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  • Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900
  • Mona L. Russell
Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900 Dror Ze'evi Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006xv + 171 pp., $60.00 (cloth), $24.95 (paper)

Producing Desire is an exciting new contribution to the growing discourse on gender and sexuality in Islamic societies. Rather than take the lead from work done in the European context, Dror Ze'evi has demonstrated the need to chart a unique course. Although the author delineates 1500–1900 as the focus of his study, his span is much larger and encompasses medical and legal works dating back to the Abbasid period, some of which are based on earlier works. One might be inclined to question why Ze'evi did not take a narrower focus, but as the work emerges it is clear that views toward sexuality and homoeroticism change and viewing one set of texts or category of texts could prove misleading.

Ze'evi marshals an impressive array of sources including medical treatises, legal codes, Sufi poetry, rants against Sufi poetry, literature on dream interpretation, shadow plays, and travelogues. The broad spectrum of Ottoman/Islamic literature presents a different dynamic than the polarities of male/female, homosexual/heterosexual found in the Western understanding of gender and sexuality. Ze'evi argues that medical literature, which was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman tradition, supported the notion of a single-sex continuum. Women were simply flawed versions of men along this continuum.

Given this understanding, Western, modern preoccupations with "heteronormal" sexuality interfere with an ability to conceptualize desire in Ottoman society. Thus, "homoerotic attraction [wa]s never described as a deviation or an abnormal attraction, or even as something that defines a minority among men" (92). Taken in this context, the "morality wars" of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries regarding "gazing" practices among certain Sufi brotherhoods was part of a longer struggle against heterodox Sufism and a wider array of corruptions including coffee, tobacco, saint worship, dance, and music.

In a Foucauldian vein, Ze'evi contrasts Sharia with qanun and argues that the qanun was the product of a strong state that wished to "regulate and control sexuality" (65). The Sharia contained a certain amount of rigidity and difficulty of indictment; meanwhile, through qanun the state could set easier parameters and categories of responsibility for man, woman, slave, free, Muslim, and non-Muslim. The Koran set forth some categories and notions of responsibility and degree, but the state was able to do so with greater flexibility. Whereas homosexual adultery might be difficult to categorize under some schools of law (e.g., those that do not accept analogy), again the qanun proved more adaptable. The punishments under the qanun were usually monetary in accordance with the offender's position in society, and they were meant to strengthen the position of the hegemonic state.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on dream interpretation, and here Ze'evi departs from standard historiography, which tends to view Islamic culture as a monolith and the religion as fatalistically based on the occult. Ze'evi defines the Ottoman understanding of dreams as "expressions of inner and outer voices . . . rendered in symbolic language that was always bound by time and place . . . in the culturally defined language of the psyche" (108). Furthermore, the Ottomans needed no complex Freudian codes to discuss topics such as incest, necrophilia, or sex with other worldly beings. Dreams about sex were not always about sex but, rather, about many complex things depending on the context, the participants, the positions, and for a sophisticated interpreter, for example, al-Nabulusi (d. 1731), the way in which the dreamer recounted the dream.

Ze'evi's chapter on shadow theater differs from the previous ones in that it represents popular culture. The previous chapters capture only passing glimpses at the life of the woman, who so far has been simply defined as a "flawed man." The picture presented from below is quite different. Although the main characters of the plays are men, and their wives are usually only voices from offstage, the latter constantly nag, scold, and threaten their husbands' authority. There is...


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