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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

472 pages | 1 halftone | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Gay and Lesbian Studies

Gender and Sexuality

History: History of Ideas, Middle Eastern History

Literature and Literary Criticism: Asian Languages

Middle Eastern Studies

Religion: Islam


“This is a remarkable book, at once a fascinating history of ideas and a brilliantly analyzed case study of cultural imperialism. There are many excellent studies of Western representations of Arab and Muslim peoples, but there is nothing comparable on the way the latter have responded to the former. With impressive learning and sharp wit Massad describes the internalization of European conceptions of the human among Arab intellectuals, both nationalist and Islamist, since the nineteenth century. His account of their concern to re-orient sexual and civilizational desires (both being closely intertwined in the European imagination) is quite stunning. Anyone interested in the modernization of Middle Eastern culture cannot afford to miss this book—nor, for that matter can scholars seriously engaged in postcolonial research or in lesbian and gay studies.”

Talal Asad, City University of New York

“This compendious study of the discursive production of an Arab sexuality incorporates new readings of the modernity/tradition debates that go well beyond a specifically Arab context, and moves all the way from historical research into the history of literature and literary criticism. Even as it supplements Edward Said’s work by its consideration of Arab Orientalism, Desiring Arabs boldly looks forward to an unscripted future.”

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities, Columbia University

“Massad refuses both the essentialized oppositions between Arab and Western civilization and the all-embracing universalism offered in the name of human rights. Instead he insists that representations of Arab sexuality must be understood historically, as the varied and conflicting products of exchanges between Arab and Orientalist writers. This is an inspired and erudite intellectual history, complex, nuanced, critical, and deeply engaged.”

Joan W. Scott, Institute for Advanced Study, author of The Politics of the Veil: Banning Islamic Headscarves in French Public Schools

“Desiring Arabs is an elaborate, relentless, and unabashed critique of the way in which Arab culture has dealt with the tropes and constructs of sexual deviances since the emergence of the Arab Nahdah, or Renaissance, in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is bound to be received by readers as one of the most interesting and equally illuminating commentaries on modern Arab culture to be published in the past decade. “--Anton Shammas, author of Arabesques

Anton Shammas

“In Desiring Arabs, [Edward] Said’s disciple Joseph A. Massad corroborates his mentor’s thesis that orientalist writing was racist and dehumanizing. Said came up short, argues Massad, only in not recognizing how far that stereotype-laden discourse in the west also helped shape Arab intellectual writing itself, especially on Arab sexual identities. . . . Massad, a controversial professor at Columbia University, brilliantly goes on to trace the legacy of this racist, internalized, orientalist discourse up to the present.”

John R. Bradley | Financial Times

"Fascinating and controversial."

Bill Andriette | The Guide

“Massad compels us to think creatively about alternatives to our narcissistic subsuming other people’s sexual modes of being under ours. . . . This truly monumental book is a corrective to Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality that inexplicably omitted the role played by the cultural effects of colonial systems on conceptions and constructions of sexuality. . . . Desiring Arabs is an epoch-making book.”--Marnia Lazreg, Arab Studies Journal

Marnia Lazreg | Arab Studies Journal

“An impressive project that ventures into uncharted territory and can be read as a complement to both Edward Said’s Orientalism and Michel Foucault’s work on sexuality. . . . An audacious intellectual journey. . . . A seminal contribution to a number of fields, including Middle East Studies, Sexuality and Queer Studies, Arab intellectual history, and Orientalist Studies.”

Samia Mehrez | Journal of Gender Studies

“[The book] captivates the reader and not only because it deals with sexuality in Arab discourse in the last two centuries. It is a brilliant text with a breadth of knowledge and sophisticated analytical techniques. . . . Massad’s interdisciplinary approach, dense prose, impeccable research, and above all the thought-provoking issues he raises make his book a scholarly landmark.”

Ferial J. Ghazoul | Journal of Arabic Literature

"Desiring Arabs is an important resource for serious students of sexualities in the Arab world. . . . Above all, the book does a service to scholarship comparable to what Kate Millett did in Sexual Politics or Dennis Altman in Homosexual Oppression and Liberation."

Peter Drucker | Against the Current

"Massad’s frontal assault on the gay lib crusade aimed at the Muslim world is a defiant call to resist the Orientalist project."

Eric Walberg | Al-Ahram Weekly

Table of Contents


1 Anxiety in Civilization
2 Remembrances of Desires Past
3 Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World
4 Sin, Crimes, and Disease: Taxonomies of Desires Present
5 Deviant Fictions
6 The Truth of Fictional Desires
Works Cited  Index


Columbia University: Lionel Trilling Award

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