Middle Eastern Representation in Romance Fiction
By Grace Li
The emergence of sheik romances
Sheik romances, first popularized by E.M. Hull’s 1919 novel The Sheik, have seen an increase in popularity in recent years (Raub, 119). They are a small but growing portion of the romance market: Harlequin and Silhouette, two of the biggest names in romance publishing, have published at least 80 sheik romances since 2001 (Holden, 2). In 2005 alone, over 51 million copies of sheik romances were sold around the world (Teo, 241). Given that 18 billion romance novels are sold each year, though, sheik romances still make up less than 0.5% of the current market (Teo, 241). However, in terms of romance novels set outside the Western world, sheik romances constitute almost the entire subgenre (Holden, 3). By providing a new and unique spin on the traditional Eurocentric romance, sheik romances have carved out a small but significant niche in the romance market.
Sheik romances follow a standard storyline: a white, Western heroine travels to a fictional Arab country, meets a sheik, and ultimately falls in love with him. Or, in other words: “In an exotic land where it is rumored that men still rule, a tall, dark and handsome sheikh meets a white woman who teaches him how to be ruled by love” (Taylor, 1032). There is inherent conflict in this situation: a clash of cultures, set against the backdrop of a foreign land, with a hero and heroine that begin with very little in common. This paper argues that sheik romances use tropes of Middle Eastern culture to entice readers with the idea of a foreign and exotic culture while providing enough familiarity to maintain expectations of the Middle East. These stories use the sheik as a traditionally alpha hero, set against a romanticized backdrop of the Middle Eastern world.
Romanticizing the Middle East
Romance is often seen as a form of escapism, and desert romances are seen in much the same way, introducing the reader to a new and unfamiliar world. The desert, with its sweeping sand dunes and vast, empty space, is often a character in and of itself. Instead of grounding itself in the real world, sheik romances often conflate culture, religion, and geography to create a monolithic Arabia (Jarmakani, 897). This Arabia is a fictionalized world with easily-identifiable Eastern features. For example, the sheik often is in a ghutrah, a white headdress, on the first mass-market sheik romance covers of the 1960s, identifying the story as set in a romantic, exotic land, while also referencing the familiar “Lawrence of Arabia” (Jarmakani, 898). There is an obvious appeal to this semi-realistic Arabic world: customs and practices can be drawn on without discrimination from different countries in the Middle East, and the complicated politics of Middle Eastern countries (and their relationship with the United States) is no longer a factor (Haraway, Vitalis, Deleuze, and Guattari, 43). Thus, the political reality of the U.S.-Middle Eastern relationship is sidestepped.
There are common tropes in sheik romances that also romanticize our notions of the Middle East. The Middle East is seen as a land of lawlessness, wildness, “the only country left where men rule” (Thomas, 230). A contrast is drawn between the East and the civilized West, one that is exemplified when the heroine meets the hero. Sheik romances play out “the Western women’s sexual and romantic fantasies about ‘the Orient’” and what one may expect of it (Teo, 241). One of the most common tropes here is the abduction/capture of the heroine: she is a Western woman in an unfamiliar land, and the powerful, arrogant, undeniably attractive sheik takes her for his own (Haddad, 61). Once in his hands, she is bathed and given a change of clothes, something strange and “exotic” and equally unfamiliar, and from there the story proceeds, all set in a world that is as new to the reader as it is to the heroine. Readers on sheik blog forums describe sheik romances in similar ways: “hot desert winds, cool fountains, slight and slithery silk garments, unusually juicy fruit…” (Jarmakani, 906). As one commenter observed, the Middle East is thus turned into a “mystical place ‘out there’ where men were dominant and women submissive and the clothes looked nice’” (Jarmakani, 906). In the end, readers see what they expect to see: the harem, the gauzy fabrics, the sun and the desert. While unfamiliar in a sense, these are all images we recognize from pop culture, whether from One Thousand and One Nights or other depictions of the Middle Eastern world in images and movies.
The sheik as an embodiment of masculinity
The sheik is, in many ways, the traditional alpha hero of genre romance. The heroes in romance novels often share common characteristics: they are powerful, handsome, confident, and sexually experienced (Roach, 2). The romance novel has its origin in the early twentieth century (the first sheik romances were published in the 1910s), when women weren’t allowed to express their sexuality, and even today, women are expected to be more chaste, less desirous of romance or sex, than men (Selinger, 310). Therefore, the hero is the one in control. He elicits her desire and teaches her that sex can be acceptable and pleasurable (Kamble, 88). At the same time, this occurs reluctantly; in romance novels, it is common for the heroine to deny her attraction to the hero, and this is one of the conflicts that drive the story forward. On the feminist pop-culture website Bitch Media (www.bitchmedia.org), contributor Christy McCullough writes that the hero “must initiate and even force sexual encounters upon the heroine” in order for the heroine to be “allowed” to experience them because of these societal expectations placed on men and women.
Thus, the sheik in this sense fits very well into the mold of the romance novel hero. He is seen as sensual, with “dark chocolate colored eyes,” “jet-black curls,” and “copper-colored skin,” and unfamiliar in his wildness to the heroine (Jackson, 139). The sheik is intimidating and powerful, just as alpha heroes are expected to be, and this is shown in many of the tropes of sheik romances, e.g. the abduction of the heroine, or a forced marriage to the sheik. For example, in Jane Porter’s The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride, an American journalist is kidnapped by a Bedouin prince and kept in his desert camp until she eventually falls in love with him.
However, the sheik is not completely “other”: he is often well-educated, with some Western ideals of honor and equality, despite his “uncivilized” existence in the desert (Teo, 250). He is a “liminal, in-between figure”: he is dark but not too dark, often of ambiguous nationality, and worldly despite his roots in the Middle East (Taylor, 1040). Often, he has been “thoroughly acculturated to the West” by receiving his education at institutions such as Oxford, Harvard, or Yale (Teo, 250). A surprisingly common trope is the reveal that the sheik is not, in fact, fully Arab, and that he has European blood in him (Bach, 9). Part of the appeal of this trope is that it “civilizes” him: he is not as different as originally thought, and it makes him seem more familiar, less foreign and barbaric and “other.” E.M. Hull’s The Sheik uses this exact trope in order to make the novel fit more easily within Western conventions, which was especially important given its publication in the twentieth century, when interracial marriages were heavily frowned upon (Blake, 67). However, even today, part-European ancestry has remained a timeless characteristic of the sheik hero (Heng, 117).
Women in sheik romances: the heroine and more
The heroine is often white, with large portions of the story revolving around the concept of a Western woman “taming” the sheik. One of the common tropes in the sheik romance is the heroine entering a harem (Haddad, 45). However, the whiteness of the heroine is even more emphasized as she integrates herself more fully into the sheik’s world. In Abby Green’s Breaking the Sheikh’s Rule, the Scottish heroine finds herself in a harem, where she is dressed 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 harem setting exoticizes the heroine’s whiteness: the heroine sees the Arabic world as “other,” but to them, she is the one that doesn’t belong.
Therein lies the appeal of the heroine: she is different from the women that the sheik commonly associates with, and her independence and Western ideals of freedom are intriguing and exciting for the sheik. It is a chase. By distinguishing the heroine from the other women there, we reach an interesting and often-overlooked aspect of the sheik romance: the presence (and absence) of the Arab woman. A woman in the sheik’s world is viewed as quiet, submissive, fully accepting of the male-dominated society she belongs to (Jarmakani, 998). The sheik’s dismissal of the women in his society as not interesting, independent, or special enough for him serves to emphasize just how unique the heroine is, but at the same time, there are some deeper issues at play. Because the sheik romance is set in a non-Western world, subject to its own norms and expectations, but is often written through the lens of an outside observer—the majority of romance novelists are white, Western women—care must be taken not to reduce the Middle Eastern world to vague stereotypes (Jarmakani, 1003). While there is value in the cross-cultural exchange that takes place in these books, the portrayal of the Middle Eastern world is more nuanced than romance novels may lead one to believe, and especially when it comes to male-female dynamics in the East. The marginalization of the Middle Eastern woman serves to reinforce stereotypes of female subjugation and powerlessness in the Middle East, as well as promote the ideal of exotic whiteness: the white woman, by nature of her whiteness and her Western upbringing, is somehow a more interesting, more vivid character than her Middle Eastern counterparts. Even in a harem, she stands out.
The notion of “other” and the fetishization of the Middle East
The importance of accurate—and varied—depictions of the Middle East is more important now than ever. The exotic setting is part of the appeal of sheik romances, but more than that it is how we view the Middle East as different, or “other.” An unfamiliarity with the Middle East results in an idea of it that is less complex than the reality: the Middle Eastern world may be seen as wild, barbaric, uncivilized, where women are the property of men and patriarchal oppression is the norm (Burge, 42). Sheik romances, by playing on this idea, can perpetuate stereotypes of the Middle East and its people.
The appeal of the sheik in these stories is that he is powerful and even dangerous: deconstructing this idea requires thinking more deeply about how quickly we accept this as fact. Since 9/11, it has been easy to hear rhetoric about the Middle East and the “barbarians” there, how they are ruthless and harsh and uncomprehending of our ways (Heng, 117). There has been a conscious effect by politicians to “otherize” the Middle East: one needs only to look at the recent Muslim ban and Donald Trump’s eager nationalism. We live in an age where difference makes people nervous. The romance novel can subvert this, but it can also perpetuate this. When the hero is both dangerous and attractive, the heroine may fear him and we accept this readily because there is a quiet—less quiet, now—fear of Middle Easterners in real life. The language used for the hero is always the same: “fierce,” “savage,” “predatory” (Gargano, 175). He is “refined yet dangerous,” in a “primitive” world (Gargano, 176). What is especially important to note is that politicians and right-wing radicals often use the same terms to refer to Muslims and the Middle East, and their intentions aren’t nearly as romantic.
The sheik’s appeal, of course, is not just in his danger. It is that the heroine softens him, that he also has a softer side. He may be frightening, but he is also sexy, intelligent, with flashes of uncommon kindness. Ultimately, he is worthy of love. In that sense, sheik romances humanize the Middle East in a way that is difficult to find elsewhere (Holden, 17). However, given the gradual nature of these changes, and how love often occurs only after an abduction or a forced marriage, this isn’t enough. Sheik romances hold great value in that they add diversity to a typically white, Western-centric genre, but because of their role in the romance industry, we must ask more of them. The Middle Eastern world is more than the desert, harems, and female oppression, and sheik romances should reflect that. There are some novels like that already: In The Sheik Who Loved Me, by Loreth Anne White, the heroine is an undercover spy, investigating an Arab businessman on his private island, and in Jacqueline Diamond’s Sheikh Surrender, the sheik and the heroine meet while he is trying to find his brother’s killer. However, the vast majority of sheikh romances are not like this. Thus, more variety in sheik romances is necessary, whether that means a sheikh who isn’t portrayed as “barbaric,” or a non-Western heroine, or any other of the hundreds of possibilities in romance fiction. Good books challenge our expectations; sheikh romances should do the same, pushing us beyond our initial impressions of the Middle East and into a world that is as wide-ranging and complex as any other.
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