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Desiring Arabs

  • ISBN13: 9780226509594
  • Condition: NEW
  • Notes: Brand New from Publisher. No Remainder Mark.

Product Description

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

Desiring Arabs


  1. 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
    Rating: 3 / 5

  2. Massad, Joseph A. “Desiring Arabs”, University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    Arab Sexuality

    Amos Lassen

    There has been a great interest in Arab culture since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 yet few people are able to tell is about the nature of sexuality in the Arab world. Columbia professor, Joseph Massad, in this scholarly work gives us his critique of the topic and shows how Arabs have, in the past, included sexual desire in literature and how the recent changes have brought about an internalization of such ideas and the view of the West on Arab sexuality. This is an area that has not been looked at by modern scholarship, especially in the realm of what many once regarded as “deviant” sexual behavior.

    Massad gives us a history of ideas as they pertain to the western capitalist ideas of what is sexuality and shows that the sexuality of the Arab people must be looked at historically while considering the changes of the world. Massad looks at both modernity and tradition and he shows that the early Arab writings were both racist and dehumanizing and the result is controversial. Culture affected the colonial system’s ideas on sexuality and we clearly see that here.

    Westerners have traditionally looked at the Arab world as decadent and licentious until the West was engaged in the modern movement for sexual freedom. As the West became more open sexually, the Middle East seemed to move in the other direction. Massad looks at Arab writing so that he can trace (from the 19th century to the present) the changes in Arab attitudes. That area of the world that was once looked at with sexual disdain has become somewhat of an enigma to the West. The book seems to point to the West as being the source for everything that is wrong in Arab culture and Massad goes on to show that there was a change in Arab views on and practice of human sexuality. However these views are not universal in the Arab world and some resisted this change.

    Rating: 4 / 5

  3. 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.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  4. 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.
    Rating: 5 / 5


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