Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: lör, Nov 19th, 2016

What’s in a name?

Desiring Arabs (2007), by Joseph Massad is an understandably controversial – but undeniably well-researched – book, partly based on an earlier article, ”Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World,” written by Massad in 2002.


Joseph Massad, and the cover of his book ”Desiring Arabs.”

Utilizing Foucault and Said, Massad explores Orientalist and Arab intellectuals’ representations of Arab sexuality and the ways in which these acted to construct notions of civilization and culture. Sex, sexuality, and sexual morality, Massad argues, have played an important, even formative, part in discourses of progress, heritage, and authenticity. As a history of Arab literature on sexuality in the nineteenth and twentieth century, this is a work that is both detailed and groundbreaking, and it is not here that the controversies lie – even though there may be things to be said about Massad’s reading of this literature, such as clearly favoring interpretations of Abu Nuwas’ writings which holds his love poems to “youthful boys” as merely artistic/literary tropes, while dismissing the same interpretations of his love poems to women.

What has provoked most controversy with this book is the same as with Massad’s earlier article, namely the contention that the so called “Gay International” in fact are creating the subjects they claim to protect. While many agree with the problems of universalizing sexual identity, Massad is often criticized for taking his line of argument so far that one could find him arguing for the actual existence of an “authentic” Arab sexuality that is being erased by Anglo-American hegemony. For example, historian Dror Ze’evi writes in the American Historical Review that Massad first provides an overview of Arab literature on sexuality, and then superimposes an argument about the “Gay International” which appears irreconcilable with the original thesis. In other words, Massad himself shows how Arab intellectuals have long dealt with issues of same-sex attraction and sexuality; long before any possible influence of the “Gay International.” Ze’evi continues: “If there ever was a moment when East and West were two completely separate and uncontaminated spheres of sexuality, it disappeared the moment the first modern Arab author described Abu Nuwas as a corrupt homosexual.” Now, one may argue, which Massad definitely would do, that referring to Abu Nuwas as a homosexual would nevertheless be an anachronism and a marker of European, colonial influence.

The problem, however, is that considering that the discourse of sexuality then already includes variations of same-sex attraction and practice, it should come as no surprise that some people begin to identify with these, and therefore also themselves (re)produce subjectivities that cannot be clearly separated from their own, non-Western context. Here, I follow linguistic anthropologist Don Kulick, who argues that identification is performative. Identifications can be authorized, and legitimated, or not. With the engagement of Arab authors with various “alternative” sexualities, and with the meeting between these authors and Orientalist writings on Arab sex and sexuality (and the subsequent introduction of a discourse on homosexuality), these identifications become authorized, legitimated, and included in the sphere of possibilities/sexualities – although this does not mean that same-sex acts and identifications are socially acceptable, just conceptually and categorically graspable. As mentioned by Ze’evi, this would already be the case, as evidenced by the writings of Abu Nuwas and others, including medical texts on the desire, among certain men, to be anally penetrated by other men (in the literature referred to as ubnah). The only difference that would come from a meeting with European writings on sexuality would then be an understanding of “homosexuality” as such a category – but the desire must already have been understood by the Arab writers, even if sometimes pathologized in the literature, such as in Abu Bakr Al-Razi’s descriptions of ubnah and the medical texts by Ibn Sina and Al-Samu’al ibn Yahya.

Feminist sociologist and gender theorist Frances S. Hasso raises a similar point of critique, stating that Massad does not acknowledge “the possibility of indigenous nonnormative or ‘queer’ Arab sexual subjectivities and identities.” Massad, of course, would say that it is the cultural imperialism – which he charges the “Gay International” with – that erases present sexualities by imposing a hetero-homo binary, forcing nonnormative sexualities into the category of “homosexuality.” There are a few problems with this view:

Firstly, it implies the existence of more authentic Arab sexualities – sexualities with a greater right to existence in the Arab context – which itself relies on a view of sexuality as pre-discursive. As such, this forms another point of irreconcilability between Massad’s empirical evidence and his conclusions about the “Gay International,” likely due to the conclusions being written before the collection and analysis of the empirical evidence – as the thesis was developed in the 2002 article. Furthermore, more authentic sexualities existing or not, Massad seems to assume that the hetero-homo binary (while perhaps not native to the non-Western context) is not present, and that, by extension, that there is no oppression of non-heteronormative individuals prior to the intervention of international organizations. If there is, which Massad acknowledges and which we will soon see, his treatise makes it near-impossible to advocate for change – even from within, as those who do so will be accused of collaborating with the West and the “Gay International” at the expense of “native” alternative sexualities and sexual practices.

Secondly, it builds on an ideologically colored view of the work that the international LGBTQ- organizations do. Particularly since the introduction and rapidly increasing influence of Queer Theory in the 1980s and ‘90s, LGBT activists and organizations have been – contrary to Massad’s critique – staunchly anti-assimilatory, and often taking as starting point for its activism the nonnormative sexualities and gender expressions without assimilating them into a binary system – the very thing such activism opposes. Massad assumes that such organizations base their activity on (Western) homosexual identification, which is not always the case. In fact, it is very common that the organizations take as their starting point indigenous/historical phenomena in order to contest persecution and marginalization. Oftentimes, the term MSM – men who have sex with other men – is used in order to not impose an identity, but still create a space where action is possible in regards to this group of people. Sometimes, human rights activism begins with individuals/organizations from the country in question, and later receives support from international organizations. These people, working for change in their own countries are dismissed by Massad as simply “native informants.” A question to be asked here is when a phenomenon becomes part of its context, rather than just an import? When does the desires of LGBTQ-identifying individuals in the Arab world become “normal”?

Thirdly, it suggests that persecution and marginalization of nonnormative sexualities are dependent on the inclusion of homosexuality in the discourse, which, as evidenced by Massad himself, is not true. Ubnah is treated as a disease, Abu Nuwas’ orientation is described in any way except normal, and so on. In his 2002 article, Massad describes the so-called “Queen Boat incident” – when 55 Egyptian men were arrested and accused of “offending religion” and of “debauchery” – and he quotes the court case as stating that “‘Eastern society’ as well as all monotheistic religions ‘condemn deviance and perversion/delinquency’ (shudhudh and inhiraf).” The language used reveals a discourse that draws upon religious sources, and that one of the accused men received a harsher sentence than the others, based on having written an “heretical text” which dealt with Islamic texts in support of same-sex contact, goes to prove this point.

The biggest issue with Massad’s book, however, is its potentially dangerous political consequences. Massad tries to distance himself from the consequences of his work by declaring that it is not his intent to empower conservative forces of sexual politics and morality. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that it feeds into the idea – promoted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi among many others – that homosexuality (or alternative sexualities that are referred to as “against nature”) has no place in the Arab world, and that marginalization and persecution therefore is legitimated. Well-intentioned as Massad may be, his thesis is of no help to the men, mostly belonging to an already disenfranchised working class, who suffer political violence based on their objects of desire. Massad holds that historically alternative sexualities in the Arab world have been tolerated-if-kept- hidden, and that increasing violence can be connected to increasing visibility. The contention that such violence had not been suffered if these men had kept their sexuality hidden is rather insidious, as argued by Queer Islamicist Erica Li Lundqvist: “Silence, and in particular silencing, has throughout history been a successful tool and controlling mechanism for societies to keep certain behaviors at bay and dissident people in the margin.”


Hasso, Frances S. 2011. ”Desiring Arabs [Review].” Journal of the History of Sexuality 652-656.

Kulick, Don. 2003. “No.” Language & Communication 139–151.

Li Lundqvist, Erica. 2013. ”Gayted Communities: Marginalized Sexualities in Lebanon.” Lund Studies in History of Religions. Lund: Centre for Theology and Religious Studies.

Massad, Joseph. 2007. Desiring Arabs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Massad, Joseph. 2002. ”Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World.” Public Culture 361-385.

Ze’evi, Dror. 2008. ”Desiring Arabs [Review].” American Historical Review 1480-1481.

About the Author

- Co-founder and writer for the MENA Magazine, chairperson for the Swedish MENA-Association, and former Director of Studies for Middle Eastern Studies at Stockholm University. MPhil candidate at the University of Cambridge. Mostly writes about Arab media, gender, politics and popular culture.

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