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University of Chicago Press
Desiring Arabs / Edition 1

Desiring Arabs / Edition 1

by Joseph A. Massad


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Sexual desire has long played a key role in Western judgments about the value of Arab civilization. In the past, Westerners viewed the Arab world as licentious, and Western intolerance of sex led them to brand Arabs as decadent; but as Western society became more sexually open, the supposedly prudish Arabs soon became viewed as backward. Rather than focusing exclusively on how these views developed in the West, in Desiring Arabs Joseph A. Massad reveals the history of how Arabs represented their own sexual desires. To this aim, he assembles a massive and diverse compendium of Arabic writing from the nineteenth century to the present in order to chart the changes in Arab sexual attitudes and their links to Arab notions of cultural heritage and civilization.
A work of impressive scope and erudition, Massad’s chronicle of both the history and modern permutations of the debate over representations of sexual desires and practices in the Arab world is a crucial addition to our understanding of a frequently oversimplified and vilified culture.

“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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226509587
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/15/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 472
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

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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Desiring Arabs
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-50958-7

Chapter One Anxiety in Civilization

Since the Arab "renaissance" emerged in the mid- nineteenth century, thousands of medieval manuscripts dating back to the seventh through the fourteenth centuries have been published in the Arab world, in addition to scores of studies and analyses of that period of Arab history. European Orientalist scholarship, as discussed in the introduction, showed initial interest in these texts and began to publish them and comment on them in European languages. The emergent Arab intelligentsia in the nineteenth century took upon itself the revival and modernization of the Arabic language, which was seen to have also "degraded" under Ottoman repression. This intellectual trend combined with (some would say, produced) a nascent Arab nationalism opposed to Ottoman rule that appeared during the last decades of the century and took upon itself the task of uncovering the cultural heritage of the Arabs of yesteryear as a foundation for the Arabs of the present.

This revival ranged from studies in the literary production of the past, to theological and jurisprudential studies, to historical, scientific, and sociological treatises. The emergent intelligentsia sought the past of the Arabs as a basis for their modern future by repudiating the more recent traditions that developed under Ottoman rule, seen through the eyes of the emergent nationalism as foreign and "degraded" in character. It was by repudiating the more recent past and by reviving the ancient past that the Arabs of the present could chart their project for modern life. These intellectual trends are reminiscent of European modernity, which sought to adopt "its" ancient Greco-Roman heritage and repudiate its Christian Middle Ages. The "revival" of this ancient past is evident in treatises written on politics, economics, and religion, as it is in treatises written on women's liberation and society at large. To the casual observer, with few notable exceptions, there was little in these voluminous accounts dedicated to the sexual life of the ancient Arabs or to the place of sex in what increasingly came to be known as a coherent category called "Islam." In fact, important debates on sex and desire did exist, but rarely on their own. They were mostly embedded in discussions of literature and turath more generally. There seems to be little familiarity in the Arabic or English secondary literature of these debates, much less any examination of them.

While predominant Orientalist representations of the modern Arab world and Islam portray them as constituted by a repressive sexual ideology and an even more repressive sexual culture that revels in the oppression of women and bans any discussion of sex, this chapter and the next will discuss a century-long rich Arab intellectual debate about sex in the past of the Arabs and its implications for the present. The debate has many nuances and ideological turns, is rich in argument and material, and has engaged some of the important intellectual minds of the modern Arab world. The aim of these chapters is both to retrieve from scholarly obscurity an archive of modern writings on the classical history of the Arabs that made use of medieval documents to paint a picture of the life of the ancients, their cultural production, desires, and sexual practices, and also to explore the way that these writings were deployed in the creation of a viable tradition for Arab modernity.

Intellectuals writing about the sexual life of the medieval Arab world, as we will see, would come from different disciplines, different parts of the Arab world, and different ideological backgrounds. They found medieval documents useful for many different political and intellectual projects within which they would deploy their discussions of sex and desire. Whether liberal educators, historians committed to sexual liberation, Arab nationalists, radical secularists, psychoanalytic literary critics, Marxists, feminists, or Islamists, they would all believe that there were lessons to be learned from the sexual history of the Arabs of the past. Common to all of them is a commitment to a civilizational inheritance whose content must be uncovered. Much of the analysis employed in the debate is fully informed by late nineteenth-century European notions of civilization and culture and subsidiary concepts like progress, regression, evolution, degeneration, decadence, renaissance, ascent, decline, as well as the statistical language of norms and deviations. In the debates that follow, we will see how these notions are introduced as a hermeneutical grid to interpret and produce turath, which functions as both a repository of civilizational documents and a moral code. For some of our authors, these two aspects of turath may be separable while to others they may not be. The question that arises for many of them, however, is whether Arab civilization itself can survive the rupture between the two meanings of turath in the modern period.

Early Beginnings

At the end of the nineteenth century and in the context of a declining Ottoman Empire and surging Turkish nationalism, the Arab Renaissance was in full swing, accompanied with the early stirrings of anti-Ottoman Arab nationalism. The new renaissance of Arab knowledge production involved an increased acquaintance with European Orientalist thought and the construction of the Arab within it. In the course of writing classical and medieval Arab history, these modern historians encountered an ancient Arab society with different sexual mores and practices that were difficult to assimilate into a modern Arab nationalist project informed by European notions of progress and modernization and a Victorian sexual ethic. Some of the important questions being theorized dealt with new concepts that did not exist before and that were being deployed in the excavation of history. In addition to tamaddun and hadarah (both words mean "civilization"; tamaddun was coined first but was later frequently replaced by hadarah) and turath (heritage), there were other related European concepts that informed these endeavors and that proliferated, including thaqafah (culture), inhilal (degeneration), inhitat (decadence or degradation), taqaddum (progress), ta'akhkhur (backwardness), jins (sex), and shudhudh (deviance), among others. What was at stake in this historical excavation was the safeguarding of the heritage of Arab civilization for future generations. The use of European notions on which to base these efforts at excavating Arab-Islamic national heritage did not seem contradictory or problematic to our authors. Rather, they were seen as neutral scientific tools and concepts that could be fully integrated into their modernist project.

The first modern comprehensive history of Arabic literature from the pre-Islamic period to the early twentieth century was written by the famed German Orientalist Carl Brockelmann (1868-1956). Brockelmann published the first volume of his Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur in 1898 (the second in 1902) and the last one in 1948. These volumes would be translated to Arabic in the early 1960s, with more volumes published in the 1970s. The entire collection would be reprinted and republished in 1993 in Cairo. Brockelmann's Herculean efforts, however, were supplemented by other Orientalist scholars who did not have his erudition, including the earlier work of F. F. Arbuthnot's Arabic Authors (1890), and later works like Clement Huart's Literature Arabe (1902), Italo Pizzi's Litteratura Araba (1903), or Reynold A. Nicholson's A Literary History of the Arabs (1907). Adam Mez's important study Die Renaissance des Islams found by his bedside upon his death in 1917 was only published posthumously in 1922. All of these books would rely on the already published volumes by Brockelmann. In fact Brockelmann himself would republish his books updated with appendices and citing works by Orientalist and Arab scholars published in the interim.

In these important surveys, Orientalist scholars addressed not only the literary writings of the Arabs but also described their sexual desires and the way these were expressed in poetry and prose, as well as the national origins of such desires and practices. In his entry on the poet Abu Nuwas, for example, Brockelmann wrote of the poet's "bawdy" (mujun) poetry but did not specify the love of boys. Nicholson commented that "the scenes of luxurious dissipation and refined debauchery which [the bawdy poets] describe show us, indeed, that Persian culture was not an unalloyed blessing to the Arabs any more than the arts of Greece to the Romans." Mez would dedicate a chapter to the "Manners and Morals" of the medieval Arabs, addressing the "pervasive" nature of pederasty among poets from the fourth to the tenth century A.H. (tenth to sixteenth century A.D.), as well as in "circles high and low." H. A. R. Gibb, whose book on Arabic literature appeared in 1926, would liken the Abbasid poet Abu Nuwas to Heine: "He is at his happiest in his wine songs, but his elegies, love poems, and satires, though often containing much both in subject and sentiment that offends our taste, are little inferior."

In this vein, a number of classical and medieval political and literary figures and events were to cause as much anxiety to modern Arabs as they had to European Orientalists before them. Upon encountering historical material about the sexual life of the Abbasid period, the question of civilization and turath became immediately intertwined with sexual morality. Thus any and all attempts to recover the Abbasid period, generally considered the golden age of Arab-Islamic civilization and knowledge production, had to confront the sexual question, read under the sign of morality. The Abbasid poet Abu Nuwas became particularly a focus, if not a cause, of such anxiety, on account of his explicit poetry that detailed sexual desires and practices deemed immoral. The gaze of Arab historians was squarely fixed on European judgment of their civilization, as that modern European concept was always posited in a comparative framework. European thinkers imagined the non-European world either in developmentalist terms, as representing an earlier stage of Europe, the childhood of Europe itself, which European colonialism would shepherd to adult maturity, thus duplicating if not replicating and reproducing Europe on a global scale, or as representing a radical alterity that can only be bridged, if at all, by a comprehensive overhauling of these "civilizations" by, or their utter subjugation to, European supremacy. Arab thinkers, like anticolonial thinkers elsewhere, overcome by a narcissistic injury inflicted by either of these judgments, and intent on building a new national project, begged to differ.

Their efforts coincided with the fledgling European colonial presence in the Arab world-the French had colonized Algeria in 1830 and the British occupied Egypt in 1882. It was with this background that the following exchange between two writers, one Arab (Egyptian), one French, offers a useful introduction into the complex deployment of sexuality in negotiations around questions of religious and, increasingly, national and cultural identity-in short, about civilizational stature. In 1894, an unknown Qasim Amin wrote his first book Les Égyptiens, in French, in response to an Orientalist account written by one M. Le Duc D'Harcourt about Egypt and Islam. Amin was scandalized by D'Harcourt's claim that

Islam encourages pleasures and enjoyment of all that we harbor in our hearts of emotions and yearnings, except for gluttony and voraciousness. He [D'Harcourt] spoke aplenty of lust, obscenity, and degeneration without ever telling us where he saw such things. While we know that an Oriental who visits Europe for the first time returns from it, undoubtedly enchanted by the different types of beauty that such a mighty civilization diffuses across its lands, such admiration, however, is always mixed with a sense of repulsion that the conditions of degenerating morals, degeneration, and perdition are widespread everywhere-just as when a European visits a Muslim country, often complains of a lack in entertainment venues.

If this were not enough to convince his French readers, a horrified Amin unequivocally asserted to his European audience that "what is incredible is that [a Muslim man] does not see in sexual pleasure but a silly satisfaction of one of the bodily needs, so much so that all the tricks of love that ingenious [European] lovers innovated and of which Occidentals are enamored, have no effect on the souls of chaste Muslims. As I have reached this critical point, I should complete the picture by stating that even the most debauched Muslim man would never surrender to obscenity completely; he rather maintains an amount of bashfulness that always saves him from sinking to the bottom." This is to be contrasted with men in Europe, as "there is a large number of men who have no concerns but the enjoyment of everything in all manners. Indeed, some of them boast about how much they have seen and done, so much so that there is no longer anything that can excite their emotions. In addition to these bored men, there are those who are pleasure-mad who do not get satiated, in addition to the depraved and the debauched as well as those women who no longer desire to continue to perform the task of bearing children and prefer to shine in society." Amin's defensive posture against Orientalist representations of Arab and Muslim sexual desires is not unlike that of many European women writers from Mary Wollstonecraft onward, who took up defensive postures against the claims that women had larger sexual appetites than men and reversed the charge in an attempt to fend off sexist attacks.

Amin moved on to publish the first major treatise in Arabic calling for women's liberation in 1899. Reversing Orientalist generalizations and applying them to Europeans, however, would become one of the most effective weapons used by Arab and Muslim writers in response to continuing Orientalist accounts throughout the twentieth century. But unlike Amin's discussion of the sexual desires and conduct of contemporary Arabs and Muslims, the next century would witness a debate not necessarily about the sexual life of contemporary Arabs (although occasionally it would), but mainly about the sexual life of the ancient Arabs. Clearly, the discussion of the past had many implications for the present of which our writers were conscious. Still, while d'Harcourt failed to incite discourse about the sexual life of modern Arabs, Amin's response in French notwithstanding, a century would pass before a new incitement would interrupt the flow of debates about the sexual life of the ancient Arabs and shift it to a discussion of the sexual life of moderns. The new inciters, as we will see in chapter 3, would be a group of Western missionaries and their local followers attempting to disseminate their message of sexual identities, and a surging Islamism intent on constricting social and sexual life.

Pedagogy of the Repressed

Qasim Amin's reaction did not dictate subsequent discussions of sex in modern Arab intellectual history. The ensuing debates centered on a number of themes, paramount among which were the pedagogical role that the past would play in the present, the role of the aesthetic versus the role of religious and social morality, and the nature of audiences and readerships of belles lettres. The debate would encompass questions about what aspects of the past should be emulated and what lessons learned. Just as important, the debate would address questions about what aspects of the past should be condemned or discussed at all and which aspects never to be emulated. The implication of these questions was civilizational in scale, as what was included in the archive of Arab heritage would reflect immediately on the stature of Arab civilization. The initiation of the Arabic reading public to these debates would begin through the pathbreaking books of the important Lebanese writer and publisher Jurji Zaydan. Zaydan (1861-1914), a central figure of the Arab Renaissance (he belonged to the second generation of Nahdah thinkers), not only wrote literary history but also many popular novels that were fictionalized yet well-researched accounts about life in the classical epoch. Zaydan had started his university education in 1881 as a medical student at the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut, which was founded by New York State in 1866. The college was rechartered in 1920 as the American University of Beirut. In 1882, Zaydan was dismissed from the college for leading a student strike protesting the dismissal of one of his professors, one Professor Edwin Lewis, for referring to the works of Charles Darwin in a commencement speech (delivered on 19 July 1882), which was seen as contradicting the goals of the Protestant mission to which the American administrators of the college, in Beirut and in the United States, were committed. Darwinism, or at least its social interpretation, would have a deep impact on Zaydan's thought and work.


Excerpted from Desiring Arabs by JOSEPH A. MASSAD Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


1 Anxiety in Civilization
2 Remembrances of Desires Past
3 Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World
4 Sin, Crimes, and Disease: Taxonomies of Desires Present
5 Deviant Fictions
6 The Truth of Fictional Desires
Works Cited  Index

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