woman -- new in this society, anyway --, willing to so completely and openly acknowledge her sexuality and her lust. Ironically, of course -- and it's hard not to believe that that isn't part of the fun and frisson --, she's always harping on what is forbidden and on her 'secret' books; one wonders if she'd find all this anywhere nearly as arousing if all the Arabic sexual hang-ups suddenly disappeared.
       Her relationship with the Thinker is portrayed as the height of sexual fulfillment, and she tries to convince us that she is fulfilled by it; she certainly seems in some sort of thrall, but the relationship isn't very romantic -- and is even only 'sexy' in a limited way. Writing about sex and especially the sexual act itself is notoriously difficult, and Neimi's florid-scholastic approach rarely works. Everyone likes a dip into the honey, but to describe it in those words is hard to pull off; there is the occasional nice flourish, but for the most part this isn't very erotic fare.
       Fortunately, the narrator's obsession with the Thinker doesn't keep her mind completely off everything else, and in the eleven 'gates' (as the different sections/chapters are called) of the novel she ranges considerably beyond the couple's couplings. Some of the variations on old and new culture are interesting, the stories of more common lives she relates in particular. More general speculation -- about the explicit books of yore as well as modern attitudes (including a rather lengthy discussion of Viagra-use in the Arab world) -- is also of some interest, but it is poorly tied together: she throws a good deal out there, without troubling herself about trying to connect it. She also can't resist, for example, spending a page dressing down Florian Zeller for his novel The Fascination of Evil (though she mentions neither the author's name nor the book's title) -- but, typically, her reading comes to the conclusion she wants, and doesn't allow for some of the text's nuances.
       The narrator is emphatic that: "I'm writing about sex as seen by the Arabs", not wanting to rely on foreign scholarship or attitudes, but for the foreign reader too much may remain unaddressed, perhaps some of the history (and mores) taken for granted. (Despite her protestations she also does repeatedly fall back on also considering Western attitudes, as when she takes on Zeller's book.)
       Among the points she makes is on the use of obscenities in Arabic, as she notes that:
     The funniest thing is that my friends resort to foreign languages when they want to use sexually explicit words. Obscenity is mitigated when spoken in a foreign language. The embarrassment they feel using the same words in Arabic evaporates. In English or French they can pronounce any of them with the greatest of confidence.
       And when she mentions that she is writing in Arabic, and relying on original Arabic texts, she is warned:
     "In Arabic ? In that case the problem will be the censor. There's no problem using explicit words in a foreign language. It's a different matter in Arabic."
     "The texts exist, are published, and are sold in the bookshops. I'm not making anything up. I've told you, it's a study. I'm not the first."
       This dichotomy of what is acceptable, and under what circumstances, is among the many issues touched upon but not explored in any meaningful way. The Proof of the Honey suggests what Arabic attitudes towards sex (and Western misconceptions of these) are like, but isn't very interested in examining them much closer. A bunch of quotes, a few examples are all she offers, and it seems doubtful even Arabic readers could find enough just in that. And while her rallying cry is for an: "abolition of our taboos" she only ventures so far with that. (And, again, it's hard to forget how much of the sexual excitement she describes arises out of the fact that there still are those taboos to break .....)
       A fairly messy book that ranges in style from the erotic-poetic to essayistic, The Proof of the Honey offers nuggets enough to make it worth wading through. Regrettably, it is insightful and revealing only to a very limited extent, even as there is a solid foundation of good material (and a few good ideas) to build upon. Fairly disappointing, and hardly stimulating.

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The Proof of the Honey: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Salwa Al Neimi (سلوى النعيمي) was born in Syria but has lived in France since the 1970s.

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© 2009 the complete review

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