Thursday, October 04, 2007

Desiring Arabs

Joseph Massad's new book, Desiring Arabs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), is now out in bookstores. The book, a chapter of which is based on his article "Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World" in Public Culture (Spring 2002, pp. 361-385), has received plaudits from the Financial Times (John R. Bradley, "Arabian Rights," 25 August 2007) as well as the Angry Arab News Service (20 June 2007) and Lenin's Tomb. The book examines how "different sexual mores and practices," which often included celebration of same-sex love and lust (e.g., Abu Nuwas's poetry), in the Arab world became suppressed and marginalized by modern Arab intellectuals, secular or religious, who imported Western sexual norms. In other words, they internalized Orientalism into their discourse.1

Many observers from the West -- soldiers, scientists, missionaries, businessmen, colonial and neo-colonial civil servants, etc. -- who wrote about sexuality in the rest of the world in the past -- especially from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century -- were generally disgusted by what they saw, especially absence of the bourgeois heterosexist norm and prevalence of other forms of sexual practice such as sodomy and polygamy. Take, for instance, Persian Life and Customs, with Scenes and Incidents of Residence and Travel in the Land of the Lion and the Sun by the Rev. Samuel Graham Wilson, "fifteen years a missionary in Persia" (2nd Ed., Edinghburgh and London: Oliphant, Anderson, and Ferrier, 1896 -- my example, not Massad's):
With respect to its morals Persia takes a low rank. In social life, polygamy, concubinage, temporary marriage, and free divorce manifest their demoralizing effects. Sensuality is strongly developed. Impure thought and conversation prevail. Their stories and poetry abound in obscenity, and many of their picture books are unfit to look at. The sensual doctrine of a heaven where every man will have seventy houris suits the popular taste. Though much freedom is given by law to the passions, yet unnatural vices prevail. Sodomy is common among the vicious class and the wealthy; even Armenian and Nestorian youth following the lead of some of their bishops are guilty of it. (p. 229)
They thought of such sexual differences, real or imagined, as a matter of civilizational hierarchy -- the West ranked higher than the rest in their opinion -- which became part of the themes of the Civilizing Mission of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Ironically, many nationalists, both secular and religious, have unconsciously adopted this Orientalist judgment and sought to "modernize" their nations by disowning or denigrating their own pre-modern sexual discourse.

Today, many observers from the West -- roughly the same categories of people, to whom human rights NGO officers are added -- are again disgusted -- but this time by dearth of out GLBTQ communities (notwithstanding the fact that they weren't regarded as "normal," let alone desirable, in the West itself only a couple of decades ago), often assuming that discourse of sexual orientations either (1) already is, or (2) will inevitably be, or (3) ought to be the norm in the Middle East (the first of which is the most misleading assumption, for it has many Westerners mistake all same-sex practices that exist now in the Middle East for "closet homosexual" cases). The standards of judgment have changed, but the power relation between those who judge and those who are judged -- the West judging the rest -- and how the judgment promotes imperialism remain the same. Moreover, the cumulative impact of such activism based on transnational identity politics is not to expand sexual freedom in its target countries but to heterosexualize them, closing down previously open spaces for same-sex pleasure, much as the discourse of sexual orientations did when it first emerged in the West. That, too, is a problem that Massad dissects.

Massad, in short, challenges the assumptions of both Western human rights NGOs and their secular and religious nationalist adversaries.

Massad's work is already being put to good use by Aswat2, the Palestinian lesbian organization:
During the reported period 40 workshops were held and attended by approximately 300 participants. In addition, the workshop facilitators have disseminated further reading information papers about Aswat and further reading materials on lesbianism, formation of sexual orientation, effects of closet and queer approaches to sexuality in Arabic, English an Hebrew such as: "Re-Orienting Desire -- The Gay International and the Arab World" by Joseph Massad, and "Compulsory Heterosexuality" by Adrienne Rich. (Aswat, "Advocacy, Outreach and Education Project")
The reason why Massad's work is useful to Aswat is not only its historical accuracy but also its sharp rejoinder to imperialist exploitation of the sexual gap between the global North and the global South, of which Palestinians, often invidiously compared with Israelis and found sexually wanting, may be the most prominent victims.3

A minor problem of Massad's approach is that it, being based on discourse analysis of the type first developed by Michel Foucault, is subject to a criticism of culturalism,4 having relatively little to say about the role that the emergence and development of the capitalist mode of production, with its tendency to proletarianize, urbanize, atomize, and commodify people, in the emergence and development of discourse of sexuality under capitalist modernity. That, however, is a problem that can be readily remedied by historical materialists, to whom, as well as queer anti-imperialists in the Middle East, I highly recommend this book. Read together with the work of such scholars as Dror Ze'evi and Afsaneh Najmabadi, it should equip us with basic software for hot sex wars on the cultural front in the 21st century.

1 Massad's work complements that of other scholars such as Afsaneh Najmabadi and Dror Ze'evi: Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) and Dror Ze'evi, Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
2 Brian Whitaker, who not only Islamist-baits Massad, claiming that his book "reflects essentially the same idea" as that of "the Islamic Action Front," but also pretends to champion Aswat against him ("Distorting Desire," Gay City News, 13 September 2007), is completely off the mark. Yes, Virginia, there are such creatures as anti-imperialist queers.
3 But the project of queering Zionist propaganda has not gotten very far. Gay porn mogul Michael Lucas, whose claim to fame is having come up with "his own life-size dildo," is upset by queer America's insufficiently pro-Israel and anti-Muslim attitude: Michael Lucas, "How Can Gays Be Anti-Israel?" (New York Blade, 4 May 2007).
4 See, for instance, Arno Schmitt, "Gay Rights versus Human Rights: A Response to Joseph Massad" (Public Culture 15.3, Fall 2003, pp. 587-591, made available online at Schmitt's Web site).

1 comment:

Sibil said...

I am amazed that you produce all this great writing and “nothing” in the comment section! Pity that I have discovered this blog so lat; glad, that I can now read the archive!