Sexual Identity and Practice: West versus East?

By Pamela Nice

Desiring Arabs
By Joseph Massad
The University of Chicago Press, 2007

In this comprehensive tome, author Joseph Massad tries to do many things. He has created an archival study of Arab writings since the late 19th century on the theme of “sexual deviance.” The writers he examines include sociologists, political scientists, novelists, literary critics and journalists. More specifically, Massad seeks to determine how Orientalist representations of Arab sexuality influenced the Arab writers themselves. He also contends that Western ideas of homosexuality would “define in the 1980s not only Arab nationalist responses, but also and especially Islamist ones…”.  In addition, in his detailed analysis of 20th century Arab novels and plays, he asserts that “allegories of sexual deviance” reflect the socio-political realities of their societies, and therefore the hegemony of Western ideas of homosexuality influences the broader Arab population.

Given Massad’s intended breadth and depth, the text encompasses an overwhelming amount of material, and the book sacrifices focus for detail. Though scholars could contest several of Massad’s assertions, one can only admire the dedication and ambition permeating this work. Massad’s basic premise, if one were to assert a  focus in this book, is that sexual practices – particularly those that Westerners would call homosexual – are different from sexual identity, such as perceiving oneself as a homosexual. He resists what he calls an essentialist definition of homosexuality (what others might term a biological or genetic one) because he considers it a Western epistemological construct.

In his examination of Arab writings on sexuality since the late 19th century, Massad notes that the denotation of the Arab word for  sexual deviance changed from a broader to a narrower one. Earlier writers considered homosexual behavior to be but one of several  sexual behaviors considered immoral or debauched, including masturbation and extra-marital sex. Alternately, homosexual behavior might be seen as the inevitable result of sex segregation in traditional Arab societies. Nineteenth-century critics of the medieval poet Abu Nuwas would likely see him as a hedonist, but not a pederast, even though he wrote love poems to boys (and reportedly acted on his desires). It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that sexual deviance came to specifically mean homosexuality.

The book also explores at length the idea of the “passive deviant” (the passive male in a same-sex encounter) as a symbol since the 1970’s of “political and national defeat, in addition to its literal reference as a defeat of manhood itself.” Massad offers particularly interesting analyses of Gamal al-Ghitany’s “The Evils of Za’afarani Street,” Sonallah Ibrahim’s “Honor” and Ala’ al-Aswani’s “The Yacoubian Building;” he sees the last as using homosexual “degradation” as the ultimate symbol of a decadent and non-reproductive society.

Since the Islamist revival, however, Massad charts a change in how same-sex attraction and behavior is described and judged. He credits the “Gay International” with influencing  Islamist writers to focus their Puritanism on homosexuals.

One can see the value in Massad’s examination of the social construction of homosexual identity. However, most experts (albeit Western) would assert that biology plays a significant role as well. Massad does not directly challenge this biological perspective, and gives it little discussion, so it is unclear where he stands on the nature/nurture question. Instead, he seems to imply that Arabs have traditionally accepted homosexual behavior without assuming that those who practice it self-identify as homosexuals. Is he claiming that Arabs who practice homosexual behaviors don’t feel intrinsically different from those who practice heterosexual sex? Certainly this might be possible if one were bisexual. What about sexual attraction? Does it not matter to which sex the passive partner belongs?

It also seems a bit farfetched to see the “Gay International” as solely responsible for repression — Islamist and otherwise — in Arab societies. Such a view seems a throwback to a simplistic binary paradigm in cultural analysis. His own analysis demonstrates 19th century Arab writers’ categorization of same-sex behavior as “deviant” and debauched, and he ignores the role of patriarchal systems in accepting and protecting male sexual behavior publicly deemed immoral. As these systems have been challenged in Arab societies, previously private behavior has been exposed and condemned. The interaction of cultures and the development of social mores are more complicated than Massad would have us think. For example, one can see a parallel process in the area of women’s rights. Should we assume that Arab women only felt oppressed when Western feminists pointed it out? Such a position is hardly tenable.

Massad’s study raises other questions. He claims that the novelists and playwrights he analyzes represent the dominant views in their societies, “which is precisely what makes a work of fiction intelligible.” On what does he base this claim? Considering the high rates of illiteracy in most Arab countries, who is reading these works of fiction? How can he be certain that it is not just the elites just talking to each other through their writings? Most Arab writers bemoan the fact that even educated Arabs don’t read fiction.  It’s not that Massad doesn’t make intriguing points about his subject, but some of his claims seem overreaching and without evidence.

There is much more that could be said about this provocative book. It clearly achieves Massad’s goal of creating an archival work of Arab writings on sexual deviance. His assertion that same-sex behavior has not implied homosexual identity in the Arab world merits further discussion. And he raises interesting questions in his analysis of allegories of sexual deviance in modern Arab fiction. It is Massad’s conclusion about the West’s responsibility for this state of affairs that is sure to generate the most controversy.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 13, nos. 58/59 (2007/2008)

Copyright (c) 2007-2008 by Al Jadid