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Reviewed by:
  • Desiring Arabs
  • Frances S. Hasso
Desiring Arabs. By Joseph A. Massad . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. 472. $35.00 (cloth); $22.50 (paper).

Joseph Massad's valuable study, Desiring Arabs, examines writings on sex and sexuality by Arab intelligentsia from the end of the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. Massad is interested in how these literati have responded to Orientalist accounts of putatively Muslim and Arab sexual mores and practices over time. Desiring Arabs also challenges universalizing sexual identity and sexual rights discourses in the Arab world. Massad contends that western accounts since the nineteenth century have invested sexual subjectivities and practices with cultural and civilizational value along an evolutionary schema within larger colonial and imperialist contexts that constitute the West as advanced and modernized and the East as backward and undeveloped.

Chapter 1, "Anxiety in Civilization," argues that Arab nationalist writings and debates from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were concerned with cultural revival and modernization in response to colonialism and imperialism. They often harked back to putatively golden Arab and Muslim pasts but produced revisions, repressions, and narrations of these pasts that served the ideological and cultural purposes of different authors. Such selective readings were especially likely when modernists engaged with evidence of polymorphous sexual values and practices between men and boys in medieval literature. Massad argues that readings of the lives and works of eighth-century poets such as Abu Nuwas, for example, were developed in response to an Orientalist discourse that legitimated European colonial and imperial projects on the basis of civilizational superiority in the realms of sexuality, gender, and family. Many Arab nationalist writers, Massad contends, reversed these generalizations, instead condemning the backwardness of European sexual, gender, and family mores and practices, although other writers were less moralistic and essentializing in their characterizations. Massad shows how these Arab responses changed over time and were "informed by the political conditions within which they were expressed" (98). [End Page 652]

Chapter 2, "Remembrances of Desires Past," focuses on twentieth-century philosophers, literary scholars, and social scientists, showing how these modernizers also recalled a medieval Arab and Islamic golden period in producing sexual histories of Arab civilization and in making a case for changes in the present, again informed by their differing ideologies and locations. These authors wrote in often repressive postcolonial national settings. Many were concerned to define the "authentically" Arab or Islamic with respect to sexuality, pleasure, love, and women's status. Again, these were selective readings of the past to serve twentieth-century agendas. Some of the modernist authors attributed women's loss of power to non-Arabs, sometimes Ottomans, sometimes Persians. Sexual and national purity were linked by some of these nationalist writers-whether secular and Islamist-"who sought to expel foreign elements in the process of cleansing the past, thus setting the stage for the expulsion of all contemporary foreign elements in order to cleanse the present" (122).

Chapter 3, "Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World," is a slightly modified version of an article published by Massad in 2002. In a 2005 article, I mildly criticized this essay for not acknowledging the possibility of indigenous nonnormative or "queer" Arab sexual subjectivities and identities. In the essay, Massad only recognizes such subjectivities and identities in comprador terms, that is, as belonging to "outsider within" figures who ultimately damaged authentic sexualities by facilitating colonial and imperial projects and repression. 1 My contention remains that Massad does not acknowledge the possibility of plural sexual subjectivities that may or may not rely on bounded sexual object choice and that may or may not include visibility and identity components. I nevertheless agree with Massad's argument that the dominant representations of nonnormative sexual subjectivities and practices in the Arab world by largely white, gay, and male US and western European activists, tourist guide writers, scholars, and journalists rely on "antihistoricism" (167) and universalizing approaches. Massad calls these advocates and purveyors the "Gay International," arguing that they often reproduce the Orientalist "missionary" impulses in their human rights discourses. Massad argues that bounded sexual object choice and a universalist identity on the basis of gayness is the goal...


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