Desiring Arabs Hardcover – 8 Jun 2007
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"A pioneering work on a very timely yet frustratingly neglected topic.... I know of no other study that can even begin to compare with the detail and scope of [this] work." - Khaled El-Rouayheb, Middle East Report "In Desiring Arabs, Edward Said's disciple Joseph A. Massad corroborates his mentor's thesis that orientalist writing was racist and dehumanizing.... Massad brilliantly goes on to trace the legacy of this racist, internalized, orientalist discourse up to the present." - Financial Times"
About the Author
Joseph A. Massad is associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. He is the author of Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan and The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians.
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Top Customer Reviews
He points out a plethora of Arab books that deal with sexuality that have not been translated into western languages or were inaccurately interpreted. Islamic writers of the 19th century are shown to be curious and interested in western morals and psychology (and just as likely to paint unbiased views as the one sided ones we so often assume). The most fascinating debates are however in the Arab internal discussions and assessments of poets who wrote about same sex love within their own culture in the medieval period that he details. Most of these are unexamined by western scholars (he ridicules Orientalist conferences where the minority Arab attendees had to translate for the westerners who could not read Arabic but claimed expertise). Massad's work is fantastic in bringing out these arguments and misconceptions. (If nothing else his examination of the evolution of words and terms for sex and homosex are a goldmine when using Google!).
He shows that a relaxed exchange of views amongst Arab authors writing from the late 19th century onward changed mid twentieth century to a more puritanical and censoring attitude.Read more ›
Massad's thesis is that people in the West have always had (and continue to have) an entirely wrong view of Arab sexuality/sensuality. Westerners impose their/our own matrix of sexual relationships upon a completely different culture. The exhibits which he uses to prove this thesis are a variety of Arabic literature. This literature encompasses plays, novels, short stories, films and poetry.
Initially I was concerned that the texts which he cites would make the book unnavigable as I have read only two or three of them. In this I was wrong as he explains the plots and draws out issues from the texts admirably.
Much of the book is concerned with homosexuality and its manifestations in Arabic literature. In regard to this I feel that I learnt a lot from reading the book as Massad places each text into its contemporaneous historical and socialogical position.
'Desiring Arabs' is not for the faint hearted or for the uncommitted. From its outset the language used is convoluted and unnecessarily complex. I am certain that this will put many readers off and that is very unfortunate as I think that Massad's message is one that any amateur or professional anthropologist ought to be made aware of.
I am also rather concerned that Massad really does not seem to provide many answers. He argues that the West views Arab sexual culture in an entirely wrong way, yet only towards the end does he touch upon an alternative view that we perhaps ought to have. Perhaps in this I miss his major message but as somebody who battled and thought my way through the book I felt that I was owed a clearer description of Massad's own stance regarding the issue.Read more ›
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Joseph Massad seeks to set the record straight on this issue with his book Desiring Arabs. Massad launches an intellectual assault on a central assumption behind both pronouncements: that "homosexuality", as a category of sexual relations, is a cross-cultural concept that people simply fall into or not. According to Massad, such an assumption reads a modern European understanding of sexual relations onto a cultural framework where such divisions were not present. Tracing a genealogy of the homosexual-heterosexual dichotomy in true Foucauldian genealogical fashion, he identifies this psychiatric-medical concept in its Victorian colonial millieu and shows how it spread with western knowledge into bourgeois parts of the Arab world, where Arab intellectuals adopted it and other ideas in order to recreate themselves as "modern" in line with liberal European precepts of the time. Starting from where Edward Said left off, Massad shows that such concepts carried orientalist/colonialist assumptions about the sexual decadence of non-western (particularly Islamicate) societies and how Arab intellectuals reacted to such orientalist prejudices by imbibing western sexual discourses to correct themselves and purge any trace of sexual behavior and practice that did not conform with this type of racist thinking. The result, Massad argues, is a marked increase in rather prudish sexually intolerant ideas in the Arab world which were taken as a sign of being "proper" and "civilized" heterosexuals, shoving out those Arabs and Muslims that did not distinguish so strictly between opposite sex and same-sex behavior or identified with one or the other in ways different to today. In his analysis, he cites a number of prominent Arab writers and intellectuals from the 19th and early 20th centuries, showing how their ideas were structured to fall in line with this European epistemological reality in the region.
Massad concludes the book with a discussion of contemporary gay liberation movements and their effects on the Middle East. Here, makes a controversial yet compelling critique of colonialist assumptions behind gay liberation activities engaging with the region, assumptions that only replicate and enforce the hetero-homo dichotomy in the Middle East, perpetuating the type of epistemic violence that only worsens the conditions of non-heterosexual minorities in their native countries. Instead, Massad argues that rather than pursuing neo-colonial projects such as "Gay liberation" which only perpetuates racist western understandings of sexuality, activists should work to dismantling these binaries in order to open the door to more radical possibilities of sexual identification. It is a powerful argument that is quite compatible with the goals of queer theorists seeking to challenge western sexual epistemology (one that I sympathize with highly as a bisexual man) yet perhaps there may be a risk of over-exclusiveness that does not account for those Arabs and Muslims that do understand their sexualities according to the western model and seek an end to discrimination on that basis. Some have argued that Massad risks creating an impression of an idealized pre-victorian non-binary sexual past that was destroyed by the encounter with Western knowledge. I don't think he specifically endorses pre-modern Islamic notions about sexuality as a model to be emulated. Indeed, he says as much in countless interviews clarifying his arguments on the book's thesis, but perhaps there should be some more nuance in combatting the restrictions of modern sexual categories?
That being said, this is still a major tour-de-force of Arab intellectual history. He builds on Said's Orientalism thesis with this detailed analysis of the production of sexual knowledge in a colonial context, how it targets a subject population and how that subject population utilizes that knowledge to detrimental effect. No student of the history of sexuality or Arab cultural history can afford to ignore this important landmark work.
An excellent read.
But what does this mean? The Arabs and the West are not monoliths. The black Arabic speakers of Southern Iran, the Hebronite Arabs, the Southern 'Latin' Italians and the Irish are diverse peoples that do not deserve to be lumped together into simple categories of 'racist west' and 'victimized Arab'.
The thesis here is that in the 19th century westerners viewed Arabs racistly as being sexually promiscous and licentious, as desiring women too much. In the 20th century however the West is supposed to have become sexually open and suddenly the Arabs became 'conservative' and prudish. But why was this so? Is it true that the west's attitudes towards sex forced the west to view Arabs differently? Did Arabs also change?
The book answers this question by claiming that Arab attitudes towards sex in the 19th century changed because of the west and that a Nahda or rennaisance took place, in which Arabs internalized western ideas of sex. It is strange how racist a thesis this is for a book that accuses the west of viewing the Arabs in an unfair matter. This thesis claims that Arabs have never thought for themselves, that they are monoliths, and cna only change at the behest of the west.
But what of the Ruwalla tribe of Arabia? What of the Dajani family of Jerusalem? What of the slave stalls of Cairo where women were sold to Harems, or the dancing girls of Cairo? Did not this change as well? Did not the 'dancing girls' disappear in the early 20th century? Did not the Ruwalla Bedouin change as TV and internet influenced them and as they migrated to cities. Attitudes to sex among Arabs changed, attitudes to this day are different in Riyadh, Beirut and Hebron. To pretend that this is all because of the West and to claim at the same time that the west has only been 'racist' is an unfair way to examine this. The West has tried to understand the Arab world in the exact same way the Said Qutb understood the western world. Misconceptions go both ways and so does truth. By calling one people racist and lumping the other together, one does a serious disservice.
Seth J. Frantzman
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