- Sexual Encounters in the Middle East: The British, the French and the Arabs
Reading this book, I was reminded of an "ethnographic moment" I experienced in Egypt in 1998. After the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee released the transcript of President Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony regarding his affair with Monica Lewinsky, an Arabic translation of it appeared in Cairo. The cover featured an artist's rendering of Ms. Lewinsky wearing her famous blue dress together with a leering President Clinton. But whereas the original dress had long sleeves, the Egyptian artist made the dress sleeveless, so that Ms. Lewinsky's arms were exposed to the top of her shoulders. No respectable Egyptian woman bares her upper arms in public space. With this change the artist was sending an unmistakable signal that Ms. Lewinsky is a woman of loose morals—unmistakable, that is, to Egyptians but unnoticeable to most Westerners. This is but one small difference, among many, between Middle Eastern and European American sexual mores. When Derek Hopwood quotes an Egyptian complaining about "naked" European women going about in his country, I think I understand the context. Unfortunately, there is little such context in this book.
Hopwood's book, despite its title, is really about the misunderstandings and fantasies that persist between northwestern Europeans (specifically, the British and French) and Arabs about the prevailing sexual mores and attitudes toward gender in each other's societies. It is, moreover, lopsidedly devoted to the fantasies that Europeans (and one could say by extension Americans) have had about Muslims, in particular, Arabs, for the past several centuries. Only the closing chapter attempts to present Arab views of European sexuality. At the outset, Hopwood states as his aim "to describe and analyze an important—that is the sexual—aspect of the encounters which have taken place over the centuries between people from Britain, France and the Arab world." He contends that "sexual attitudes have deeply influenced the Euro-Arab relationship," that "sexual attitudes and proclivities" influenced "the way people reacted to each other" and thereby "influenced the course of history," though in fact the book makes no effort to demonstrate exactly how the course of history was influenced (1–2). [End Page 405] Rather, the author has collected a number of accessible sources through which he presents a narrative of British and French "sexual attitudes and proclivities" in and toward the Middle East and North Africa.
A study of the construction of modern Western notions of sexuality and sexual mores in the Arab world is certainly a worthwhile project, and the author was preceded in this field by and draws upon other authors such as Judy Mabro, Billie Melman, Malek Aloulla, Edward Said, Mohammed Sharafuddin, and Rana Kabbani.1 However, this book does not measure up to the analytical standard set by these authors. It lacks analysis and is merely a descriptive account that mainly presents a taxonomy of Anglo-French "attitudes and proclivities."
The two more or less constant elements in the Western European view of Muslims and Arabs have been violence and lasciviousness. Hopwood traces the development of these tropes from religious polemics against the Prophet Muhammad through increasingly secular writings from the seventeenth century on—translations, including the Arabian Nights, travel writings, and writings such as Montesquieu's De l'esprit des lois that used the Orient as a foil for contemporary Europe. The association of Islam with violence derives from the first encounters of Christians with the new faith in the form of conquest, followed by centuries of warfare between imperial states using Islam and Christianity as legitimating ideologies. The role of the Prophet Muhammad as a political and military leader was the opposite of the image of Jesus, whose kingdom was in the next world. The contrast was just as strong when it came to sexuality: as opposed to Jesus's celibacy, Muhammad had several wives—more than are normally permitted Muslim men by Qur'anic dispensation—and he reportedly enjoyed these relationships...