The Proof of the Honey
by Salwa Al Neimi
Europa Editions | April 2009
Originally published in Paris in 2007, The Proof of the Honey, a novel by Salwa Al Neimi, follows its nameless narrator through her obsession with erotic literature, which then turns into an obsession with more specifically Arabic erotic literature. First published in Lebanon and written in Arabic, the Europa translation suffers only from the fact that it is, in fact, a translation of a book that loudly proclaims its love of the language it was written in initially.
Maintaining an extreme level of anonymity, the narrator names the men in her life things like “Mr. Quick”, “The Traveller” and, the lover she’s had that opened her eyes the most, “The Thinker”. She gives the names, however, to most of the females she encounters—excluding only herself. The non-linearity of this novel is held together by the thread of the relationship she has with the lover she refers to as “The Thinker”. This thread is snipped and the affair ends for reasons never made clear by the narrative. Perhaps this mystery that drives the plot forward is better left unsolved; perhaps if the novelist had indulged her readers with an explanation, it would have left a bitter taste in the reader’s mouth, as many relationships end for incomprehensible reasons. Isn’t it better, sometimes, just not to know?
One does, however, need to have knowledge of certain things to enjoy this novel at its maximum potential. “When did I discover that my curiosity about sex is in fact a thirst for knowledge?” The narrator muses. Without any interest in or having read no erotica at all, The Proof of the Honey may read at certain points, instead of a novel, like a syllabus for a college course called ‘The Introduction to International Erotic Literature’. Even if one has only gotten as far as Anias Nin and Georges Bataille and never really could commit to Marquis de Sade, just an interest in the subject will make this book more interesting than someone who lacks an interest in any sex-driven narratives.
Interspersed with smoky encounters, Al Neimi’s novel recounts, like many novels do, a journey. The narrator, a writer, a scholar, a lover, sets off to write an academic account of Arabic erotica. Because of the narrator’s Arabic background and because she is writing the paper in Arabic, she must both defend her decisions and deal with the criticism that follows her decisions, despite the fact that she is living in Paris while writing her account. The narrator would like for these books, the erotica that has existed in Arabic society for hundreds of years, to not be taboo to her culture, but to be celebrated. Her ideas speak not only for the erotica that she holds dear, but also for the idea of sex in an Arabic society, too. Without openly criticizing the closed nature of anything inherently sexual in the Middle East, by using her narrator’s insistence on the historical and cultural value of these texts, Al Neimi wordlessly juxtaposes the restrictive nature of sexual culture in the society of her upbringing with the texts her narrator cherishes, and their prohibition. It is the indistinguishable nature of her criticism of Arabic society from the specific focus on sex and erotica that makes The Proof of the Honey a daring book.
Al Neimi’s novel is essential reading for anyone interested in erotica, Arabic culture or academic studies of either. The Proof of the Honey allows its readers to taste something new, the forbidden fruit of a culture who usually keeps such fruit hidden, though we all know it’s growing somewhere.