“Cloistered Virtue” and Choosing Literary Texts in a Middle Eastern University – 2013

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

Risse, M. “Who Are You Calling ‘Coddled’?:  ‘Cloistered Virtue’ and Choosing Literary Texts in a Middle Eastern University,” Pedagogy, 14 (2013): 415-427.


I once tossed Flaubert’s Salammbo into my purse before going to run errands. Living in a small town in the Middle East means lots of time spent standing in line to pay bills and waiting for meetings to start. Later, trying to dig out my sunglasses, I glanced at the cover – oops, Salammbo is not wearing a shirt or bra. I thought of the possible reaction of a conservative Muslim man standing next to me waiting to pay the electricity bill. Could I remember to keep the front of the book covered? Probably not. So I found a black pen and gave her a t-shirt, deliberately defacing the Mucha painting just like the censors with black pens cover bare breasts in the fashion magazines.

A few weeks later, I was reading a London Review of Books while proctoring an exam; reading Terry Castle’s essay on ‘outsider art’ I suddenly realized that I was holding the paper in a way that any student, looking up, could see the back of the pages I was reading. I slowly lowered the paper onto my lap and quietly turned all the pages. Ah yes, there was an ad for Peter Davies’s book on Paradise Lost (2010) with a photograph of the cover which is illustrated with a painting of Adam and Eve with fig leaves below and nothing above. The ad was small, but the nearest student was sitting only three feet away from me. I folded up the paper and took out Steve Caton’s Yemen Chronicle (2006).

Self-censorship shows up in most aspects of my life, most notably in choosing texts to teach but in other areas as well. Self-censorship has a terrible reputation, echoes of self-abnegation, taping one’s own mouth shut and evil triumphing. But where I live and teach, letting it all hang out is not an option. As a Western woman teaching literature in the Middle East, choosing what texts to teach is always fraught.

This article discusses the necessary compromises inherent in choosing interesting, authentic, and appropriate texts for Middle Eastern classrooms, arguing that the choice of texts and the methods of teaching should reflect local culture instead of transplanting Western syllabi.

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