- Masculine Identity in the Fiction of the Arab East since 1967
Over the past few decades, scholars of Arab culture and Arabic literature have produced significant and complex work on feminism, gender, and sexuality, deepening our understanding of images of women and their roles in patriarchal Arab societies. These works have largely focused on women's roles as daughters, mothers, wives, and lovers, leaving a vital gap in our comprehension of Arab men and masculinity. Samira Aghacy's timely and invaluable book offers insight into the processes through which men and male dominance are constructed, maintained, negotiated, or resisted. In an engaging style and lucid prose, the author provides an anti-essentialist perspective on the various types of masculinities and men that appear in eighteen novels written in the post-1967 War era by sixteen authors, ten male and six female. Nine of these novels were written by Lebanese writers and deal predominantly with the Lebanese civil war. The rest are by one Jordanian, two Palestinian, two Syrian, and three Iraqi authors. The text thus also contributes significantly to scholarship on the contemporary Arabic novel by treating works that remain largely unfamiliar in the West.
The book consists of an Introduction, four chapters, and an After-word. [End Page 117] In the Introduction, Aghacy delineates the purpose and content of the study and explains, briefly yet clearly, her theoretical stance. Benefiting from the work of scholars like Eve Sedgwick, Michael Kimmel, R. W. Connell, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Aghacy challenges naturalized assumptions regarding gender identities and rigid definitions of manhood and masculinities. Her conceptualization of masculinity, as represented in the fiction of the Arab East, is multiple and complex, examining the nuances of "the virile macho, the romantic idealist, the tyrannical father, the domineering husband, the daring freedom fighter, the committed intellectual, the ruthless militiaman, the persecuted prisoner, and the soft and effeminate subaltern" (17).
Chapter 1, "Oedipus King: Tortured Masculinity," investigates the traditional concept among authors writing in Arabic of a predetermined masculinity, anchored in Arab patriarchal cultures, that normalizes male domination and violence. Iraqi Gha'ib Tou'ma Faraman's Shadows on the Window (1979), Syrian Hanna Mina's Journey to Dusk (1992), Jordanian Mu'nes Al-Razzaz's The Gang of the Bloody Rose (1997), and Lebanese Hanan Al-Shaykh's The Story of Zahra (1980) are analyzed in this chapter. In these texts, male characters uphold patriarchy and its practices. When they are frustrated politically or socially, they resort to violence to restore their dominance over women.
Chapter 2, "The Politics of Masculinity: Goal-(Dis) Oriented Masculinity," tackles the masculinities of intellectually and socially committed male characters, whose definitions of manhood are derived from engagement in political and armed struggles. This chapter also analyzes "the figure of the fida'i as an epitome of idealized masculinity" and "a gendered national identity where the sexual and political are intertwined" (56). Aghacy discusses four novels that deal with committed intellectuals whose identities are negotiated through and articulated by a nationalist discourse that privileges collectivity over individuality. In an atmosphere rife with political despair, such male characters, Aghacy argues persuasively, "are constantly threatened with emasculation" (59). Among the novels discussed in this chapter is Palestinian Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's In Search of Walid Masoud (1978). Walid's displacement from his lost homeland, a form of castration as Aghacy rightly puts it, compels him to pursue an imaginary wholeness of masculinity grounded in both intellectual and sexual power. [End Page 118]
Chapter 3, "Dictator as Patriarch: The State and the (Dys)Functional Male," explores five novels, focusing on the struggle of intellectual male characters against Arab dictatorial regimes. Here, Aghacy looks at a masculinity that has been weakened by the overwhelming power of postcolonial totalitarian states and their production of institutionalized masculinities aimed at "producing submissive individuals" (95). The author sheds light on the emergence of prison masculinities, where confinement becomes a space for nurturing courage, resilience, and endurance. The chapter also emphasizes the vitality of writing as a...