What Would Allah Say?
The Strange, Brave Career of Ahmed Shafik
r. Ahmed Shafik wears three-piece suits with gold watch fobs and a diamond stick pin in the lapel. His glasses are the thick, black rectangular style of the Nasser era. He owns a Cairo hospital and lives in a mansion with marble walls. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize.* I don’t care about any of this. Shafik won my heart by publishing a paper in European Urology in which he investigated the effects of polyester on sexual activity. Ahmed Shafik dressed lab rats in polyester pants.
There were seventy-five rats. They wore their pants for one year. Shafik found that over time the ones dressed
^Nominations for a Nobel Prize, I found out when I contacted the Nobel Foundation to try to verify Shafik’s, remain secret for fifty years. You make the claim, and nobody can prove otherwise until after you’re dead. Add one to your resume today!
in polyester or poly-cotton blend had sex significantly less often than the rats whose slacks were cotton or wool. (Shafik thinks the reason is that polyester sets up troublesome electrostatic fields in and around the genitals. Having seen an illustration of a rat wearing the pants, I would say there’s an equal possibility that it’s simply harder to get a date when you dress funny.)
Dr. Shafik published five studies on the effects of wearing polyester, and then moved on to something else. If you print out a list of Shafik’s journal articles—and you will need a roll of butcher paper, because there are 1,016 so far—it is hard to say what his specialty is. He has wandered through urology, andrology, sexology, proctology. If you ask him what he is, what he writes under “Occupation” on his tax form, he will smile broadly and exclaim, “I am Ahmed Shafik!”
It is a full-time job. Though Shafik, now seventy-three, is retired from teaching, he continues a heavy schedule of surgery and research, the former funding the latter. (His surgical specialty, as best I can gather, is despots with colorectal issues. He says he has worked on Castro’s plumbing, though not recently, and that of the late Mobuto Sese Seko.) Self-funding affords Shafik the freedom to indulge his more esoteric interests—research projects with no obvious practical ramifications or corporate appeal. In this way he is, as his office manager Margot Yehia has pointed out, a holdover from the nineteenth century, when science
was undertaken simply for the sake of understanding the world.
Shafik’s work is far-ranging, but it is not random. The common thread that runs through it is reflexes. In the field of sexology alone, Shafik has planted his flag into twenty new reflexes. If you look at sex through the fabulous black spectacles of Ahmed Shafik, you see more than just a couple expressing their love, or perhaps merely their lust, through the actions of their bodies. You see muscles responding reflexively, without the conscious contributions or consent of their owner, in response to physical stimuli that take place during sex. When a penis hits a cervix in a certain way, for instance, this is a stimulus. In response, a woman’s adductor muscles reflexively contract, pulling her thighs together and—in what might be a protective mechanism— limiting the depth of the man’s thrusts.
Here’s another. When the lower third of a woman’s vagina widens—as it does during penetration—several reflexes get triggered. The vaginocavernosus reflex may sound dry or arcane on paper, but it is the basis of what appears to be a remarkable physical synergy between male and female anatomy during sex. When the cavernosus muscles reflexively contract—as they do upon entry—this boosts blood flow to the clitoris. The effect was documented in 1995 by a French team who took Doppler ultrasound images of clitoral blood flow while an inflatable probe was inserted into ten volunteer vaginas. At the same time as the vaginocavernosus reflex is affecting the clitoris, Shafik found, it’s also putting the squeeze on the man’s dorsal vein, helping trap blood in the penis and keeping it firm. If there’s an intelligent designer in the cosmos, he’s got at least one of his priorities straight.
Shafik has published papers on a total of eighty-two anatomical reflexes that he has discovered and named. Because other physiologists rarely try to replicate his findings, the reflexive response of the sex research community is to be mildly skeptical. Says Roy Levin, “That man’s got more reflexes than I’ve had hot dinners!” Though Levin concedes that, in general, the study of sexual reflexes has been illuminating and worthwhile—at the very least for having “drawn attention to the female reproductive tract as not simply a passive conduit. . . but as a responsive, active canal.”
Since each stimulus prompts unique reflexive responses, each must be studied independent of the rest. To mimic an erect penis expanding the opening of the vagina, for instance, Shafik puts a condom-shaped balloon at the end of a catheter, inserts it, and inflates it. Mock bumping of the cervix is done with a sponge on a rod, the sponge having been carved to resemble the head of a penis. (The reflexive responses to these motions are identified via needle electrodes in the muscles of the vagina, cervix, uterus, what have you.)
It is noteworthy that Shafik has managed to find dozens of women in a Muslim country who will agree to be, say, penetrated by a balloon penis. How does he manage?
I’ll know soon. Though no relevant studies are planned for this year, Shafik has arranged for me to see a demonstration of the vaginal reflexes of intercourse. How this will work and on whom they’ll demonstrate remains unclear.
n my first morning in Cairo, I wander into a museum near my hotel: the Agriculture Museum. I am the only tourist, a lone adult pushing upstream through currents of happy, shrieking schoolchildren. The museum must have been built around the 1930s and remains charmingly unspoiled by modern advances in museum design. Insect specimens are presented not in their natural environmental niche—e. g., boll weevils on a cotton plant—but in anthropomorphic slice-of-life tableaus: “The Mole Cricket at Home.” “The Earwig as a Mother.” The staff taxidermist must have quit at some point, or lost his mind, for some of the animal skins appear not stuffed, but inflated. A sort of hyena pool float hangs on the wall along the staircase, torso bloated, legs sticking straight out from its sides.
I go downstairs to the main exhibit hall, with its full – scale scenes of Egyptian village life: plaster mannequins of men in djellabas, sifting grains and guiding plows. A museum attendant falls into step beside me. He speaks no English, but it’s clear he has something to show me. He points to a low wooden door behind a diorama of dusty date-sellers and gestures for me to follow him. He unlocks the door and switches on the lights. We are alone inside a narrow orange-walled hallway that appears to have been, at one time, part of the museum. More village scenes line the sides. Here are women weaving, women telling fortunes, women combing their children’s hair. Then I realize: As in real life, the women have been sequestered from men’s gazes.
If even inanimate Egyptian women are protected and concealed, how on earth has Ahmed Shafik convinced dozens of flesh-and-blood women to lift up their robes for science?
I pay the guide his baksheesh and go home to take a nap. Around two, I set out again, on foot, to find the Ahmed Shafik Hospital, which I know to be close by I assumed I could simply ask someone to point me in the right direction, in the same way you can ask anyone in Rochester, Minnesota, how to get to the Mayo Clinic. But hospitals in Cairo are a neighborhood affair, owned by families and small affiliations of doctors and indistinguishable (to the non-Arabic reader) from apartment buildings. I am quickly, deeply lost.
Thankfully, the pay phone (Ringo brand) has not disappeared from Cairo, and with the help of Shafik’s faithful factotum Margot, I arrive on time for my first meeting with the man who dressed lab rats in leisure suiting.
A first encounter with Ahmed Shafik is a joyous experience. I am seated on a sofa in his office when he appears in the doorway. He stops in his tracks and stretches out his arms as though in benediction. “Welcome! Welcome to Cairo!” Then he steps up and shakes my hand. It’s a grand, swinging handshake that begins, like a golf swing, up by his shoulder and finishes in a decisive smacking of palms.
The reflex demonstration is scheduled for the following day, and so we drink coffee and chat. I ask him how he is able to do the sort of work he does in an Islamic country. “First of all,” he begins, “I don’t publish here. I publish outside. Especially nowadays. In all Arab countries, I don’t know why and how, conservative people are coming up greatly. Greatly/” He is referring to the recent electoral sweep by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Shafik gains access to women more or less as one does in the Agriculture Museum: baksheesh. The women are prostitutes, and he pays them to participate. He pays them in cash and in free medical care—for them and for family members.
“I know a lady, and she helps me. But it is with effort.” The research is done in “special flats,” where there are also gambling tables. “I go at one or two in the morning. I work the whole night.” Not without risk. Prostitution is illegal in Egypt. The Ministry of the Interior is sufficiently worked up about it as to have an entire Department for the Prevention of Prostitution. While there is nothing on the books about the legality of paying a woman to let you penetrate her with a balloon, it can’t be a simple or pleasant thing to have to explain to an agent of the DPP at two in the morning.
Shafik agrees to put me in touch, via email, with one of his subjects. I contact her several weeks after I get home, with Shafik serving as go-between, sending my questions to her and her answers back to me. The woman refers to the “special flat” as the Home for Prostitutes. The name, as well as the ages of Shafik’s subjects (most are in their late thirties), makes it sound like a sort of retirement home for the trade. It’s not. Prostitutes in Egypt are older than they are in the States; many are middle – and even upper-class women who have been divorced and left with no child support. Raised in an era when women received no education, they turn to prostitution as one of the few options to keep themselves afloat and fund their children’s educations.
This is not, however, the case with the divorced woman with whom I’ve been emailing. She does it “simply for having sex.” It had never occurred to me that under a religion that forbids sex outside of marriage, prostitution might attract the occasional widow or divorcee. But this is not the reason she lay down with Dr. Shafik’s condom balloon. She says she had seen Dr. Shafik on TV and felt that her participation might help women in some way: “I
felt very happy when I thought of my participation as my little achievement for science. The peak was when Prof Shafik showed me the results of the experiments printed in a journal.” She clearly holds Shafik in high regard— referring to him as a “world famous surgeon and scientist” and “world-wide well-known Egyptian doctor and researcher”—so much so that at one point I began to picture him, and not her, sitting at a keyboard tapping out the replies.
When I ask this woman to describe the experience, she writes that she was “pretty scared with the sight of the electric apparatuses. . . and with the idea of the needles that were to be inserted into my genital organs and the balloons that were to be placed and inflated in the vagina.” As for the test itself, she says simply: “I was not comfortable.”
Both religious prohibitions and the law force medical researchers in Muslim countries to take extreme measures. “Even more difficult,” says Shafik, “is when you want to do research on a cadaver.” Shafik uses a French pronunciation, the accent on the first syllable—CAD-averre. From his mouth, the word sounds foreign and vaguely classy, like a name made up for a car. The Toyota Cadaverre. Because of Islamic edicts, there is no tradition of body donation in Muslim countries. Occasionally, Shafik lays hands on an unclaimed corpse, that of a person who has died with no known kin, but more often he has bribed graveyard employees. He is careful to point out that he puts the body back in his trunk and returns it for burial when he is finished.
The conversation trails off, and in that moment I have a realization. I realize that Dr. Shafik’s shiny, luxe, peacock – blue suit trousers are synthetic. I can’t help myself I lean forward and pinch a pant leg between my fingers. “Polyester!”
“Yes, yes.” Shafik admits it. I am hooting unprofession
ally. “Yes, but I tell you…” He raises his index finger. “I tell you! Inside is not polyester! Underwear, never!” *
tell you, there is more functioning technology in one Ahmed Shafik study than in all of Cairo. The ATM machines spit out my bank card like it’s gristle. Phone calls from my hotel room must be placed by the desk clerk, who copies down the number and then puts through the call as though I were Claude Rains in Casablanca, arranging night passage. The one pedestrian crosswalk I saw in Cairo features a perpetually blinking green man, whom you glimpse in the synapses between speeding cars.
As I walk to my appointment with Dr. Shafik the following afternoon, I try to imagine the scene at the Home for Prostitutes. I picture men lounging on cushions, smoking water pipes, and glossy-haired women with harem pants low on their hips. It is difficult to find a place in this scene for Dr. Shafik and his 12F condom-ended catheter.
We are meeting at his office. The mood is oddly subdued when I arrive. “Mary, I am sorry,” says Dr. Shafik in the tone he must use to tell families when operations have not gone as planned. “I asked the house where I gо ” Asked is rendered in two syllables: ASK-ed. This seems to be a regional treatment of the English k sound. Sphinx comes out SPHINK-us. “To bring you there. I called them last night. They refused! Even the prostitutes, they are very afraid nowadays. I tell you, the religious people are rising up. Up and up! Sex, now, in this country is very secret. The women and the vagina—it’s something very criminal.”
I got a whiff of this yesterday. A crew from Cairo’s English-language TV station came to film a segment about Dr. Shafik. They interviewed me about why I had come to see him but cautioned me not to use the word sex. “Say ‘sexual intercourse,’” the reporter advised. “Make it sound scientific.”
Instead of going to the Home for Prostitutes, we are going one floor down, where someone on the hospital staff has apparently agreed to be a demonstration subject. Dr. Shafik has me wait in the corridor outside an empty ward. Behind the door, voices volley in agitated Arabic. The discussion stops, and Dr. Shafik opens the door. A woman in blue surgical scrubs stands in the corner with her arms crossed.
Dr. Shafik takes me aside. “I am very sorry, but our patient for the reflexes of the vagina. . . She refused!” I am at once dismayed and relieved. No one should have to endure balloon catheters on my account. In place of the woman in blue, Dr. Shafik has recruited a young man, also dressed in scrubs. The man sits on the edge of a hospital bed, looking bored. I cast my mind to the teetering pile of Ahmed Shafik sexology papers on the desk in my hotel room and try to recall which ones pertain to men.
I have a fond hope that Dr. Shafik does not plan to demonstrate the penomotor reflex. When the tip of a penis is stimulated—by bumping against a cervix, say, or the opening to a vagina (or any other orifice, for that matter)— several muscles contract reflexively. Among them are an anal and a urethral sphincter. The closing of the latter prevents urine from mixing with semen in the urethra during ejaculation. The closing of the two together—let’s let Dr. Shafik say it—“prevents leak of urine or stools” during sex. Thanking you kindly, penomotor reflex. In his study, Dr. Shafik used a “steel rod. . . covered with a sponge” to stimulate a subject’s glans. At the moment, he is holding a telescoping silver pointer. As queasy as this prospect makes me, it would be less awkward than a demonstration of either of the two ejaculation-related reflexes Shafik has published papers on.
One of Shafik’s best-known contributions to ejaculatory knowledge was an extraordinary experiment undertaken in 1998 to help determine what it is, precisely, that triggers it. One theory held that ejaculation takes place when the buildup of semen in the prostatic sector of the urethra pushes against its walls with a requisite amount of pressure. (This preorgasm buildup of semen, a sort of massing of the troops from testes, seminal vesicles, and prostate, is called emission; it is emission that creates the sensation of can’t – stop-now “ejaculatory inevitability.”) Shafik’s study cast heavy doubt on the pressure-trigger theory. He inserted a tiny, expandable bulb into his subjects’ urethras and found that an expansion of the urethra comparable to what typically happens during emission failed to trigger the telltale muscular contractions of ejaculation. (Roy Levin’s guess is that the trigger for ejaculation is the moment when “the summation of all the positive arousing stimuli becomes greater than the negative inhibitor ones.”)
Happily, Shafik has in mind something nonejaculatory, something called the cremasteric reflex. He explains how the cremaster muscle automatically raises and lowers the testicles to cool or warm them, depending on the temperature. (The ideal for developing sperm is 95° F.) Shafik did not discover this reflex. It is well known and not the sort of thing one flies all the way to Cairo for. My guess is that he is showing it to me simply to have something to show me.
Shafik addresses the man on the bed, who stands and pulls down his pants. He holds his shirt up out of the way, his hand held flat against his torso. His head is turned to the side, and he gazes stoically into the distance. Despite the circumstances, there is something noble, almost Napoleonic, about his pose. The demonstration is over in a moment, and the man leaves the room. Later, in the lobby cafe, he will pass by my table and we will pretend not to recognize each other.
exually, Egypt today sounds like the United States in the forties and fifties. After the demonstration, I spent some time talking with Saffa El-Kholy, the Egyptian journalist who had come to interview Shafik. The previous year, she told me, she had produced a four-part series on sex that included an invitation to email the program with questions. Although the narration had made it clear that questions would be used anonymously, viewers would often open up a Hotmail account just to pose their questions. El-Kholy heard from women who’ve “had two orgasms in eight years and aren’t sure what the fuss is about.” Men who blame their impotence on their wives or, worse, try to keep their wives from having orgasms, so that in the event they (the men) ever become impotent, the wife won’t care. El-Kholy: “If you never eat a kiwi, you never want a kiwi.” Though Shafik’s research is written up for academic journals, he is comfortable speaking in layman’s terms— and does so often for TV I asked him whether people who hear about his work shun him or find him strange or immoral. “Yes, yes, of course,” he replied. “It doesn’t discourage me. It’s a challenge.”
Shafik is similarly untroubled by his low profile in the global community of sex research. Several researchers that I spoke with had not heard of him. In part, this has come about because Shafik does not attend sex-research conferences. And because he only intermittently responds to email. “He’s not a team player,” says Roy Levin, who long ago gave up attempts at correspondence. The exchange of ideas and the constructive critiques that lie at the heart of Western science make Shafik antsy. He satisfies his own curiosity on a given subject, and then he moves on. As he puts it: “I always never want to go back.”
Though Shafik’s isolation may compromise his science—or at the very least, his international standing—he is to be commended. As one of the few people in Egypt talking publicly about sex, Shafik performs an even more important role than that of the rogue scientist. If no one on Egyptian TV talks about sex, then no one will talk about it in the cafe or the bedroom or the doctor’s office. Misunderstanding and ignorance will spread. If five hundred unsatisfied women watch Dr. Shafik on television, maybe ten will be encouraged to talk to their husbands. And maybe one or two will eat more kiwis.