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Introduction 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 W hen E. M. Hull’sThe 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 (Blake 2003: 67). Upon the film’s release in 1921, the NewYork Telegraph estimated that over 125,000 people had seenThe Sheik within weeks of its opening. It screened for six months in Sydney, Australia, and ran for a record forty-two weeks in France (Leider 167–168). 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 « 2 » Desert Passions 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.1 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 inThe 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 inTroducTion « 3 » 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...


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