'Sexualising' Arab Men

Youssef Yacoubi, Nottingham University, School of Critical Theory & Cultural Studies; Proctor Fellow, Department of Camparative Literature, Princeton University

Part 4 of the author's Interrogating Missionary Essentialism: The Muslim and "Evangelical" Nonsense

Moroccan/Arab men, as I pointed out earlier, are portrayed to us as obsessed 'buttocks starers', time wasters sitting in cafés and street corners studying women's invisible physiognomy (p 20). They are 'genetically' unable to control their urges. Mallouhi tells us that " a Western breast would [not] be so uninteresting to Moroccan men" (p 20). What's about Moroccan breasts to European men? Mallouhi does not tell us how she comes to such 'insightful' conclusions? Not through sociology, psychoanalysis, cultural theory, ethnography or even commonsensicality. Instead, typical of intellectual laziness and epistemological corruption, she tells us that "Arab culture assumes that there is only one reason why a man and a woman are alone. Sex is up front in every one' s mind" (p, 28). This is pure orientalism, tautological, and relentlessly simplistic. The author's stereotyping is irredeemable since she only occasionally and superficially informs us about the status of her Western and Christian realities. It is above refutation that in the post-modern stage of 'Western' culture (including some segments of Western Christianity) almost everything has become sexualised. People may not stare in the streets, but are created confined spaces and institutions, (including TV, the Internet, Pleasure lands or clubs, pornographic spaces) heavily charged with sexual expressions and practices in the name of personal freedom of expression. Sex in the 'West' is, indeed, in every one's mind and in every imaginable quotidian space. It has lost a lot of its playfulness, energy of seduction precisely because it has lost the fabric of romance which, by and large, still exits in Moroccan traditional culture.

Staring according to her is a 'pathological' condition that Moroccan men suffer from. Whilst one has to objectively scrutinise individual motives in every case, one has to concede, at least, that the rigid feteshisation of society in the 'West' is more 'pathological' (rendered normal) than staring at passers by in an open space. Mallouhi even traces men's fear of women to Arabian Nights. She tells us that such a text informs a current situation where "mistrust of woman's sexuality still prevails" (p. 39). She advocates that such fear has been consistent historically and that is why Muslim/Arab men are 'sexually oriented'. Many of the stories, fairy tales collected in the Arabian Nights are ancient, as ancient as Homeric traditions. The story of Shahrazad and the Sultan Schahriar are, according to Al-mas'udi, an Arab historian, of Persian origin dating back to the 9th century and had been translated into Arabic as the Al kkhurafa (fictional tale). Arabian Nights were told and retold orally -- and transmitted from at least four civilisations, Persian, Indian, Islamic and Egyptian. Arabian Nights kept circulating only orally until they were written between the 12th and 14th centuries. The body of narratives that Mallouhi faintly refers to is the one consisting of a group of tales which possibly originated in Baghdad, the hegemonic cultural, economic and political centre of the Abbassid dynasty from 750 AD. In these tales we have the figure of Haroun Alrachid and other important Caliphes. Arabian narratives contain an astounding and unique overlap of fictions, ancient tales, prophetic imagination and magical realism. Mallouhi's reading of some of these tales is ironically a contradiction in terms, as their fictionality refuses her imposed rigid and heedless interpretation.

These stories do not reflect, in any conceivable way, a mistrust of woman's sexuality vis-a- vis a specific category called Muslim/Arab men. No doubt, they are fictionalisations of Islamic modernity between the 8th and, possibly, until the 14th century, but most importantly, their worldview is a humanist exploration of man's (as well as woman's) human too human trappings. In this sense Arabian Nights is universal, and appeals to all cultures. Shakespeare, for instance, was inspired by its tales; Arabian narrative impulse is easy to detect in most of his plays. Reading Arabian Nights in this reductionist (and dare I say mercenary) manner is like suggesting that Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (also inspired by Arabian Tales) elucidates the English natural sense of superiority. Or Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, the untamibility of English women in the 20th century.

The tales' so called 'pornographic' parts are there to tell a human story about sexual expressions and trappings that exist in all cultures. The tales' fictional sense of space is seen in an inclusion of homosexual practices, the exploitation of Ghilman (young men for sex) and other forms of sexual practice. If the author brands some parts of Arabian Nights as pornographic, I hope she is able to concede that some parts of the Bible are also pornographic. Mallouhi again resists the fluidity of Arab consciousness as portrayed in these universal tales. She is perfunctorily striving to deliver (and deliver, she does!) what her reader expects. To relate such depiction to a fear engulfing Muslim men in the 20th century is to demonstrate an alarming degree of conceptual mediocrity, and historical misreading of the Arab world.

Why does Mallouhi seem to get most things wrong about Arab/Muslim culture? One thing she never comes to terms with (hence her acrimonious Euro-centrism) is to understand that the essence of Moroccan culture is fluidity and perplexity. Moroccan culture resembles the figure of the Flanneur in Baudlaire's fiction. The Flanneur is a poet whose environment is the crowd. He merges with the people. He gases at everyone. He is a great observer of spontaneous manners and movement. He occupies a huge space because he owns none of his own. He possesses a passion for visual performance. He is a living man of imagination. For this reason he resists rationalisation, consumerism, mapping of space, construction and confinement. In short, he resists rigidity and domestication. Moroccan daily life is spirited, large, inconsistent and full of surprises. Moroccan public life is a prototype of a fête galante painting.


Mallouhi, Christine. Mini-Skirts Mothers and Muslims: Modelling Spiritual Values in Muslim Culture. Spear Publishers (1997), Revised Edition, 109 pages, ISBN 0-9904012-9-4

The right of Youssef Yacoubi to be identified as author of this Extended Book Review has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Please send your comments and views to: [email protected]

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Last modified: 13 May 2001