I’m the Sheik of Araby
Your love belongs to me
At night when you’re asleep
Into your tent I’ll creep
And the stars that shine above
Will light our way to love
You’ll rule this land with me
The Sheik of Araby.
—Harry B. Smith and Francis Wheeler, 1921
When E. M. Hull’s The Sheik was published in 1919 and made into a film starring Rudolph Valentino, “sheik fever” was unleashed in the Western world. In the United States, the book went through fifty printings in 1921 alone, and it was one of the first novels to appear on the best-seller list for two consecutive years (Raub 120). It was continually reissued in paperback from the 1920s to the 1960s, and it had sold 1,194,000 copies in hardback by 1965. Upon the film’s release in 1921, the New York Telegraph estimated that over 125,000 people had seen The Sheik within weeks of its opening. It screened for six months in Sydney, Australia, and ran for a record forty-two weeks in France. The word “sheik,” which originally referred to a Muslim religious leader or an elder of a community or family, suddenly took on in the West new connotations of irresistible, ruthless, masterful, and over-sexualized masculinity, before ending up as a brand of condoms in America by 1931. The Sheik made a dramatic impact on the literary genre of Eastern love stories in Britain, reviving the popularity of the early twentieth-century “desert romance” novel pioneered by authors such as Robert Hichens and Kathlyn Rhodes and spawning a series of forgettable imitations in other novels and short stories in women’s magazines. In the United States, the Tin Pan Alley hit “The Sheik of Araby” was composed in response to the film and rapidly became a jazz standard, especially in New Orleans, before being reworked by the Beatles in 1962. Hull’s sequel, The Sons of the Sheik (1925), and Valentino’s performance in the film version of the novel in 1926, brought the craze for all things romantically “Oriental” to its zenith in fashion and film. Arabic fabrics, clothing, jewelry, cigarettes, cosmetics, interior decorations, and design motifs proliferated, as did dozens of copycat films such as Burning Sands (1922), Arabian Love (1922), The Tents of Allah (1923), The Arab (1924), Sahara Love (1926), and Love in the Desert (1929). The film even affected the world of musical theatre when an operetta, The Desert Song, opened in New York in November 1926 before being made into a movie in 1929.
Sheik fever died down by the 1930s, but its impact on Western popular culture was already indelible, particularly as fodder for spoofs and satires. It did not take long for the first mockery to appear. The 1923 film The Shriek of Araby lampooned the abduction scene in The Sheik, where Valentino rides across the desert sands and snatches Agnes Ayres from her horse, throwing her over his saddle and snarling: “Lie still, you little fool!” The horseback abduction scene was a rich source of mockery, especially for American cartoonists and illustrators such as Dick Dorgan, who wrote a satirical review of The Sheik, accompanied by the illustration below, for the film magazine Photoplay.
Spoofs and sly references to The Sheik continued in American culture long after the desert romance as a literary subgenre had petered out. This was partly because the tropes of abduction, captivity, sexual slavery, opulent harems, and dancing girls in The Sheik were derived from a rich Western tradition of Orientalism, and particularly from a spectacular, “Arabian Nights” Orientalism that developed in the United States through world’s fairs, circuses, carnivals, and Wild West shows during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was an Orientalism that fed dreams of consumption and playful experimentations with identity, as well as sexual titillation and romantic desires. These traditions of Orientalism provided potent and plentiful sources for Hollywood fantasies about harems. In the midst of the Second World War, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, and Anthony Quinn were featured in The Road to Morocco (1942), a film that satirizes the fantasy of Westerners being kidnapped and incarcerated in harems by featuring American men as the abductees imprisoned in the Moroccan princess’s harem. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, a number of Bugs Bunny cartoons made ridiculous references to abductions and harems and even had the “wascally wabbit” dressed as a belly dancer in one episode. References to The Sheik repeatedly cropped up in numerous comics and television shows, as well. In 1984, John Derek’s film Bolero featured his wife, Bo Derek, playing a young, 1920s American flapper enamored with Valentino as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The film begins with Bo Derek gazing up longingly at a poster of The Sheik. She travels to the Middle East determined to lose her virginity to a sheik, but her plan goes awry when the sheik who has agreed to deflower her falls asleep instead.
Satires and spoofs were not the only legacy of The Sheik throughout the twentieth century. Although the British-authored “sheik novel” had run out of steam by the 1930s, the 1970s saw a revival of the subgenre, particularly in the form of the newly emerging, female-authored, erotic historical romance novel (also known more disparagingly as “bodice ripper”) produced primarily in the United States. These historical romance novels found their counterpart in American film and television shows of the 1980s such as the Brooke Shields film Sahara (1983) and William Hale’s television miniseries Harem (1986). Historical romance readers’ and writers’ renewed interest in the Orient may have been sparked by the growing awareness of the importance of Middle Eastern politics and oil to Western political and cultural life—especially after the Six-Day War of 1967, the oil shocks of the 1970s, the rise of Palestinian-related terrorism, improved relations with Egypt under Anwar Sadat, and the Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis of 1979. However, for reasons explained in Chapters 5 and 6, it was more than likely the result of an attempt by female writers to use one of the most well-known pornographic motifs in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western culture—the Oriental despot and his harem—to explore female sexuality and create a new language of heterosexual, female-centered erotica in the wake of sexual liberation and the second-wave feminist movement. Orientalism as a discourse was never simply about legitimating the extension of Western power over the Middle East; it served many varied and changing purposes over time.
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, increasing media coverage of Middle Eastern affairs created a public awareness of the region that manifested itself in rather peculiar ways in global Western popular culture. Where Western women’s romance fiction was concerned, the transnational and corporate nature of romance publishing in the late twentieth century consolidated the creation of a modern-day “sheik romance” subgenre produced by authors from various parts of the British Commonwealth and the United States. Australian and Canadian female novelists had joined the British in writing Orientalist romance novels by the mid-1980s, but the genre became thoroughly Americanized after the First Persian Gulf War, in 1991, and grew steadily in terms of the output of American-authored publications and sales.
The al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001, saw no diminution in the popularity of these novels about love relationships between white women and Arab or Muslim men. On the contrary, 2002 saw the peak of publications, with at least twenty-two different contemporary sheik romance novels and four historical harem romance novels published that year. In 2005, sixteen sheik romance novels were published for the estimated fifty-one million romance readers in the United States, prompting ironic commentary in American and British newspapers and Time magazine.
In his landmark 1978 work, Orientalism, Edward Said makes a passing reference to the puzzling connection between the Orient and sexuality: “Why the Orient seems still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies, is something on which one could speculate”. He, however, declines to probe the issue. A huge body of scholarship on Orientalism has been produced since Said’s original work, yet despite many critiques of the association of Orientalism with sexuality, few attempts have been made to understand the long historical process by which the Orient became associated with sexual promise and romantic love in Western culture. Derek Hopwood’s Sexual Encounters in the Middle East: The British, the French and the Arabs(1999), Ruth Bernard Yeazell’s fascinating cultural history, Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature (2000), and Mohja Kahf’s Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque (1999)—a masterly historical survey of changing (male) representations of Muslim women in European literature from the twelfth to the nineteenth century—are perhaps the only works that consider aspects of Orientalism, sexual desire, and romantic love in Western culture. Still less has there been any analysis of how Western women understood and represented Oriental love affairs and interracial relationships, particularly during the growth of women’s novel writing in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries—a period of efflorescence in fiction that coincided with the age of empire.
As is well known, in colonial discourse other colonized “natives” were attributed the same inferior character traits as Orientals: savagery, ignorance, irrationality, childishness, cunning, deceit, laziness, despotism, cruelty, and moral and sexual depravity. Yet it was particularly the Islamic Middle East and North Africa—from Morocco to present day Iran—that came to be understood as a locus sensualis long before E. M. Hull wrote The Sheik in 1919. Just how did the Orient become Orientalized in the Western imagination in this particular way? That is, how did it become constructed as a place of barbarism and savagery but also, paradoxically, as a space of sensuousness and opulence, sexuality and romantic love? What purposes did it serve for different audiences at different times? More problematically, how did the Orient come to be associated with abduction and rape, particularly of English virgins, and why did this seem so thrillingly romantic to a particular generation and culture obsessed with The Sheik in the early twentieth century? Did these Oriental rape romance stories, when written by women, have the same meaning as when they were written by men? And what impact did the civil rights movement, sexual liberation, second-wave feminism, antirape politics, and American involvement in the Middle East have on the perpetuation and meaning of such fantasies in the present day, through historical novels such as Connie Mason’s Sheik (1997) and Bertrice Small’s Love Slave (1995)? Or in contemporary Harlequin romance novels such as Jacqueline Diamond’s Captured by a Sheikh (2000), Penny Jordan’s The Sheikh’s Virgin Bride (2003), Emma Darcy’s Traded to the Sheikh (2005), Susan Stephens’s The Sheikh’s Captive Bride (2005), Miranda Lee’s Love-Slave to the Sheikh (2006), Sarah Morgan’s The Sheik’s Virgin Princess (2007), and the myriad other novels emphasizing “sheik(h)s” in their titles, which alludes to the topos of Western virgins abducted and sold into sexual slavery to sheiks?
This book is a cultural history of the Orientalist representation of interracial, cross-cultural, sexual, and romantic liaisons between Western women and Arab men in the popular culture of romance throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I argue that whether or not romance writers are aware of their Orientalist literary heritage, the motifs they rework in their historical harem novels or modern-day sheik novels are drawn from a centuries-long literary engagement between Europe and the Muslim world. Certain literary texts have been significant in developing or popularizing these romantic motifs, which have become part of the Western world’s cultural warehouse of images, ideas, stock characters, and standard plotlines of Orientalist romance. In this book, therefore, I begin with a survey of the historical evolution of the romantic East in Europe’s literary engagement with its Islamic other, beginning with twelfth-century verse romances written in response to the expansion of Islamic Spain and to the crusades in the Holy Land from the eleventh to the end of the thirteenth century. I trace the development of the classic themes of Orientalist romance in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writings and drama, including abduction by “Barbary” pirates; white slavery; the fear of renegades; the despot and his harem; the figure of the powerful concubine exemplified in the French Roxane/Roxelane tales of the eighteenth century, whereby the irrepressible concubine Roxelane tames and makes monogamous the sultan Soliman and, finally, fantasies of escape from the harem typified in Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio, 1782).
Although alternative readings of the Oriental harem were provided by women travelers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, beginning with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s authoritative Turkish Embassy Letters (1763), female-authored accounts that desexualized the seraglio and showed it as a domestic space comparable to the bourgeois home had little impact on the general European romantic imagination. Instead, Western ideas of the harem and the romantic East continued to be shaped by male authors, especially Byron, whose Eastern tales created a palimpsest of Orientalist characters and topoi recognizable in twentieth-century romance novels. The Byronic Orient gave way to the overtly erotic East in the anonymously authored novel The Lustful Turk (1828) and other nineteenth-century pornographic novels, pictures, and periodicals. The slow but steady accretion of such motifs as the abduction and rape of the English virgin and the problematic issue of the heroine’s sexual desire for the Arab male found their way into late Victorian romance novels set in the Orient at a time of increasing French and British encroachment in that region, laying the groundwork for E. M. Hull’s The Sheik—one of the first “blockbuster” novels and films of the twentieth century.
The Sheik dramatically transformed the character of these Orientalist interracial fantasies because it feminized the genre and made white women central to Orientalist discourse as producers, consumers, and imagined participants in Eastern love stories. This trend became especially marked in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The eroticization of romance fiction, which gave rise to the historical bodice ripper, also brought the rise of the erotic Orientalist historical romance novel as well as the revival of modern-day sheik romance novels published by Harlequin Mills & Boon. However, dramatic differences in the purpose and function of Orientalist motifs between novels of the early and late twentieth century are evident, shaped inevitably by the civil and women’s rights movements that had developed in the intervening decades. Where early twentieth-century sheik romances are obsessed with the specter of miscegenation, and emphasize white women’s responsibility to respect and uphold the boundaries of whiteness, their modern-day counterparts are more concerned with the incorporation of the ethnic (male) other into modern Western society. In both cases, far from the imperial West being portrayed as the male “self” penetrating the Oriental female “other,” the West is in fact represented by the white female whose attitude toward, and acceptance or incorporation of, racial or cultural male others is moderated by prevailing Western social mores.
Furthermore, these modern-day romances are often engaged in a project that Joyce Zonana terms “feminist Orientalism”: “figuring objectionable aspects of life in the West as ‘Eastern’” in order to redefine the feminist project as “the removal of Eastern elements from Western life,” thus making the goals of feminism more palatable to a Western readership. In Zonana’s work, the discourse of feminist Orientalism is not directed externally toward European relations with the Muslim world, nor is it motivated by a feminist desire to reform the harem system. Rather, the social and political function of feminist Orientalism is aimed at the “transformation of Western society—even while preserving basic institutions and ideologies of the West”. Examining the writings of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century female writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Margaret Fuller, Charlotte Brontë, and Florence Nightingale, Zonana argues that “images of despotic sultans and desperate slave girls became a central part of an emerging liberal feminist discourse about the condition of women not in the East but in the West”. British female writers used “images of oriental life—and specifically the ‘Mahometan’ or ‘Arabian’ harem” to “articulate their critiques of the life of women in the West”. By setting up gender inequality as “Eastern,” these feminist writers encouraged their own society to become more “Western” by improving the status, rights, and opportunities afforded to women. Similarly, female romance novelists in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries argued for their heroine’s right to a fulfilling career and life outside the domestic sphere, while also “de-Orientalizing” the sheik hero in order to assimilate him into Western society. Feminist Orientalism is thus a “rhetorical strategy (and a form of thought) by which a speaker or writer neutralizes the threat inherent in feminist demands and makes them palatable to an audience that wishes to affirm its occidental superiority”.
The intervention of Western female writers in the discourse of romantic Orientalism is significant particularly where late twentieth- and twenty-first-century representations of Arabs and Muslims are concerned. Said argues that since the advent of the Arab-Israeli wars and the oil crises of the 1970s, the figure of the demonized Arab has become pervasive in American popular culture:
In the films and television the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. He appears as an oversexed degenerate, capable, it is true, of cleverly devious intrigues, but essentially sadistic, treacherous, low. Slave trader, camel driver, moneychanger, colorful scoundrel: these are some traditional Arab roles in the cinema.
Copious works have been produced enumerating the negative stereotypes of Arabs in American songs, jokes, fiction, television programs, political cartoons, comics, and movies. Of course, as Melani McAlister points out, such representations were never static, nor did they serve the same political, economic, or cultural functions in America over the course of the twentieth century. Extant discussions of negative stereotypes almost always omit the valorization of Middle Eastern Muslim cultures by black American men who identified with Islam as an alternative way of carving out a cultural identity and political position for themselves, particularly within mid-twentieth-century American society. Nevertheless, as many scholars have shown, the sheer weight of negative representations of Arabs in American popular culture is undeniable and serves as a cultural warehouse from which stock images and narratives can be wheeled out to explain international events or to justify foreign and domestic policies.
In this respect, the modern, female-authored, sheik romance subgenre provides an interesting contrast. These novels certainly rehash classic Orientalist discourses, but not necessarily with the aim of differentiating, distancing, and denigrating the Arab or Muslim other in modern Western society. Because of the formal plot demands of the genre of romance fiction, cultural commonality and shared human interests and emotions are often emphasized instead of ineluctable difference. In many cases, the strength and stability of the Oriental family is celebrated and contrasted favorably against the high divorce rates in the West, or the dysfunctional families that conservative authors fear have come to both characterize and destabilize the nation. Quite often, interracial, interreligious, cross-cultural unions between white women and Arab men represent a healing of the family and society, as well as a wistful, nostalgic return to a more idyllic, ordered national utopia that accommodates both women and ethnic others. This is not to say that these novels are free of Orientalist stereotypes, of course. Certainly, the sheik is often initially portrayed as harsh and unenlightened in his view of gender relations, and with a tendency toward authoritarian behavior. Yet the Middle Eastern potentate is not completely demonized or beyond redemption by a good, liberated, liberal Western woman. British imperialism’s Christianizing and civilizing mission of the nineteenth century lives on in these novels, hybridized with strands of the American national mission to bring liberty, democracy, and modernity—especially in the form of liberal feminism—to the developing postcolonial world. Within their plots, contemporary sheik romances seek to rescue the Middle East from the effects of social and technological backwardness and ignorance, particularly where the treatment of women is concerned. But they also seek to normalize depictions of Middle Eastern people to a certain extent, to celebrate the strength and vitality of Oriental family life and cultural traditions, and to renew social bonds between the East and West by incorporating ethnic difference and ethnic culture into contemporary Western societies. Especially during the era of the American war on terror, this is by no means insignificant.
My methodological approach in Desert Passions is that of a feminist cultural historian engaging primarily with three ongoing scholarly conversations: the first involves Orientalism and Western culture; the second, Western women and imperialism; and the third, the new wave of scholarship in romance fiction. The lineaments of Said’s thesis laid out in Orientalism are well known by now. Said argues that since the eighteenth century, Western aesthetic, scholarly, and (a)historical representations of the Middle East have homogenized a geographically and culturally diverse region and peoples, portraying them as Europe’s inferior other in order to extend, consolidate, and justify Western imperial rule over the region. Said writes, “Orientalism, which is the system of European or Western knowledge about the Orient, thus becomes synonymous with European domination of the Orient”. In the process of producing the Orient, Europeans simultaneously created an identity for themselves as a superior “race” that was “rational, virtuous, mature, ‘normal’”—and therefore fit to be imperial masters. In the three decades since the publication of Orientalism, numerous works have appeared exploring the production of Orientalist discourse in art, literature, and travel. Many of these critique flaws in Said’s work, arguing that Orientalism was never a unified or homogeneous discourse; that the binaries produced by Orientalism were never stable and did not always favor the characteristics associated with the West; that the meaning and function of this discourse varied according to when it was produced, and by which gender; and that the simplistic application of a discourse created during the European age of empire was not without problems when applied to the United States after the Second World War because of the complicating factors of the Cold War. In the second half of the twentieth century, America had different political alliances with various decolonizing and postcolonial countries in the Middle East, while the racial and cultural diversity of the United States itself produced heterogeneous others within its national borders, complicating the straightforward “othering” of Orientals against a unified American self (Lowe 1991, Spivak 1985, Melman 1995, Lewis 1996, McAlister 2001). Still, as Suzanne Conklin Akbari comments about Said’s work today, “There is clearly no point in belaboring the limitations of a theory introduced in the late 1970s in the context of a very different political and academic climate”.
More recent studies, while recognizing the limitations of Said’s original thesis, have nevertheless continued to utilize the concept of Orientalism to explore the particular moments of its production, paying attention to how its function and meaning changed according to different historical, political, and cultural contexts. This book is located within such historically specific revisions of Orientalism and Western culture. One of the ways in which I extend the study of Orientalism is by considering how women produced such discourses in popular culture. Following Said’s lead, scholars of Orientalism and Western culture have primarily focused on high culture (fine arts, music, literature) and travel writing, giving some attention to popular culture in the form of Hollywood films. Many of these analyses conclude with the end of the nineteenth or the early twentieth century, often using the First World War as the end point of their studies. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, Orientalist ideas have been conveyed most pervasively and effectively through popular culture. Yet apart from some studies on Orientalism and film, and a few articles on The Sheik and contemporary sheik romances from feminist and/or postcolonial perspectives, no extensive work has focused careful and sustained historical attention on Orientalism in popular culture or analyzed the changing meaning of Orientalist tropes resulting from shifting imperial and geopolitical realities. In this book, I not only situate popular Orientalist romance novels within their historical contexts and draw out the connections to relevant imperial and geopolitical circumstances; I also provide a cultural history of the development of Orientalist motifs in Western literature from the twelfth century to the present day, examining what these motifs meant to different societies at different times, and how they function in contemporary popular culture. The fundamental question I ask, in other words, is: What purpose did different components of Orientalist discourse serve for different audiences? For example, narratives of abduction and sexual slavery in the harem had very different meanings in the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, when Ottoman power was formidable and such occurrences were a reality, than in the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, when British and French global power ascended to their imperial zenith, and the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when such narratives can be read as postmodern pastiches of colonial fantasies in an age of American global power and intervention in the Middle East.
In the United States, a growing body of work—much of it affiliated with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee—has examined the perpetuation of Orientalist discourse in popular culture through analyses of negative images of Arabs and Muslims particularly after the Second World War. In this corpus, however, as with the scholarship on high culture, the focus is on Western men’s representations of Muslims, Arabs, and the Orient. Despite the feminist interventions of Billie Melman, Reina Lewis, Lisa Lowe, Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Joyce Zonana, and Emily Haddad, among others, male representations of the Orient continue to be taken as the norm, and stand for “the West” as a whole. With the exception of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters and E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, discussions of women and Orientalism tend to focus on Western men’s sexual fantasies about and representations of Oriental women. Even Mohja Kahf’s nuanced and sophisticated analysis of the changing image of “the Muslim woman” in Western literature—from the outspoken and powerful medieval princess to the subdued figure of the sexualized and oppressed harem concubine of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—limits Orientalist discourse to Western men (with the usual inclusion of Montagu as the sole female representative), because her study ends in the early nineteenth century. What is missing, therefore, is any serious, sustained examination of Western women’s production and consumption of Orientalist discourse in popular culture, particularly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This is what I seek to redress in Desert Passions through a study of the female-authored Orientalist romance novel.
In focusing upon Western women’s Orientalist fantasies, I inevitably engage with and build on the existing feminist scholarship on Western women’s involvement with imperialism. Since the mid-1980s, a growing body of feminist scholarship has explored European women’s historical participation in colonization and the production of imperial culture and identity. Some authors have argued that women were less racist and Orientalist than men in their encounters with colonized peoples because they were constrained by nineteenth-century domestic ideology and the “discourses of femininity” that shaped both writing and behavior. Others, by contrast, have asserted that living in the empire actually offered women alternative, more “masculine” roles, or that the constraints of traditional femininity vanished after the First World War, and there was then little gendered difference to be discerned in the production of colonial discourse was concerned. Ann Laura Stoler’s work shows how relations in the private sphere were imbricated with colonial and racial ideas. European women in the colonies helped produce bourgeois racial, imperial, and European identities through the careful policing of sexual desire to ensure the legitimacy of offspring. They enforced a rigid code of middle-class maternal behavior as well as the racialized ordering of the domestic sphere. Such findings affirm Joanne Nagel’s argument that racial or ethnic boundaries are always sexual, or “ethnosexual,” boundaries that can signify danger, distance, and pollution or, alternatively, the opportunity for assimilation and incorporation into the body politic.
I argue that white women’s engagement with Orientalist discourse was always characterized by ethnosexual tension, but that in the European age of empire, the “white woman’s burden” to ensure racial purity and enforce the boundaries between colonizer and colonized meant that flirtations with interracial romance and miscegenation were ultimately rejected by British writers. However, because of America’s different historical circumstances of immigration, and the heterogeneity of “whiteness” as a racial category in the United States, Hollywood films offered the possibility of incorporating ethnic others—including Arabs, on occasion—into the body politic long before Britain did. By the late twentieth century, civil rights and the politics of multiculturalism dominated Western women’s Orientalist discourse and the crossing of interethnic boundaries was something to be celebrated. Yet such contemporary stories still bear the vestiges of earlier Western colonial discourse. Western women continue to represent civilization and modernity, while their individuation and exaltation to the status of romantic heroines take place at the expense of those who Chandra Talpade Mohanty calls “third world women,” who are either absent from the text or who are represented as backward, unenlightened, oppressed, and in need of salvation. In this book, I thus extend feminist postcolonial analyses of imperial culture to the area of women’s popular culture. I build on and engage with Susan L. Blake’s and Elizabeth Gargano’s works on race and imperialism in The Sheik while providing a literary lineage for Hull’s novel and examining its continuing influence in women’s popular romance fiction throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Thus, Desert Passions contributes to a third, burgeoning scholarly conversation about women’s popular culture. The turn of the twenty-first century has seen the rise of a new wave of critical scholarship on romance fiction, driven largely by Eric Murphy Selinger and Sarah S. G. Frantz’s efforts showcasing new academic responses to romance novels, and formally institutionalized by the establishment of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance in 2009. This new body of interdisciplinary work signals a significant departure from the earlier “first-wave” critique of romance novels that focused on “images of women” debates and expressed feminist concern for female romance readers as the dupes of the patriarchy. The first wave of romance scholarship began with feminist and socialist criticism in the 1970s and early 1980s and was initiated by denunciatory critiques of the genre by feminists such as Germaine Greer, Ann Douglas, and Kay Mussell. Greer’s work on romance in The Female Eunuch excoriates romance novels and accuses them of indoctrinating young girls with impossible dreams of romance and marriage; of maintaining sexist ideas that women’s inequality in work and gender relations is natural and even desirable. Ann Bar Snitow is more judicious, arguing that Harlequin romance novels were “neither an effective top down propaganda effort against women’s liberation, nor a covert flowering of female sexuality” but, rather, they provided limited pleasures and fulfilled women’s needs in a society where American culture’s rich myths about individuality and transcendence over socioeconomic situations largely excluded women. While Snitow argues that romance novels were not the female equivalent of pornography because of their insistence that sexual activity be “treated not primarily as a physical event at all but as a social drama, as a carefully modulated set of psychological possibilities between people”, Ann Douglas disagrees, and deplores the exhibition of powerful, punitive male behavior that took place at the expense of the heroine’s economic, physical, and sexual well-being. Additionally, Kay Mussell contends that romantic fiction portrays the heroine as passive and infantile, thus undermining women’s sexual and financial independence and autonomy.
This early scholarship thus expressed feminist anxieties about the ideological indoctrination of female readers through the supposedly backward images of women presented, and about the perpetuation of patriarchy and capitalism. The debates revolved around whether romance novels were essentially liberating or oppressive for women. Carol Thurston comes down on the side of liberation, while Tania Modleski, Jan Cohn and Bridget Fowler support arguments that romance novels perpetuate the patriarchal, capitalist oppression of women. Meanwhile, one of the most noted scholars in this debate, Janice Radway, equivocates, but inclines toward the latter position. As Selinger and Frantz note, this body of work is important because it takes “popular romance fiction seriously.” Critics “read the novels themselves in search of subtexts, self-contradictions, and other complexities, just as one reads any other text. Their attention to subtexts of power, in particular, has proved useful both for scholars and for romance authors.” This conversation more or less stuttered to a halt when American romance writers defended their craft in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, a volume edited by Jayne Ann Krentz which, Selinger and Frantz argue, ushered in the “second wave” of romance scholarship because it showed that “romance authors could serve, like literary authors, as critics and theorists of their chosen genre.” An attempt was then made to bring writers, readers, and academic critics together in a special issue of the journal Paradoxa focusing on popular romance fiction, but as Selinger and Frantz note, “In retrospect, the Paradoxa gathering was more a harbinger than a transformative event. The issue did not circulate widely enough to displace those early, foundational studies.”
While echoes of this earlier debate about whether romance reading is “good” or “bad” for women still resound in volumes such as Empowerment versus Oppression, the recent wave of romance fiction scholarship generally revisits the genre by utilizing a more traditional literary tool kit loosely drawn from New Criticism or New Historicism. The most authoritative account in this second wave thus far is Pamela Regis’s taxonomic evaluation of the genre, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), a formalist attempt to establish archetypes of romance fiction and to identify canons of the genre in a project rather similar to Northrop Frye’s magisterial work, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (1978). Other studies analyze subgenres and intergeneric trends in romance fiction, translations of romance novels, and the representations of different types of sexualities, among many other thematic and interdisciplinary approaches. They explore historical change and pay attention to individual authors rather than assume the ahistorical and interchangeable nature of romance novels. An especially insightful overview of the current scholarship in this field can be found in Selinger and Frantz’s introduction to their edited volume, New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction (2012).
In Desert Passions, I build on this body of work, but I do not approach romance fiction from a framework of literary theory; rather, mine is a historical contextualization and reading of Orientalist interracial love stories that crosses genres and media and examines how the romance novel exists in dialogical relationship with other historical and contemporary texts. Treating Desert Passions as a historical work inevitably limits my engagement with the first wave of feminist scholarship on romance fiction. While some feminists argued that romance novels represented oppressed working-class women’s daydreams of gaining access to wealth, status, and power via marriage with the hero in a patriarchal, capitalist society, the two most influential works from the first wave of romance fiction scholarship focus on psychoanalytic interpretations of women’s romance reading behavior. Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982) and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984) contend that romance reading fulfills women’s emotional need to experience love and nurturance that, as wives and mothers, they give out to men and children but do not receive in return. In Radway’s words:
The romance readers of Smithton use their books to erect a barrier between themselves and their families in order to declare themselves temporarily off-limits to those who would mine them for emotional support and material care. . . . I try to make a case for seeing romance reading as a form of individual resistance to a situation predicated on the assumption that it is women alone who are responsible for the care and emotional nurturance of others. . . . Romance reading creates a feeling of hope, provides emotional sustenance, and produces a fully visceral sense of well-being.
Although Radway professes a respect for romance readers, such an argument reiterates a position that has been well-rehearsed since Q. D. Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) and the Frankfurt School’s modernist analysis of mass culture: that mass-market popular culture, particularly when manifested in the form of romance fiction, is the “opiate of the missus,” serving to reconcile working-class consumers with the fact of their oppressed status quo in a capitalist, patriarchal society. The feminist agenda, then, should be to encourage romance readers to deliver their protests “in the arena of actual social relations” and to “imagine a world whose subsequent creation would lead to the need for a new fantasy altogether”.
Desert Passions does not engage with psychological or psychoanalytic readings of disparate women, nor does it prescribe what these female writers and readers should or should not do to usher in a utopia for women. I am neither interested in condemning nor defending romance novels and romance readers. I simply approach my subject as a fascinating historical and cultural phenomenon, and with a feminist respect for the women who write and read these works. I do not believe, moreover, that generalizations can be made about “the female romance reader,” because such a term takes an essentialist view, ignoring differences among class, race, ethnicity, education, religion, age and generation, national and regional identity, habits of cultural consumption, and professional and social experiences, among other complex markers and shapers of identity. These contingencies change the perception as well as the practice of romance reading for different women, as is evident in blog postings, reader reviews of the novels from the Amazon.com website, and reader responses to various contemporary sheik romance novels, which I discuss in Chapters 5 and 9.
Radway’s book has arguably been the most influential work on romance fiction to date, especially outside the field of romance fiction scholarship, because of the seemingly solid empirical base of her interviews with romance readers. Because of its status and visibility, Reading the Romance has attracted significant critiques in the years since its publication. The most problematic flaw in Radway’s study, as far as I am concerned, is the fact that her entire hypothesis was drawn from interviews conducted between 1980 and 1981 with sixteen white, middle-class, American homemakers in the small town of Smithton who were recommended to her by one bookseller. These interviews were supplemented by forty-two questionnaires completed by customers of the same bookseller. The findings from this small and narrow group with limited interests in the genre were then extrapolated to represent “the romance reader.” If we take another sample group, however, the meaning of romance reading is transformed. Radhika Parameswaran’s work on readers of contemporary Mills & Boon romance fiction in India, for instance, demonstrates that the women she interviewed have a high status because they can read English, so here romance reading is a mark of privilege, education, and Westernization associated with the urban upper and middle classes. In any case, as most avid readers know, reading is a highly promiscuous affair: readers are rarely faithful to purely one genre of literature. Radway’s own findings bear this out, for as she notes, “62 percent of Dot’s customers claimed to read somewhere between one and four books other than romances every week”. Moreover, it is obvious from the epigraphs found at the start of many romance novels that there is not only a familiarity with—or even veneration for—the traditional Western canon on the part of romance novelists, but the boundary between romance literature and the canon is frequently breached through the borrowing of plots, motifs, conventions, and characters. This is what I argue with respect to the discourse of Orientalism, which was associated with high literary forms prior to the twentieth century and then became more widely dispersed in the modern Orientalist mass-market romance novel written overwhelmingly by women.
Although male authors such as Jefferey Farnol and Stanley Weyman were still writing romance fiction in the early twentieth century, the genre became “feminized” over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, perhaps because, as Rita Felski argues, the aesthetics of modernism increasingly denigrated romance as idealized, “cloying feminine sentimentality” (79–80, 117). By the interwar years, women were the major producers and readers of romance fiction (Beauman 6). All the writers of contemporary Orientalist romance fiction discussed in this book are female, and among the writers of Orientalist historical romance fiction, only one discussed here is male: West Indian-born British novelist Christopher Nicole, who wrote the bodice ripper The Savage Sands (1978) under the pseudonym “Christina Nicholson.”
The novels studied in this book were selected in various ways. I first came across the early twentieth century “desert romance” novel through my previous research into British women’s travel writing about the Middle East in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Female travel writers such as Rosita Forbes and Lady Dorothy Mills also produced romance novels set in the countries that they visited. It was in this context that I came across E. M. Hull’s travel book Camping in the Sahara (1926), which I read before moving on to The Sheik (1919) and The Sons of the Sheik (1925), the original sheik romances that prompted my interest in Orientalist romance fiction. Although hundreds of romance novels were written by British women in this period, little work has been done on this genre apart from Rachel Anderson’s The Purple Heart Throbs: The Subliterature of Love (1974), Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession (1983), and Billie Melman’s Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties: Flappers and Nymphs (1988). These works were very useful for helping me to locate desert and sheik romance stories from the early twentieth century.
Novels from the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries were far easier to find, thanks to the Internet databases put together by fans of the genre. I compiled a database of known Orientalist romances from the following websites:
Additionally, I did keyword searches of combinations of “sheik/sheikh,” “romance,” “love story,” and “Orientalism” through library catalogues and I then read as many of these novels as I could find. Prior to 2000, the number of Orientalist romances published made this task a relatively easy one. The graphs on page 000, compiled from the “Sheikhs and Desert Love” site, show that until 2000, the maximum number of sheik romance novels published annually was six. This increased dramatically until it spiked at twenty-two novels, in 2002. The number of novels published up to the date of my studies meant that it was fairly easy to compile and read the majority of these books, which is why I have been able to isolate some of the more interesting and unusual ones for extended analysis and discussion in the following chapters.
I should note, however, that although the Orientalist historical novels studied are all “single-title” novels of varying length (often between three hundred and four hundred pages), that include subplots not directly related to the unfolding romance between hero and heroine, the contemporary romance novels discussed are almost all “category” romance novels: that is, novels of a certain page length that are released regularly (e.g., monthly), focus almost exclusively on the unfolding romance between the hero and heroine, and are sold under particular publisher imprints or series lines, such as Harlequin Presents, Harlequin Intrigue, Silhouette, and so forth. This difference in selection follows from my methodology described above. If the search terms are not in the titles, and if single-title romance novels featuring Arab Americans or sheiks do not feature in the online bibliographies and databases, then they are virtually impossible to find because of the sheer scale of romance publishing and the innumerable romance novels published over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
This book is divided into nine roughly chronological chapters. In Chapter 1, “Loving the Orient: The Romantic East and European Literature,” I trace the historical evolution of the romantic East in Europe’s literary engagement with its Islamic other; an engagement that produced the foundational topoi seen in Orientalist romance novels today. I begin by focusing on the literary lineage of cross-cultural, interracial, and interreligious sexual desire and romantic love in Europe’s mythical Orient. I explore the transmission of ideas about unrequited, unfulfilled romantic love (“Udhrah” love) from Islamic Spain to Europe, and I examine the imaginary engagement, via Crusade epics, of Europeans with the Muslim threat. In these poems, cross-cultural, interreligious romantic unions were used as a plot device to effect conversions and extend the realm of Christendom. I then trace the development of classic themes of Orientalist romance in writing and drama from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the Muslim threat moved eastward from Islamic Spain to the Ottoman Empire, and I argue that the topos of Muslim abduction formed the focus of European anxieties in the seventeenth century, whereas eighteenth-century European fantasies placed more emphasis on the Western woman in the harem. In addition to the widespread popularity of Galland’s The Thousand and One Nights (1704–1717), comic opera such as Favart’s Les trois sultanes, ou Soliman Second (1761) and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) ushered in a vogue for turquerie or “turcomania” and brought attention to the reformist role of Western women in the harem. The Orient enjoyed another fashionable phase during the early nineteenth century, when Byron published his Eastern tales, beginning with The Giaour, in 1813. Byron was influential in creating a memorable cast of noble “outlaw heroes” who made the Orient their playground. He also redirected attention to the fleshy delights of the harem in Don Juan (1821). The rise of pornography in Britain during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries made use of existing Orientalist motifs, especially in the anonymously authored Victorian porn classic, The Lustful Turk (1828). The Sheik shares a number of common motifs with The Lustful Turk, particularly the abduction of the virginal heroine, the character of the sadistic rapist hero, and the idea that an Englishwoman can be raped into feelings of love. Through a brief examination of the highly contradictory cultural ideologies of virginity in European literature, I consider why the virgin was such a figure of ambivalence that her rape was titillating to readers. The invention of the pornographic East needs to be read against the slow decline of Ottoman power and the rising encroachment of European nation and empire building at its expense. It was against this backdrop that, starting in the early nineteenth century, British authors began to turn their attention away from the Ottoman harem, with its corruption and consequent loss of power, to the romanticized desert of the stalwart, liberty-loving “noble Bedouin”—thus paving the way for the setting and story of The Sheik.
In Chapter 2, I look at the evolution of the desert romance novel as a subgenre of the female-centered romance novel of the nineteenth century. Spirituality and a fascination with the occult characterized late Victorian romance novels, thus the desert romance began as a space for spiritual transcendence in addition to romantic love. This chapter examines key texts in the subgenre in the early twentieth century: Robert Hichens’s The Garden of Allah (1904) and the novels of Kathlyn Rhodes, whose exotic romances, often set in Egypt and North Africa, combine the concerns of new woman novels about passion, independence, and companionate marriage with more conservative misgivings about sexual feelings and a strong injunction against interracial unions. The popularity of this subgenre preceded The Sheik, but it was Hull’s novel that undoubtedly transformed the “desert romance” into the “sheik romance” in its twentieth century incarnation. I conclude this chapter with a discussion of the desert romance subgenre in British culture after the publication of The Sheik, focusing particularly on how romance novelists treated the taboo issue of miscegenation.
In Chapter 3, I focus on The Sheik. I review the extant feminist scholarship on this novel before arguing that the production and reception of the book in Britain need to be contextualized with reference to the First World War and Britain’s racial problems domestically and in its colonies after the war. Melman’s, Blake’s, and Gargano’s works have emphasized the imperialist aspects of The Sheik but little has been said about British imperial rivalry with France in the novel and its sequel, The Sons of the Sheik. This neglected aspect of the novel is discussed in this chapter, along with an analysis of what racial “whiteness” means in the context of imperialism in the Middle East, and how it functions in The Sheik. The complex meaning of whiteness is evident in both of Hull’s novels as well as in the Hollywood film versions of these novels.
In Chapter 4, “The Spectacular East: Romantic Orientalism in America,” I contextualize the production and contemporary reception of the Hollywood film of The Sheik within discourses of American Orientalism; discourses that, by the early twentieth century, produced the Orient as a site of consumable goods as well as “Arabian Nights” fantasies. I chart the rise of Orientalist discourses of abduction, seduction, and romance in the United States from the Revolutionary period to the early twentieth century. I trace overlaps with European Orientalist motifs, analyze concerns that arose especially from America’s own encounters with Barbary states, and outline the development of middle-class consumer culture in the postbellum period. By the late nineteenth century, Orientalism in the United States was propagated through visually spectacular theatrics, whether in exhibitions, carnival sideshows, staged productions of desert romances such as Robert Hichens’s The Garden of Allah (1909), early films, and, of course, the Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount) versions of The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1926). In my discussion of the translation of Hull’s two novels into film, I argue that although the film of The Sheik maintains the novel’s imperialist agenda, when read against the United States’ specific history of immigration, whiteness, and race relations in the early twentieth century, The Sheik becomes a story about the incorporation of white “ethnics” into mainstream “Anglo-Saxon” society via the body of the middle-class white woman. I conclude this chapter with a consideration of how the Valentino film influenced romantic Orientalism in American film and television throughout the twentieth century.
In Chapter 5, I explore the rise of the Orientalist harem historical romance novel in the last quarter of the twentieth century and its incorporation of motifs developed in Victorian Orientalist pornography. I focus particularly on the eroticization of the historical romance in the 1970s—an extraordinary development that Carol Thurston terms the “romance revolution,” which followed the sexual revolution and formed alongside women’s liberation. The harem historical romance novel draws from several longstanding Orientalist motifs in European literature: the Crusades; Byronic “giaours” (infidels), who were also associated with nationalist, anticolonial freedom fighters; abduction by renegade Barbary corsairs; slave markets; harem life; escape from the seraglio; and the reworking of the Roxelane theme discussed in Chapter 1, whereby the spirited European heroine tames the despotic Muslim male. One of the most common sexual fantasies that found expression in these harem romances was the fantasy of seduction through rape. Therefore, I examine the problem of rape in erotic historical novels to consider how these fantasies might be interpreted, before proceeding to look at how, through the example of Bertrice Small’s The Kadin (1978), the harem novel could present a challenge to existing Turkish, feminist, and national historiographies of the 1970s. Drawing from reader reviews from the Amazon.com site, I end with a brief discussion of contemporary readers’ responses to some of the most popular or controversial novels in this subgenre.
In Chapters 6 to 9, I deal with the contemporary sheik romance novel, which developed in the 1970s and has continued to grow in popularity, beginning with the publication of Blue Jasmine (1969), Violet Winspear’s reworking of The Sheik. In Chapter 6, I outline the historical background to this subgenre, tracing the rise of the “category” romance novel in the twentieth century and examining the influential role of Mills & Boon and Harlequin publishers in creating a mass-market brand synonymous with “romance novel” in the last quarter of the twentieth century. I describe significant historical changes in the nature of these novels resulting from second-wave feminism and the civil rights movement. The desert or sheik romance novel experienced a renaissance in the midst of the growing prominence of the Middle East in international affairs after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the oil shocks of the early 1970s. The revival began as a British affair and, in line with its early twentieth-century counterpart, produced somewhat realistic depictions of Western women finding professional opportunities in Middle Eastern countries such as Kuwait and the former Trucial states—countries that had historical and political ties to Britain. Australian authors began writing sheik or desert romances in the mid-1980s, and their involvement marked a turn away from actual geopolitical entities toward a fantasyland of make-believe Oriental countries with little grounding in contemporary Middle Eastern reality.
In Chapter 7, “Harems, Houris, Heroines, and Heroes,” I evaluate continuities and changes between the contemporary sheik romance novel and its earlier, 1920s counterpart, as well as in the European discourse of romantic Orientalism that developed over the centuries. I analyze the influence of feminism on heroines, especially in American-authored novels from the 1980s to the twenty-first century, and I examine how changing ideas of masculinity are portrayed through the figure of the de-Orientalized sheik hero. Much of this had to do with the gradual Americanization of this subgenre throughout the 1990s to the present day. American authors began to produce contemporary sheik romances after the Gulf War, and while they adopted the strategy of setting their Oriental stories in fictional Arabic states, they also drew from a century-long tradition of Orientalist Hollywood films to frame their “Arabian Nights” fantasies. Today, this subgenre is largely dominated by American authors who have transformed the sheik romance. American heroines have broken loose from the patriarchal authority of the sheik hero to assert their equality and partnership with these men, who are paradoxically portrayed as priapic but also boyish, companionate, and good father figures—the domesticated “sheik daddy” of Barbara McMahon’s eponymous novel of 1996.
In Chapter 8, “From Tourism to Terrorism,” I analyze recurring discourses in the contemporary sheik romance. Travel and tourism are prominent discourses in the British sheik novels of the 1970s and 1980s, and are drawn from the early twentieth-century tradition of combining the sheik romance with a travel narrative. Much late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British Orientalist discourse was produced through travel books about the Middle East. In this chapter, I explore how the discourse of travel not only idealized and exoticized the Middle East and North Africa, but also imagined a dreary, poverty-stricken, class-bound Britain that heroines were desperate to escape. I argue that this portrayal of the home country is markedly different in Australian and American sheik romance novels. I look at how representations of the ancient and exotic Orient are juxtaposed against discourses of development and modernization, and how these discourses allow authors to touch lightly on political conflicts while limiting what they can actually say about real problems in the Middle East. I analyze two remarkable romances—British novelist Sara Wood’s Perfumes of Arabia (1986) and American novelist Elizabeth Mayne’s The Sheik and the Vixen (1996)—which are notable for their authors’ attempts to critique Middle Eastern relations with the West—relations that have been filtered through a history of British imperialism and American neo-imperialism. The fragmentation of the American romance market into niche subgenres, such as the romantic thriller and suspense novel, has even enabled some authors to consider American engagement in the Gulf War, terrorism, and contemporary war in the Middle East.
Chapter 9 is a brief account of reader reviews of modern sheik romance novels from the Amazon.com site and other blogs. I argue that these reviews and accompanying blogs indicate ways of interpreting and interacting with the novels that are sometimes very sophisticated and also driven by readers’ own agendas. This is particularly true for American readers’ heated discussion about race in response to the first black American sheik romance: Brenda Jackson’s Delaney’s Desert Sheikh (2002).
In many ways, these Orientalist romance novels represent white women’s desires to promote liberal and multicultural agendas, and to foster interest in, and respect for, Middle Eastern cultures and peoples. These are no doubt often flawed and problematic attempts that not only reinstate Orientalism, but that also resurrect and attempt to reapply American modernization theory to the Middle East. I do not dwell overly much on the post-9/11 era since most of my focus is on the twentieth century; only in the last few years have romance novelists started engaging with issues of terrorism and American wars in the Middle East. However, in the wake of the Gulf War and the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001, it is important to recognize that there is a significant strand of popular culture that does not demonize Arabs and/or Muslims but, on the contrary, seeks to humanize and include them, and attempts to negotiate an understanding (however imperfect) of American relations with the Middle East. This is greatly significant in light of the discrimination against Muslims and Arabs that has occurred since the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the July 7, 2005, Islamist terrorist attacks in Britain. Contemporary romance writers are often middle-class, university-educated women, but women who have limited knowledge and understanding of the Middle East. In this respect, their novels are also a valuable historical archive, because they show how ordinary, educated women understand and interpret Arabs, Muslims, citizenship and belonging, and Western relations with the Middle East. Their interpretations are inevitably fraught with the long cultural history of Western fascination with, and desire for, the imaginary Orient.