MARCH 5, 2014
I’M SITTING in a café in Casablanca reading a romance novel called Expecting the Sheikh’s Baby. It’s a café I frequent in Maarif, an old French quarter turned shopping district in Morocco’s biggest city, where I live. I’ve grown used to the cigarette smoke that thickens the air in the café and the Moroccan boys who listen to French rap on their laptops.
I read holding the book slightly under the table, concealing the Harlequin Silhouette Desire cover because it shames me. It features a dark-haired man in a robe that opens to reveal his perfect abs and a woman with light brown hair wearing a nightdress. She holds her hand over the lower part of his six-pack, staring into his eyes. It looks to be the moment before they passionately kiss. I wonder, Why do publishers of romance novels insist on designing such embarrassing covers?
The plot of Expecting the Sheikh’s Baby seems improbable. A young woman from Montana named Karen moves to Boston, where some relatives provide her employment in their gelato shop. Karen, 31, unlucky in love and believing she’ll soon be too old to start a family, decides to have a child through artificial insemination. But then she meets Sheikh Ashraf ibn-Saleem. He walks into the gelato shop one day and Karen, despite herself, can’t deny the attraction. He promises to father Karen’s child and marry her, but she vows not to fall in love with the high-rolling, womanizing sheikh. The reader knows they will fall in love, but the tension created by Karen’s resistance sustains the story. The novel suggests that Karen is exotic to her Middle Eastern lover, who is himself attractive at least partially because he, in turn, is exotic to her.
I’ve just started this book. In the first chapter, Ashraf, who goes by Ash, arrives at the fertility clinic to convince Karen not to go through with artificial insemination. “A blush spread across her cheeks,” I read. “I don’t care to discuss sperm with a sheikh,” Karen tells Ash.
The irony overwhelms me and I, too, blush, perhaps because I relate. In the café, I see plenty of young men who, although surely not descended from royalty like the romance novel sheikhs, exude good looks and sophistication. They wear collared shirts and speak French. They might make good heroes in the novels. I might step into one of the books’ plots: I’m an ordinary girl from Montana who first learned Arabic from the Jordanian man I dated while I was in the Peace Corps. And I live in Casablanca now, a city with a ready-made Hollywood romance plot.
But telling a story like one in the sheikh romances has become impossible for me. I work as a Fulbright English teacher at a public university in a poor district of the city that takes an hour to reach by public bus. Every time I try to tell a romantic version of my life in Casablanca, the city slaps me with its garbage and traffic, its tangle of three and sometimes four languages, its extreme and grimly apparent disparity between the rich and the poor. I haven’t found eternal happiness with any of the men I’ve met in Morocco, nor did I find it with the man I loved and left behind in Jordan. Outside the smoky café, Casablanca insists on its gritty reality, while inside I’m engaging in a fantasy of escape that seems to be set in a place similar to where I live, but isn’t. The books offer a gentler version of the Arab world than the one I know. In the books, the Arab world is the place in which the white heroines are transformed into exotic beauties. It is the place where they find their authentic selves, where they find fulfilling love and lifelong happiness. None of this has happened to me here, although sometimes I can’t help but hope, as in the books, that it will.
I started reading sheikh romances during graduate school while working on book about the two years I spent living in Jordan as a Peace Corps volunteer. During one graduate writing workshop, the instructor suggested I was writing a love story. This led me to imagine my book shelved with other works of chick lit and romance, which seemed a horrifying conclusion to me then. I preferred to think of myself as serious-minded, as a writer with a story that critiqued US relations in the Middle East, American ideas of travel, and the project of international development. Although much of my writing dealt with a turbulent relationship I had with a Muslim man, the label “love story” offended me.
“No,” I scoffed at the professor. “I’m not writing anything like those books.”
But then I started to worry that he was right. And then I started reading sheikh romances to prove he wasn’t.
The sheikh romances sucked me in. Before long, I began to recognize similarities between the narratives in the books and the one I was trying to tell about my life. The sheikh romances often featured white heroines from middle-class, small-town backgrounds in the United States or England who travel to the Middle East saddled with cultural naivety. Sometimes the heroines must revise their misconceptions after meeting the sheikh hero, who defies some but not all of their stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. In other plots, the sheikhs rescue the heroines from dangers or weaknesses they failed to foresee. The books rely on a curious mix of cultural stereotypes and a flimsy critique of them. Nearly all that I’ve read end in a union between the sheikh and the white woman. That is, most of the books make a positive statement about cultural difference (even if some differences are misrepresented or elided). They tell us that we can love each other despite allegedly grave cultural divides. And I must confess that I want to believe in this story.
But my interest in sheikh romances doesn’t end simply with wanting to believe in their depictions of cross-cultural love. I had never read any of the books before I traveled to Jordan, but their stories were so recognizable to me that I began to wonder if their narrative is so pervasive that it influenced the way I lived and loved without my knowledge or consent. I’m sure this suspicion developed from reading romance novels alongside Orientalism and other writings by Edward Said, which show how some cultural narratives are so deep-seated that we hardly notice them for what they are or whom they misrepresent. But there’s a difference between Said’s orientalism and that in the romance novels. Orientalism demonstrates how stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs have been embedded in popular culture and academia and how they continue to circulate, perpetuating fear and racism. The romances cope with the stereotyped images of fear and hatred of Muslims and Arabs in the popular media by reversing them to love. I think the romance novels’ reaction to hate bears some similarity to my desire to understand the Middle East for myself, the desire that propelled me to Jordan, helped me learn Arabic, and led me to begin a relationship with a Jordanian man. The romance novels seem to contain a positive message, but their reactive love relies too much on a fantasy of racial and cultural difference. Exoticism, in the end, objectifies others as much as hate.
Although sheikh romances make up a small portion of total sales in the whole romance genre, the Chicago Tribune reports that they appear to have gained in popularity since 9/11. The Tribune quoted one author of sheikh romances who said the job of a romance novel is to “feed hope into the world – the hope that those we see as our enemy can also be our friend.” This statement suggests to me that romance novels, despite their supposed lack of sophistication, actually undertake a project of revision of stereotypes and fear. A failed attempt, perhaps, but one still worth considering.
The first sheikh romance was arguably also the first contemporary romance novel: E.M. Hull’s The Sheik. The novel, published in 1919, relies on a fantasy of a mixed race relationship that was scandalous at the time, yet also helped make the book a bestseller. The book contains the genre’s typical descriptions of Arab men: “It was the handsomest and cruelest face that she had ever seen,” “His dark passionate eyes burnt into her like a hot flame,” and “always his dark fierce eyes were watching her.” Such fiery, dark depictions are repeated in contemporary sheikh romances. Early descriptions of the hero from Expecting the Sheikh’s Baby include “His exotic good looks presented the perfect portrait of the consummate dark, mysterious stranger,” and “he continued to survey her with his extreme dark eyes.” The darkness, the danger, the sexy voyeuristic quality: however titillating they may be, there is an inherent sense of Otherness that’s quite obvious within the romances’ prose. Anxiety over race has always preoccupied sheikh romances and perhaps the romance general as a whole.
Amira Jarmakani, a literary critic who is working on a book about sheikh romances, argues the novels code their sheikh characters as racially other by reproducing a popular conflation and confusion of ethnicity, religion, and geographical origin. This conflation and confusion creates categories in our minds like “Middle Easterner” and is associated with certain stereotypical markers, which the books subsequently manipulate, like white robes and turbans. Jarmakani writes,
The signifier of “desert robes” conflates ethnic/religious/geographic identities while blurring any direct reference to the Middle East or Islam. It therefore racializes the sheikh-hero in ways that enable desert romance writers to carefully balance the tension of the fantasy tinged with reality that readers demand while reflecting dominant racial logics of the conflated Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern/terrorist in the post 9/11 context.
The moniker “sheikh” works in exactly the way Jarmankani describes. To an unfamiliar American reader, sheikh merely conjures an image of a rich and possibly royal Arab man. But this has nothing to do with how the title of sheikh is actually used in the Muslim world. Sheikh is more commonly given as a title to a man who has completed the pilgrimage to Mecca, or sometimes conferred upon an old and respected man who hasn’t.
Contemporary sheikh romances, Jarmakani insists, must negotiate racial and cultural stereotypes to appeal to their audience – they “race” their sheikhs as Arab and Muslim by using some popular assumptions, while undermining others. For example, some authors undermine stereotype by insisting their sheikhs respect women or support human rights, but still dress them in white robes. Abby Green’s Breaking the Sheikh’s Rules explains that the hero Nadim is “nothing like the stereotypical Arabic Sheikh” and discredits the heroine’s idea that he comes from a “barbarically foreign place.” Yet, Nadim is still described this way: “His darkly olive skin stood out against the lush backdrop like an exotic hothouse flower.” The romance novel heroines objectify their lovers by transforming them from the specter of the violent Arab terrorist into the steaming mist of hothouse flowers.
It’s easy enough to see how the books manipulate stereotypes of Arab men. I find the heroines’ particular manipulation more interesting — white, Western women whose race and assumed cultural supremacy render them exotic in the Middle East and give them power. This is the fantasy of exotic whiteness. Herein lies both the most troubling aspect of sheikh romances and one of the most uncomfortable parts of living in the Arab world for me.
All the sheikh romances I’ve read create a fantasy of exotic whiteness, some by mentioning repeatedly that the heroine is white and others by overtly putting the plot in the service of exoticizing the heroine. In Breaking the Sheikh’s Rule the Scottish heroine travels to Sheikh Nadim’s country, the fictional Merkazad, after he buys her family’s stables and employs her. Although Green’s story refutes some stereotypes, Merkazad provides a setting for the heroine’s indulgence in her whiteness. During one extended scene, the heroine finds herself in what seems to be a harem, where Arab women dress her as a belly dancer.
Lina stood back and clapped her hands. ‘Miss Iseult, now you are one of us!’
Iseult smiled weakly, and mentally compared her own milk-bottle-white skin to the glorious olive of the girls around her. She felt completely exposed in the brief silk top. Her breasts were bigger than the other girls’, and she was all but spilling from the low neckline.
The heroine dons a veil and dances with the other girls. “She could feel the warm evening air skate over her bared midriff, and knew it would take a miracle for him not to notice her pale skin,” writes Green. The scene culminates in sex with the sheikh in a tent. Although Green throws in the heroine’s self-deprecating admiration for the skin of the Arab women and her maid’s suggestion that Iseult is one of them, other parts of the scene work to distinguish Iseult from the Arab women, to exoticize her. What I find especially important about this scene is its appropriation of the Arab harem fantasy. In the romance novel, the white heroine gets to fulfill a male fantasy of the harem that the real world makes culturally and racially impossible for her. But the book is wiser than the maid’s claim of “you are one of us!” When the heroine enters the harem space, Green makes sure to distinguish her from the others, to make it clear that the white heroine’s belly dancing will not result in the marginalization or exploitation frequently endured by Arab women who are associated with sexualized public performance. Instead, belly dancing leads to the fulfillment of the heroine’s dreams. Through this appropriation of the harem and belly dancing fantasy, the heroine performs her own exoticization without shedding the power of her whiteness.
Liz Fielding’s The Sheikh’s Guarded Heart places a similar emphasis on the heroine’s whiteness. “‘She arrived yesterday morning on the early flight from London. The immigration officer on duty remembered her vividly. Her hair attracted a good deal of notice,’” the sheik’s assistant tells him. The narration continues, “He didn’t doubt it. Pale as cream, hanging to her waist, any man would notice it.”
White heroines like Fielding’s and Green’s gain fulfillment with their sheikh heroes because they are not Arab women. Although I recognize the positive rationalization about cross-cultural relationships in these stories, I want to believe in a version in which the attraction between two people relies less on racial difference. I also cannot forget the character so marginalized in the stories that many leave her out completely: the Arab woman. I’ve often been troubled by the absence of Arab women in some places I’m allowed access to solely as a white woman in the Arab world. Recently, a Moroccan man took me on a date to a sheeisha café in the old medina in Casablanca. I was the only woman there. I found myself wondering, “Where are all the Moroccan women?” Later, the man I was with told me that police officers frequently accused Moroccan women who went to sheeisha cafés of prostitution.
“Well, do men think I’m a prostitute, too, for coming here?” I asked him.
“Why do you care what they think of you?” my companion responded. “You’re American.”
The sheikh romances force me to ask the same uncomfortable question: What has happened to all the Arab women? Amira Jarmakani, the literary critic, notes that the sheikh romances “articulate freedom” for the white heroines through “mutually reinforcing frameworks of neoliberalism and global feminism.” She writes, “The iteration of global feminism proffered by the novels defines the white heroine’s freedom in opposition to her Arab female counterpart.” So, if there is any feminist resistance in the romance novels, they accomplish empowerment of white women by sacrificing Arab women. The sheikh romances often cast Arab women as unworthy rivals of the white heroine because Arab women are depicted as less liberated. Although some of the sheikh romances make attempts to deconstruct the stereotype of the meek Arab woman, this does not result in a true Arab rival for the heroine. It is the heroine’s whiteness, her exoticness in imagined Arabian society, that cements her place in the sheikh’s heart (and perhaps my place in the sheeisha café). The novels mark the heroine as so different from the other women around her that she doesn’t have to worry, even if she’s an ordinary white woman.
What happens to the Arab women? We can find an answer in stories written by Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh. Al-Shaykh often writes about white women in the Arab world who become obsessed with the idea of their exoticness. She depicts these women as absurd, culturally insensitive buffoons who cause harm to themselves and Arab women and children.
In the novel Women of Sand and Myrrh, Al-Shaykh narrates from the perspective of Suzanne, a frumpy Texas housewife who discovers her sexuality in an unnamed desert country where her husband has been sent for work. Suzanne luxuriates in her exoticness in extended passages in the novel.
Gradually I began to comprehend that they saw me as an important guest from Nixon’s land, the land of the oven that cleaned itself without spilling any water. My sense of my own importance began to increase, as if my yellow hair which hung lifelessly round my face had turned into shining gold, and my speech into pearls […]
While Suzanne has a sexual relationship with an Arab man, his wife, Fatima, looks on. At one point Suzanne learns of Fatima’s idea of her through another Arab woman. The way Fatima sees Suzanne differs greatly from her own view of herself.
Fatima had said that the blue of my eyes was like glass, my skin was the color of a red fish, and my bottom was like a sheep’s buttocks. […] Then Suha laughed again, and told me at last after more hesitation all of what Fatima had said, that she presumed I left my pubic hair unshaven like a forest, and since this was unclean, and Maaz was a good Muslim, he wouldn’t have risked invalidating his prayers.
After her sexual relationship with Fatima’s husband ends, Suzanne begins sleeping with many different men in the desert country. Instead of finding fulfillment in these relationships, Suzanne is exploited. Meanwhile, she has initiated Maaz into the world of international travel and causal sex. He passes syphilis to his wife, who bears an infected child. Al-Shaykh forces Suzanne to confront the result of her actions when she sees Fatima’s child.
I tried not to, but I couldn’t help looking back at his eyes, where the syphilis showed so clearly. I noticed that the baby was wearing the clothes which I’d ordered for Fatima from the States, and then I don’t know why, but when I saw the brightly-colored cover which Maaz’s mother must have woven in her tent, the thought came to me that it was I and the oven which cleaned itself and the aeroplanes which had caused the syphilis in Maaz and his newborn child.
Suzanne tells a truth about the fantasy of exotic whiteness: It leads to exploitation and disease. Relationships built on fetishizing exotic whiteness reinforce the oppression of Arab women.
My Jordanian boyfriend remained opposed to the idea of moving to the United States and scoffed at other men who wanted American girlfriends for Visas. Yet he once admitted to me, in a moment that I think was infused with a great sense of shame, that before he met me he had had a longstanding fantasy about being with a white woman. He said he had a dream about this white woman once, in which he saw her on a bed in a field wearing a white silk gown. After that day I would often wonder about my whiteness. I wondered how much my race contributed to my boyfriend’s attraction to me. In the story I usually told about our relationship, language study and reading Arabic poetry together initiated my attraction. While I know this is part or perhaps most of the truth, I also sometimes wonder how much of my love for him was based on the fact that he was an Arab and a Muslim.
Although I knew my race conferred privileges in Jordan, I felt uncomfortable when people talked about my skin color and hair. In the same moments that I felt objectified because of my skin tone, I would also often feel guilt. If nothing but my whiteness mattered — if intelligence, integrity and even other standards of physical beauty didn’t matter — what did this mean for Arab women, for all women? Very often, little girls made me feel the most uncomfortable. They called me white and beautiful in the same breath, while I looked back at them and wondered if they thought they themselves were beautiful. Before I lived in Jordan, I had never really considered my race. Afterward, I saw how naïve I had been.
Perhaps it is the fallout from such situations that leads me back to the café to read the sheikh romances. I know that no relationship can disregard race entirely. I know that an attraction to difference is not always unhealthy, but I’m afraid of the point when it becomes too much about whiteness or blackness or Arabness, about the moment when it starts to make me feel less human.