What “sexy sheikh literature” reveals about Western ideas of the Middle East

How many times must I pick up a book, ostensibly about the Middle East, only to read page upon page about a spirited English heroine?

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What do General al-Hamar – literally, and presumably unknowingly, General the Donkey – of Yasmin Porter’s The Sheikh’s Reluctant Bride, and the “barbarian” Zoltan Al Farouk bin Shamal from Duty and the Beast have in common?

Yes, they are both part of what I’m calling the sexy sheikh subgenre; a branch of literature which inexplicably took off after 9/11 and showcases some of the worst Western stereotypes of Arab culture (Duty and the Beast is part of a whole sheikh series from Mills and Boon).

Of the hundreds of sexy sheikh novels that exist, a huge number of titles are named after the heroine’s reluctance, kidnapping or captivity (naturally, you can’t have a relationship with Arab man without coercion). The cover art universally features topless, chiselled men. White men, of course, because although we want to read about brown skin, it would offend our sensibilities to see it on the cover.

Sexy sheikh lit – surely an oxymoron to any normal reader – plot follows a fairly rigid plot. The sheikh is never a scholar of Islam, as you might naively imagine, but rather a rich, ethnically-vague man of royalty. He has the dark eyes, brown skin and hostile nature that you’d expect of any fictional Arab man. And he always has a need for a white woman in his life. Perhaps he needs her business expertise, or maybe he requires someone who knows how to talk to Westerners. Sometimes he just needs a wife quickly and our American/British/European heroine happens to be conveniently on hand.

The desert romance subgenre can be traced back to Edith Maude Hull’s 1919 novel The Sheik. It set the tone for a trend of toe-curling thrillers and mysteries set in colonial-era Arab countries, some more complex than others in their fetishisation of Arabs.

In The Sheik, the independently-minded Diana Mayo treks on horseback into the Algerian desert, where she is promptly kidnapped by, you guessed it, a sheikh! Cue a caravan of wealthy/broken-hearted/tomboy women who, against the advice of society, set off for Morocco/Egypt/Iraq. Yet what is most incredible about these stories is how uncommon it is to encounter a single believable Arab character.

This is the case, too, in historical fiction set in Arab countries. These novels are supposedly serious, yet often the Arabs in the story are ridiculously named – such as the Egyptian females Cleo and Isa in Jenny Ashcroft’s 2016 novel Beneath a Burning Sky (the former is a pharaonic romanticism and the latter a man’s name). In other cases, Arab characters are used as a mouthpiece to perpetuate white stereotypes, such as the supposedly feisty Bedouin wife of a British soldier in Catrin Collier’s 2011 Long Road to Baghdad, who claims her new husband owns her and that Bedouins are simple people.

Such literature acknowledges the racism of colonialism without distancing itself from these narratives, or providing significant social criticism. It is quite common to read of references to “turning native”, “blackened sea urchins”, “a subservient slave girl”, and the likening of Arabs to insects or animals.

Though these stories are frequently set during revolutions and uprisings, Arab characters – and we are fortunate if there are Arabs with names or dialogue –  fail to offer any insight into local characters. Instead, they are expected to provide a backdrop of homogenous, anonymous savagery, or mysticism if the writer wants to heighten the tension.

Take Christine Mangan’s novel Tangerine – which was released earlier this year and is already optioned for film by George Clooney. Despite being set in Tangier during the height of the Moroccan struggle for independence, Tangerine impressively, manages to exclude this key cornerstone of Moroccan history almost entirely. The writer seemed content that it was a foreign country; as the narrator puts it: “The promise of the unknown, of something infinitely deeper, richer than anything I had ever experienced in the cold streets of New York.”  Arabia is “a magic key, a secret incantation”, where the cheap imagery of genies, oppressive heat and arid desert is rife, even when you are in a lush climate, hundreds of miles from any desert.  

Meanwhile, there is only one Arab character to speak of, who exists solely to fulfil the untrustworthy-local trope that no novel set in the Arab world can do without.  

How many times must I pick up a book, ostensibly about the Middle East, only to read page upon page about a spirited English heroine, contrasted with the one-dimensional Arab women who are bent over stews, arms overflowing with babies, or cleaning the floors of their colonisers? Arab women are rarely significant, and when they are, rarely, described, they are “tame” or “put camel-piss on their hair”. Even when supposedly attractive, they are described as “no cream-skinned beauty…She was dark with hawk-like Arab features” (Long Road to Baghdad, 2013).

The white protagonists in these books are presented as exceptional, not only able to assimilate better than other tourists, but seemingly than the Arabs themselves. Their pale skin makes them striking in this land “that conjured up images of a vast, desert nothingness” (Tangerine, 2018). That’s Morocco, where you can go to a ski resort and swim in the Mediterranean, but only its desert fits the mystical Arabia narrative.

While there is nothing inherently wrong in writing about a culture that’s not your own, it necessitates extra research, not less. Yet many authors write about the Arab world as if it is fictional, pulling names, cities, and customs out of thin air. The result is a mass of inaccurate representation and lazy writing, more befitting of 1918 than 2018.

You wouldn’t set a serious British novel in the village of Alwaysrainingham. So why is it acceptable to have typecast Arabs with ridiculous names who live in faraway places such as Barakhara – as in Kate Walker’s 2006 novel At the Sheikh’s Command – which literally translates to Outside of Shit.

These stereotypes don’t confine themselves to literature, either. Take the widely-circulated clip in which the late John McCain chastises a voter during his 2008 presidential campaign who called Barack Obama an Arab. Many praised his ability to stand up to racist voters. Less remarked on was the fact that “Arab” itself was seen as an insult (McCain told the voter Obama was a “decent, family man”). 

Fortunately, there is mounting recognition of excellence in Arabic-language fiction. Gradually this is making its way into the English market through a growing pool of translators and publishers, helped along by a devoted audience of bloggers and reviewers featured on sites such as Banipal MagazineArab Hyphen and ArabLit.

In Iraqi literature, several works that present the country and its peoples in their complexity have been released in translation in 2018 alone. The Baghdad Clock follows two Iraqi girls during the Gulf War, The Beekeeper of Sinjar tells the stories of Yazidi women who managed to escape the grip of Isis, and the prize-winning Frankenstein in Baghdad is set during the US invasion and chronicles the creation of a composite man made up of the various body parts of killed Iraqis.

When it comes to literature set in the Middle East, these are the stories we miss out on when we misrepresent Arabs, or, as is often the case, when we don’t represent them at all.

Writers should be held to account for falling short on research, ethics and characterisation, as they would if other areas of their writing failed to hit the industry standard. Publishing imprints, meanwhile, should shoulder their share of the responsibility for failing to flag problematic content.

But I guess you can’t take my word for it. I’m an Arab. If these novels are to be believed, “They will twist everything… your words, your intentions, until they fit their own. This is their way.” (Tangerine, 2018).

Ruqaya Izzidien’s novel, The Watermelon Boys, set during and after the British conquest of Baghdad is released on 30 August by Hoopoe Fiction.