02/22/2013 03:03 pm ET

A Comedian and a Scholar on Changing Sexual Behavior in the New Arab World Walk Into a Room

A comic and a scholar on changing sexual behavior in the new Arab world walk into a room. A theater, actually.

Where will that conversation go?

Here's the background: we in the west know so little about Arab culture, custom and practices. We know about Ramadan. We know about governments in power. We know about Arab history -- to a point and clearly not enough. We understand that we need to know more, and understand much more. While Islam shapes Arab culture, custom and practices, the ground is clearly shifting in the Arab world. If the Arab world is changing politically day to day, then the Arab world seems to be changing socially and behaviorally by the hour. Europe and we in the United States had our social and sexual revolutions a generation or so ago, but is that happening now in Egypt and in other Arab regions? And what impact has the Arab Spring had on sexual attitudes and behavior in the region?

Here's the scholar: Shereen El Feki, a Cairo-based Canadian journalist and researcher, has written a remarkable book called Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. She reminds us that Arab attitudes towards sex were once indulgent and exuberant, liberal and tolerant. That changed with the rise of fundamental Islamic observance, of course -- and several generations have experienced what we in the west would call an intolerant and repressive outlook on intimate behavior -- within marriage, before marriage, homosexuality, use of condoms, etc. But El Feki sees an ever-expanding loosening of sexual mores, a breaking down of taboos. People are talking about sex with more candor -- whether about single motherhood, sex education or homosexuality. Social reform in terms of sex education and health education is gaining momentum. Sex is now something that people -- even women -- in some Arab countries can publicly address -- with less censorship and more latitude. Perhaps there is a relationship between the downfall of authoritarian rule in government and the blossoming of personal freedoms--whether outside the bedroom or within.

Here's the comic: Omar Elba. He's an Egyptian American in his late '20s, utterly hilarious. He's lived in Egypt, in Europe, in a small town in Texas (!), and now is in Los Angeles. His impersonations of ethnic groups are terrific, but not simply because he is a perfect mimic, which he is. His comedy is so powerful because he infuses his impersonations with his own take on American pop culture, on American ethnic characteristics and personality, and of course on our uneasiness with Islam in our own backyard. He doesn't overtly unsettle us with his comedy -- he uses a velvet glove to drive home our collective craziness.

So a comedian and a researcher about changing sexual behavior in the Arab world walk into a room. I can't wait.

Shereen El Feki and Omar Elba will participate in a Writers Bloc program on Sunday, March 10, at 1:00 pm, at the Silent Movie Theater, 611 N. Fairfax, Los Angeles. For more information, visit