Sexual Encounters in the Middle East: The British, the French and the Arabs

By Khan, Saad S. | Islamic Studies, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Sexual Encounters in the Middle East: The British, the French and the Arabs


Khan, Saad S., Islamic Studies


Derek Hopwood. Sexual Encounters in the Middle East: The British, the French and the Arabs. Reading: Garnet Publishing House, 1999. Pp. v+308. Hardbound. ISBN-13: 978-0-86372-313-6. Price not given.

During the past half century or so, a great deal has been written about Islam- West relations. Most of the discourse is about hard politics and military encounters. In fact, the same is true for most of the historiography of the world where it is the history of warfare that is virtually deemed to constitute history. From a historian's eye (or pen), ordinary mortals, with their mundane concerns and banal life choices, are seldom considered worthy of inclusion in the historical discourse. That economic progress, religious transformation, emergence of new literary patterns, and other facets of the story of humankind are serious subjects of historical study has been discovered by historians fairly recently. It is no surprise, therefore, that the study of human behavioural patterns as well as of their transition over time have passed on to the historians from the erstwhile exclusive domain of anthropologists.

Quite evidently sex is a basic human physical urge, an essential recurring part of human life, and the sole way for the human race to continue as a species on this planet. That being the case, perhaps only sociologists can tell why sex - even legitimate sex - became a mystery, a stigma, a shame, and what not, among nations at different points in time in their historical trajectories. Today's Muslims mostly hold the same notions about sexuality as the Europeans did up until one or two generations ago. Little wonder, then, that one cannot find any serious study on patterns of sexual behaviour across the Muslim world, even by a Western writer. This is largely because a Muslim man or woman is generally disinclined to share any intimate details about this aspect of their life. The history of sexual interaction between the Europeans and the people of the Middle East is a highly under-exploited area of research. The present work seeks to fill this void.

It has been rightly said that one can never understand another person without a long and close relationship. The upshot of this seems to be that nations understand each other better if intermarriages take place between them with some degree of frequency. Human sexuality effectively contributes to unifying two human beings. On the other hand, sexual prejudices and acquired inhibitions also create alienation among nations. In the 18th and 19th centuries, inherited sexual notions coloured everyday relations between the Arabs of the Middle East and the visiting Europeans. More lately, that is, in the 20th century, when the flow of humans has reversed its direction, it has affected the interaction between the Europeans living in the West and the Arabs visiting or emigrating to Europe.

For centuries, the Muslim-West relations have been constructed on false myths, assumed decadence and enigmatic nature of the other side. For the West, the East was exotic. Among the things that most enthralled European observers were two aspects of Oriental feminine life - Harem and veiling (p. 7). Muslims, both men and women, were believed to be inherently violent and irredeemably lustful. Medieval writers vied with one another in ascribing the most depraved traditions to Islam, associating homosexuality, incest and bestiality with this religion (p. 10). One of the arguments recurrently made, for instance, was that the hot and dry weather in Muslim lands results in violent passion for sex (p. 15).

On the other hand, Muslims too had somewhat similar notions about Christians and their values, not the least because of the Crusades. Admittedly, one of the "most shameful episodes in the history of Christianity" (p. 11) took place when, in 1204, the knights, en route to fighting a holy war against the Muslims, ravaged their own holy papal city of Constantinople and its [Christian] women as well. …

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