Desiring Arabs

Desiring Arabs

Desiring Arabs

Desiring Arabs


Sexual desire has long played a key role in Western judgments about the value of Arab civilization. In the past, Westerners viewed the Arab world as licentious, and Western intolerance of sex led them to brand Arabs as decadent; but as Western society became more sexually open, the supposedly prudish Arabs soon became viewed as backward. Rather than focusing exclusively on how these views developed in the West, in Desiring Arabs Joseph A. Massad reveals the history of how Arabs represented their own sexual desires. To this aim, he assembles a massive and diverse compendium of Arabic writing from the nineteenth century to the present in order to chart the changes in Arab sexual attitudes and their links to Arab notions of cultural heritage and civilization.
A work of impressive scope and erudition, Massad's chronicle of both the history and modern permutations of the debate over representations of sexual desires and practices in the Arab world is a crucial addition to our understanding of a frequently oversimplified and vilified culture.
"A pioneering work on a very timely yet frustratingly neglected topic.... I know of no other study that can even begin to compare with the detail and scope of [this] work."- Khaled El-Rouayheb, Middle East Report

"In Desiring Arabs, [Edward] Said's disciple Joseph A. Massad corroborates his mentor's thesis that orientalist writing was racist and dehumanizing.... [Massad] brilliantly goes on to trace the legacy of this racist, internalized, orientalist discourse up to the present."- Financial Times


In his classic The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso observes that “to a considerable extent classical morality "in the Western tradition" developed around reflections on the nature of men's love for boys.” Desiring Arabs will venture to show that modern and contemporary Arab historiography developed to a considerable extent around the repudiation not only of men's love for boys but also of all sexual desires it identified as part of the Arab past and which the European present condemns and sometimes champions.

An intellectual and scholarly battle has raged since the nineteenth century in the shadow of the political, economic, and military conquests that colonial Europe unleashed on what came to be called the “Arab world.” This battle was fought over modern European concepts that defined the colonial conquest, namely, “culture” and “civilization”; how these related to the modern significance of the past of the Arabs; how the latter compared to the present of Europe, and the weight that this excavated Arab past would register on the modern European scales of civilizations and cultures. This battle was not unrelated to the political, economic, and military battles being fought; on the contrary, it was in large measure constitutive of them. As Orientalism assumed a central place in the colonial campaign, its pretensions encompassed defining who the subject people to be colonized were, what their past was, the content of

1. Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, translated from the
Italian by Tim Parks (London: Vintage, 1994), 84.

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