Joseph Massad, Desiring Arabs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Desiring Arabs is a pioneering work on a very timely yet frustratingly neglected topic: Arab discourses on sex and sexual desire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The book’s central contention is that these discourses have constituted an important (and overlooked) part of the effort by Arab intellectuals and writers to come to grips with “modernity” and “heritage.” The author argues that these efforts have been governed by an unquestioning acceptance of the nineteenth-century Orientalist assumption that modern “culture” or  “civilization” and Islamic “heritage” were polar opposites whose relationship was at best problematic. Hence, modern Arab intellectuals’ understanding of past Arab-Islamic representations of sex and desire—the sexual component of their “heritage”—has been intertwined with pervasive concerns about progress, authenticity and regression/decadence. Reflections on the Arab past have been dominated by an acceptance of an evolutionary paradigm that sees the Arab present as “degenerate,” and that hopes to rectify this by either emulating a more advanced and civilized West, or by rejecting an even more decadent West and returning to the mythical mores of a past golden age.

The first two chapters are devoted to a discussion of the efforts of self-styled representatives of the Arab “renaissance” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to come to terms with their “heritage”—a heritage that was in fact being constructed simultaneously by Orientalist scholarship and the newly introduced printing press. Much of this process of “rediscovery” took place in the shadow of Western assumptions about “civilization” and “advancement” versus “primitivism” and “backwardness.” Desires that had been part of the Arab-Islamic legacy for centuries—such as the love of boys or the open discussion of sex in erotica and bawdy, satirical belles-lettres—now appeared alien, and elicited intense and anxious discussion. This discussion was often narrowly moralistic, but could often become an opportunity to contrast present repression and hypocrisy to the “healthy” frankness of earlier ages. The author contends that these perspectives reflected shifting European attitudes: at first prim and Victorian; then harping on the detrimental effects of too much “repression” of “healthy” (as opposed to “deviant”) sexual desires; and then condemning “repression” of even “homosexual” desire—the latter being reified as a trans-historical and trans-cultural constant whereas it is in fact being constructed by the very people who are protesting its repression.

Chapter three, based on an article published in Public Culture in 2002, is devoted to the assumptions and effects of Western “gay liberationist” activism in the Arab world. The author argues forcefully that this activism constitutes a Western-driven “incitement to discourse” that actually constructs “homosexuality” in societies that traditionally did not see sexual desire as fitting neatly into binary categories on the basis of the gender of the sexual object-choice and did not envisage sexual preferences as the basis for social identity. All too often, the author continues, gay activists simply dismiss this as false consciousness and “homosexual homophobia.” The effects are pernicious, since activism is creating a backlash against what is often seen as the spread of Western prurience and shamelessness. State persecution, often spurred by an aroused public opinion, is intensified, replacing more traditional and benign notions of tolerating private sexual idiosyncrasies as long as they are carried out discreetly.

Chapter four develops these points, showing in detail how the conservative and often Islamist backlash of the last few decades has seized upon the appearance that the West is trying to impose its “decadent” values on Arab society. The conservative-Islamist discourse reproduces elements from both nineteenth-century European criminological and present-day Christian fundamentalist perspectives on “sexual deviance.” These views have often capitalized on the perceived association of homosexuality with AIDS.

Chapters five and six are devoted to engaging discussions of the representation of sex and sexual deviance in twentieth-century Arabic fiction, from the early novels of Naguib Mahfouz to the present day.

I know of no other study that can even begin to compare with the detail and scope of the present work. This is the first monograph on Arabic discourses on sex and sexual desire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is based on extensive reading in the Arabic primary sources, many of which will be presented to English readers for the first time. It should be of interest to readers concerned with Arabic literature and culture, the history of sexuality, cultural studies and queer studies. The book should, like the Public Culture article, provoke a good deal of debate. Not everyone will warm to its attacks on what the author calls “the Gay International,” but it is too well-argued, informed and comprehensive to be ignored or dismissed.

How to cite this article:

Khaled El-Rouayheb "Massad, Desiring Arabs," Middle East Report 245 (Winter 2007).

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