Desiring Arabs

Image of defendants from the Queen Boat case, Egypt

Desiring Arabs
By Joseph A Massad
University of Chicago Press, 2007

A statue of Abu Nuwas sits on the Tigris River in the center of American-occupied Baghdad. The renowned Abbasid poet authored 1,000 ghazal couplets that speak of erotic love for boys. In 1972 he was immortalized in bronze, wine glass in hand, and placed at the head of Abu Nuwas Street, famous for its bars. Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the nascent Islamist authorities renamed the street Safinat al-Najat, or Rescue Boat Street, a reference to a tale about the prophet Mohammed’s family.

The renaming of this historical thoroughfare captures the chief argument of Joseph A Massad’s Desiring Arabs. A professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, Massad argues that, from the end of the nineteenth century to the present, Arab intellectuals blindly adopted largely Western ideas about culture, civilization, and sex in their construction of Arab history. Arabs, argues Massad, followed the Orientalist line and came to regard their own past as degenerate, decadent, and backwards. They cleansed their civilization by internalizing Western structures of desire. Just as Arab intellectuals came to purge Arab culture of Abu Nuwas’s pederastic poetry, so too did the new Iraqi rulers “save” Baghdad from his erotic legacy.

Over the course of some 400 pages, Massad summons a deep archive of scholarship on sexual desire, ranging from memoirs to criminology. He presents the internalization of essentialist Western understandings of Arab culture and civilization, its handicapped movement towards modernity in particular. In the colonial context, European ideas became hegemonic through the works of historians, novelists, playwrights, and psychoanalysts. One of the book’s central aims is to demonstrate that the archive on sexual desire written by Arabs has been and continues to be plagued by this Orientalist epistemology.

Not unlike Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards, which historicizes the emergence of binary gender categories in modern Iran, Massad stresses that Arab discourse, originally open to same-sex desire, came to institutionalize European heteronormativity and Victorian morality. The normalizing of sexual desire was a prerequisite to modernity. Thus, pederastic poetry, which flourished throughout the Ottoman period, vanished from the literary landscape by the late nineteenth century. Same-sex desire and promiscuity were dismissed — as degenerate, diseased, and aberrant — if not altogether erased from the collective memory.

Furthermore, a central preoccupation of Massad’s critique is his discussion of what he terms the “Gay International,” or the discourse, missions, and organizations that work to advance and universalize the cause of gay rights. He writes, “The very same discourse that calls for the ‘liberation’ of Arabs from dictators and ‘defends’ them against human rights violations is what allows both imperial ventures and human rights activism.”

And thus, argues Massad, interventions from American, European, and Arab elites that call for the liberation of oppressed homosexuals may run the risk of superimposing Western conceptions of gayness or straightness onto largely nonpoliticized sexual practices. This project, he continues, has triggered a backlash by Islamists to repress the expression of a purportedly heathenous, decidedly Western set of sexual identities. (The irony is that both the Islamist and the Gay International situate sex as a marker of civilizational worth). One need only consider the often hysterical campaigns orchestrated by various international human rights groups over crackdowns on homosexuality in Egypt and Iran to understand Massad’s conception of this potentially disastrous instinct to “save” homosexuals from the depths of the unmodern.

Still, noticeably absent from Massad’s study is any examination of desire in oral culture. Somewhat addressing this void, Massad posits that colonialism terminated the existing Arab intelligentsia by introducing the printing press and the book “as the measure of civilized modernity” in place of the manuscript. After the establishment of the printing press in 1821, he writes, “a new book-read- ing public would soon emerge,” and manuscripts and media of the epoch before the rift of 1821 were considered worthless.

Here, a “new” intellectual sphere replaced the old one, which Massad mistakenly leaves for dead. He does not, for example, consider the possibility that sexual desires contained in pre 1821 culture may have developed through alternate forms contemporaneous with print media — as the case of ‘Awadallah ‘Abd al-Jalil ‘Ali demonstrates. A prominent (and illiterate) epic singer in twentieth century Egypt, he came from a long line of oral poets. Anthropologist Susan Slyomovics has written of a principle poem of his repertoire, “The Tale of Anas al-Wujud,” which featured nonaligned same-sex desire between a king and the hero Anas. And so contrary to Massad’s claim, the sexual epistemologies of pre-1821 culture did survive in some corners.

Ironically enough, Massad assumes that the fabric of Arab intellectual history must be restricted to print media — in accordance with Western notions of intellectual history. He criticizes Arab thinkers for failing to question European epistemology, but he fails to question his own notion of what may constitute the ar- chive of intellectual history.

Still, Massad offers a tightly argued and well-researched point of entry for thinking about representations of sexual desire in the Arab world, past and present. His book is one of the first to historicize the shifting role of sex in modern and contemporary discourse by Arabs. In unveiling the hegemony of Orientalism in the sexual realm, Massad issues an urgent call for Arab intellectuals to rethink the very terms of their debate. An Arabic translation should be published immediately. Along with the English version, it promises to incite a fruitful dialogue on sex, neocolonialism, and Islamism, which, in the wake of the horror of Abu Ghraib and the on-going imperialist project in Iraq, could not be more timely.