Sexual insult, past and present
It’s not as if Arabic can’t match English when it comes to obscenity. The spoken dialects of Egypt and its Arab neighbours are rich in sexual insult, as I discovered when the streets of Cairo erupted in celebration in 2010 after Egypt’s football team broke a losing streak against Algeria. “Hela, hela, ho, al gazair kuss ommo,” the crowds shouted, including scores of young women in their patriotically red, white and black hijabs. Their chant roughly translates to “Hey, hey, hey, Algeria’s mother’s cunt” – not something you often hear at Wembley Stadium.
Al-Jahiz, a ninth-century Arab literary superstar, would have approved. He enthusiastically embraced scenes of a sexual nature, and this frankness extended to language. “Some people who affect ascetism and self-denial are uneasy and embarrassed when ‘cunt’, ‘cock’ and ‘fucking’ are mentioned. Most men you find like that are without knowledge, honour, nobility and dignity,” he remarked. Al-Jahiz claimed he was taking his cue from other great men of history, among them ‘Abd Allah ibn al-‘Abbas, considered to be the greatest Qur’anic scholar of the early Muslim period, and grandfather of the Abbasid dynasty, which presided over Islam’s golden age. When Ibn ‘Abbas was on pilgrimage to Mecca, he is said to have recited the following ditty at the ka‘ba: “The women walk by us softly/If the omens are right, we will fuck them.” For more on this and other bygone ribaldry, see “Al-Jahiz and the Construction of Homosexuality at the Abbasid Court” by Hugh Kennedy.
In 1959, the Egyptian poet and playwright, Naguib Surur, raised invective to an art, in a 6,000 word poem called Kuss Ommiyyat (Mothers’ Cunts). Surur had been knocked about, jailed and tortured in the 1960s for writing a play critical of King Hussein of Jordan. He found himself blackballed from world of Egyptian theatre, and further disillusioned by Egypt’s crushing defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, he took out his frustration in a verse form called zagal, in colloquial Arabic, whose origins stretch back to 10th century Andalusia. Surur was angry at what he considered the marrow-deep corruption of Nasser’s Egypt in general, and the literary scene in particular, where anything or anyone could be bought. Here he describes an actress on the make:
The bitch is sitting and opening her cunt like a window,
Her nylon panties are showing and she is smoking a Kent cigarette.
I tell myself, by the face of my mother, I am the one being fucked,
For I am living with honour, and I am smoking Belmont.
I wonder about this bitch, her car is a Chevrolet,
Her panties are showing and I’m sure she’s having her period.
Where do you think all this is coming from?
You know it’s a cunt, why don’t you take my prick and give me a cunt.
The bitch enters the office of the son of a bitch,
She winks and says, “Ah, ouf, extra, extra!”
Our friend’s saliva ran, he ejaculated when he saw her and came to ride her,
Yet he was the one being ridden, and he cleaned his dick with a piece of paper.
Kuss Ommiyyat was banned in Egypt in the 1970s, because of its allegedly corruptive influence, though it quietly circulated among left-leaning intellectuals. Surur found himself committed to a mental hospital in Cairo where he developed diabetes and died in 1978 at the age of 46. But new media gave Kuss Ommiyyat new life, when Shohdy Surur, a webmaster and Naguib’s son, posted the poem on the internet. The Mubarak government then arrested him for obscenity, sentencing him to a year in prison in 2002. For more on the two-generation saga of Kuss Ommiyyat, see “Phantoms of Liberty” by Hani Shukrallah.
 In 1970s Egypt, Kent cigarettes, produced by British American Tobacco, were considered a high-end brand, whereas Belmont, from local Eastern Tobacco Company, were a poorer man’s alternative.