- Who Are Arab Americans?
- Popular Perceptions
- Why The Stereotypes?
- About & Credits
By Amira Jarmakani, Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
A few years after the events of September 11, 2001, a spate of articles appeared from sources as varied as Time and the Chicago Tribune to Bitch magazine, noting what they regarded as a remarkable phenomenon: despite the dominant imagery depicting Arabs and Muslims as violent terrorists, the years following 9/11 witnessed the increased popularity of the sheikh-hero as a romantic hero in mass-market romance novels. As the “Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes” exhibit demonstrates, stereotypical representations of Arab and Muslim masculinity as violent have dominated the U.S. popular culture landscape since after the second World War, as the U.S. became a global superpower. Though in very recent years the terrorist stereotype has become more nuanced, representations of Arab masculinity are largely still circumscribed within the discourse of terrorism. It is no surprise, then, that sources were bemused and shocked by the news that romantic sheikhs had risen in popularity after 9/11.
I became interested in desert romances—mass-market romance novels featuring a sheikh, sultan, or desert prince hero—after being introduced to the (fan) website “Sheikhs and Desert Love,” which was active from 2001 until 2007. The website received a surge of media attention in 2005-06 from the sources linked above as well as others [including Mother Jones ("Lust in the Dust"), The Guardian ("Those Sexy Arabs"), and Jezebel ("The World of 'Sheikh Romance' Novels")], which were interested in the seeming paradox that sheikhs could have become more desirable to the average romance reader in a climate that frames Arab masculinity through the lens of fear rather than desire.
To help explain this paradox, some of the articles highlighted the fact that most contemporary desert romances are set in a fictional “Arabian” country, represented in a map created for “Sheikhs and Desert Love” and reprinted on other blogs. The existence of fictional Arabia in desert romances could simply be taken as proof that the novels are meant to be stories of fantasy and escape. Nevertheless, it is telling that is was only after 9/11 that fictional Arabia became the standard setting for desert romances. Because romance readers also enjoy learning about history and geography, earlier desert romances were most often set in an actual Middle Eastern country so as to heighten the detail and sense of adventure.
Delving into the world of romancelandia (and desert romances more particularly), reveals a great deal. First, while desert romances have indeed risen in popularity after 9/11, they are far from being the most widely read subgenre. In fact, many romance readers are outspoken about the fact that they could never fantasize about such a reviled figure, since even fictionalized Arabia reminds them of the brutal images they associated with the Middle East. A good example comes from Erin’s comment in response to a post about sheikh-heroes on the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books:
Reactions like these remind us of the power of stereotypical representations of terrorists to shape popular understandings of the Middle East.
Fans of desert romances, for their part, claim that they love sheikh-heroes for all the classic reasons that have historically defined the erotic sheikh figure in U.S. popular culture. In doing so, they deny any relationship between the popularity of the sheikh and the war on terror; yet, nevertheless, contemporary desert romance plots are in clear conversation with the war on terror, since they name things like WMDs, uranium-enriching evil Arabs, and terrorist plots to destroy the sheikh. In Linda Conrad’s Secret Agent Sheik, for example, a steamy scene with the heroine leaves the sheikh “full of left-over nervous energy, enough to power his own nuclear weapons” (66). In short, not only do desert romances exemplify the binary structure of Arab stereotypes—insofar as they represent both the eroticized sheikh and the evil terrorist figures— but they also point to desire as an under-analyzed engine of the war on terror vis-a-vis contemporary U.S. imperialism.
Sheikhs have a long history in U.S. popular culture and contemporary romantic sheikhs certainly draw on this long history. They revive much of the orientalist imagery of Hull’s The Sheik and particularly of Valentino’s interpretation in the 1921 film adaptation.
In this legacy, “sheikh” comes to mean erotic and sexually available. (See Hsu-Ming Teo’s Desert Passions for an excellent overview of the legacy of this figure, particularly within literary circles.) However, contemporary desert romances—and especially the ways they have had to adapt to readers’ fears and expectations after 9/11—reveal a great deal about how the general U.S. public engages with the war on terror. In desert romances, sheikh-heroes tend to align themselves with U.S.-Anglo powers—sometimes they are overtly allied with U.S. government or corporate interests, and sometimes they are allied more generally with the U.K. or Australia. These alliances, in turn, reflect the romance industry’s major holdings in Canada (Harlequin), New York (Silhouette), and the U.K. and Australia (Mills & Boon). Representing the three giants of the categorical romance market, Harlequin, Silhouette, and Mills & Boon are all now held by the same company, Torstar Inc., based in Canada.
Through their alliances, sheikh-heroes position themselves as diplomatic leaders who seek rapprochement with the “West.” For example, in Dana Marton’s Sheik Seduction, the sheikh realizes that his company needs “Someone who knew how to lead a large business the Western way, and who could negotiate on the same level with the foreigners who poured into the country to make investments” (110). He finds that his union with the white “Western” heroine helps him to develop this leadership style. In fact, desert romances are full of strong, independent (white) heroines who help the sheikh-hero modernize his country and introduce the concept of women’s equality. In Ann Voss Peterson’s Seized by the Sheikh, for instance, the author reveals that the sheikh “was a sucker for strong women. Being from a country where women weren’t allowed to be strong around men, this feistiness was novel and obviously the source of his fascination with Callie” (10).
One thing that makes the sheikh-hero desirable to a mainstream U.S.-Anglo audience is that he frames such collaboration in terms of his desire to modernize his country and to bring it into the new global economy, a stance that presumably makes him vulnerable to terrorist elements in his home country. This terrorist opposition to the sheikh is overwhelmingly characterized as an irrationally backward response to the progress that the sheikh wants to introduce. The solution that romance writers have found for writing a believably erotic sheikh, in other words, is to mimic some of the general characteristics of current allied Arab leaders (most notably in the UAE and Qatar), while obscuring the less desirable characteristics of their conservative societies — the latter is accomplished through the previously mentioned practice of inventing a new country for the novel’s setting.
In my book, An Imperialist Love Story, I argue that the architecture of imperialism in the war on terror manifests in desert romances as a desire for wholeness that resonates simultaneously at the levels of the individual and of the state. The romantic narrative of wholeness, to be achieved through the union between the sheikh and the (usually) white heroine reverberates at the level of the nation as well. Likewise, the sheikh seeks stable union with imperialist (and allied) powers in order to usher his country into the neoliberal global order. The heroine’s desire for the sheikh reflects and refracts many of the ways that U.S.-Anglo subjects are encouraged to submit to the war on terror, ultimately by desiring the promise of security, stability, and freedom regardless of the consequences.