This review of Salwa al Neimi's The Proof of the Honey is typical of them all: they all say that the book is good but its central story is weak: the sex isn't all that titillating and the romantic relationship of which it is part is shallow, three and a half stars.
I can't help feeling that the reviewers miss something here -- namely, the book's central point, which is that, indeed, the sex between the lovers wasn't anything nobody else hadn't done before (duh); and their relationship, for the author at least, wasn't about anything much else (blah); and yet -- and this is the point the reviewers miss -- and yet.
Perhaps to understand Salwa's story one has to have experienced what she has and perhaps the experience is simply too rare; but I think I understand her; indeed, while reading her I felt that for the first time in my life I heard someone else describe -- in what could be my own words -- my own experience.
In brief: it sometimes happens that we come across a lover who is especially sexually suitable for us; the word for it, I suppose, could be chemistry -- and no doubt this is what it is. The experience, when it happens, surprises by its power: we suddenly realize that right up to that point we had simply not understood what sex was supposed to be about, however experienced and well read on the subject we may have been; we suddenly know how incredibly satisfying the least, most ordinary things can be. The amazing thing -- which is precisely Salwa's central point, and, I think, the point missed by the reviewers -- is that such sex is certainly ordinary sex as far as the act itself, and yet with that particular partner it does to us something which it never does to us with anyone else, ever. As a result, as if in a flash, we suddenly understand all sorts of things which we had not understood before: the physical world around us changes its meaning.
Until then we had not known it could be this good. Until then we had felt like most adults do -- well, we had thought, sex certainly has its place, but, hey, there are other things in life.
And now, suddenly, we have caught sight of a kind of Dionysian mystery.
As result and henceforth, the world appears to us very clearly divided between the before and the after: before and after we understood, before and after our initiation: not initiation into sex, much of which is perfectly run-of-the-mill ordinary; but initiation to that goodness -- for which there seems to be no word.
A great sexual passion of this sort, when it happens, if it happens, not only changes us forever -- we will never see sex, or the opposite sex -- or ourselves -- in the same light again -- but it also puzzles -- puzzles? no, mystifies -- us: that special partner, sleeping with whom is unlike sleeping with anyone else on earth, is often an ordinary person: neither especially intelligent nor particularly beautiful; there is nothing romantic about the engagement: it does not grow into the hallowed relationship thing; indeed, there is no familiarity or liking or comfort; the whole thing remains uncertain, dangerous and adversarial (which is perhaps one element that keeps it so fresh, unless, that is, the arrow of causality points in the opposite direction).
Indeed, the thing that binds us -- the sex -- being so completely accidental -- by the off chance of the lottery of life we have wondered into someone who perfectly suits us physically, what is the chance of that! -- she is often not good for us in other ways: perhaps we can't respect her aspirations, or her values shock us, or she has a serious character flaw; all we ever want is more of her body -- like Salwa wanted her Penseur's -- but on account of all that strangeness, she may well -- she usually does -- turn out to be impossible to keep.
Indeed, inured as we are to have slight intellectual regard for the importance of sex; and pre-occupied by concerns of life management -- income, savings, family duties, national, political and religious obligations -- we often find that we cannot afford her and choose our life partners on some other qualifications. Not a single person I know has married his or her spouse because the sex was so very good; usually, they say, when you can get them to speak about it, the sex with him/her has never been all that great; and then they add: marriage is about other things. (And so it is).
And when the day comes on which the special she then passes out of our life, as she usually does, we are left, like Salwa, puzzling over the experience more or less incoherently, certainly incoherently to those who have not experienced the same thing: we are, on the one hand, tragically deprived -- because she is gone and her being gone no one seems to match her, and no one matching her we begin to hesitate before taking on new lovers -- why be disappointed, why have less than the very best? and, on the other hand, we are also richer for we have seen a mystery, something otherwise hidden, we know something about ourselves and the world we had not known and most people probably do not. For it is something rare: by the looks of it, the experience is perhaps in parts per million; certainly the reviewer quoted here has no clue about it or he would not say "we all like a dip of honey" -- it is a slighting vulgarism which I can't help feeling really goes to say that, in the words of another slighting vulgarism, when you turn out the light, all women are the same.
And that's just Salwa's point: they aren't. It's not a dip of honey that's great; it is the proof of that honey -- as in proof of armor, or proof of a metal alloy, or proof of a distillate; not proof meaning trial, but proof meaning strength -- which is.
Salwa's is therefore a book of esoteric knowledge, written in a kind of code, by the initiated for the initiated; and for all others, impenetrable.
(A philosopher once said: let him who has ears, hear).