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Desiring Arabs
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2014
Much has been made about the status of non-heterosexual people in the Middle East, their plight, their struggles and their loyalties. More often than not, this issue is dealt with rather predictably as one of conservative reactionary Muslims in the region denying full equality and dignity to people with different sexual orientations. In other words, that the culture is fundamentally homophobic. An opposing, equally ridiculous response is that of the former President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who claimed that there were no homosexuals in Iran.
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.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 3, 2011
The work masterfully covers representations of Arab sexuality (mostly homosexuality). Massad examines many of the major works of literature on this topic as well as their reception in the critical commentary. Massed also does not flinch from providing his own reasoned and highly critical analysis of the gay rights movement as it is imported into the Arab world. He provides a scathing critique of western attempts to "liberate Arab gays". Massad is a capable and unflinching intellectual who calls it as he sees it even where doing so makes him unpopular and the target of really aggressive attack (we need more intellectuals like this these days!). His scholarship and his analytical capabilities are so impressive that you are convinced by argument, despite the fact that such conclusions cause to you question your fundamental prejudices inclinations and beliefs about the gay rights mission. This book not only caused me to read more Arabic literature generally but also has nuanced and enhanced my understanding of the gay rights movement in general. It left me a bit embarrassed about some of my existing belief structures. This is a good thing.
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13 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2009
The work at hnd is thoroughly researched and passionately argued. It provides a summary of how Arabic speaking scholars viewed their own literary tradition and how their views changed under western influence and later in reaction to such influence. The summaries of poetry, novels, and films are very helpful but the core of the book is theoretical, a challenge to the imposition of european based theories of sexuality on the diversity of experience and sexualities among men in the former Ottoman empire.The book rightly challenges the sexual typology developed by liberationist rhetoric and corrects the frequent attempts to waylay medieval and other authors writing in Arabic into the 'gay' camp. From both an historical and anthropological perspective the book makes sense (to me at least) because it testifies to the gap between labels and the polymorphous and elusive nature of sexual desire. It also respects the differences in people and cultures over time.
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12 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2008
Like the Byzantines who viewed unveiled women as prostitues or lower class women and thus succeeded in creating the veiled Arab woman simply by implying they are a lower class if unveiled, Western literature of the last 1000 years referring to the Arabs as sodomites and pederasts and now, incredibly as homophobes, has imposed its mores and culture on their fluid concepts of Arab sexuality.

An excellent read.
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46 of 86 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon August 12, 2007
This book, like Edward Said's Orientalism gives the impression that the wes tis the source of everything that is wrong not only with the Arab-Muslim world but also the West, in a sense that western scholarship and perceptions are always 'racist'.

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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