Close the Tent and Dim the Lights

by Mohammed Shamma

Before I dive into that title, I’d like to give you a little taste, a little peek into my first experience with the big “O.”  I first discovered that word when I was twenty.  I was a junior in college, starting my fifth and final major, Middle Eastern Studies.  Before that, I tried Engineering, Business and Kinesiology.  The lectures in the engineering classes were very logical and practical.  There was too much theory, guessing games so to speak.  And might I add there was not a girl in sight.  I was suffocating.  Let’s just say I wanted a more balanced approach to college than circuit design and fluid dynamics.  When I told my advisor, “I think I’m more business inclined,” he didn’t even flinch.  He merely signed my change of major form and yelled out “Next!” before I had a chance to leave his office.

It didn’t matter.  I was too excited about learning how to make money.  That’s what girls wanted anyway, right? The minute I walked into the business school, I could smell the perfume from all the female students dressed in their power suits for mock job interviews.  I knew I was in the right place.  The only problem was that all the classes were full.  I was stuck taking introduction to Management Information Systems.

“What the h-e-double-toothpicks!” I groaned to myself.  I just left nerd central for more geeky stuff.  What was I going to do?  I scanned the schedule of classes while the Professor blah-blah-blah-ed about Word Processors, Spreadsheets and Databases.  This was all before the Web was around, for you young ones out there.  😉

I could barely handle a semester of that before I decided to head for greener pastures.  That’s when I chose, Kinesiology.  The first class I had to take was Human Anatomy.  “Oh yeah!”  This should be good.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t.  The only bodies we looked at were dead cows.  I was mortified.

To make a long story, well, less long, I ended up in Anthropology of the Middle East, taught by Deborah Kapchan.  The first reading assignment was this book whose cover was written in this font that reminded me of the calculus curves in my engineering classes.  It also had a picture of some bearded old Muslim dude and his slaves watching a naked boy dance with a snake.  And it looked like it was all happening in a mosque!  I was stunned.  Freaky and creepy, I thought to myself.  This should be interesting.  And another thing, did I also mention that I didn’t know anything about the Middle East?  I had no idea what ride I was about to take.

Well that big “O” turned out to be the book Orientalism, by Edward Said.  Not what you were thinking?  Sorry.  I guess you’ll have to read Fifty Shades of Grey for that other one.  But wait, there’s more.  Professor Kapchan, unlike all of my other instructors, was the touchy feely type, not in a creepy way, but in an Anthropology professor way.  She had us turn our chairs in a circle and face each other like equals while we talked about what we “thought” of Edward Said’s ideas.  I didn’t have much to say.  I was still reeling from the energy that I received from just knowing that someone out there understood me.  But again, not in a way you might think.

I remember thinking to myself, this Orientalism stuff sounds too familiar.  I felt some sort of kinship, a close bond with the concept.  Then it hit me.  These guys like Edward Lane and Gustave Flaubert, weren’t comfortable in their own shoes, or in their own country.  They escaped England and France and ran off to be in a love-hate relationship with the people, places and culture of the Middle East.  They were driving fast camels and chasing desert beauties.  Only to find that it wouldn’t last.  I thought to myself, I know someone like that.  My Mom.

That’s where Hsu-Ming Teo’s wonderful book, Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels begins.  In it, she offers an exhaustive look at how the West has essentially “loved” the Orient in the most common and least respected of literary places, the romance novel.  The centerpiece of her work is E.M. Hull’s The Sheik.  In 1919, it became an instant bestseller and was quickly made into a film, starring Rudolph Valentino.  The book and movie created a “sheik fever,” that went on for about ten years spawning more books and movies about the Orient and it’s promise of sexual and romantic fulfillment.  Take that E.L. James!

How does this relate to me?  Well, in 1952, Letha Faye Swope, a West Texas small cotton-town girl of thirteen experienced two events that changed her life forever.  Receiving her first pair of glasses and a letter from the man she would marry twelve years later.  The letter was from Cairo and was in response to her application sent to Pen Friends International.  Those twelve years were by no means perfect.  They shared heated exchanges about their opinions and ideas on Jesus and Mohammed, Eisenhower and Nasser, freedom and communism.  There were even breaks in their correspondence.  One break occurred that was so long and deep, my father vowed never to write to her again and shortly thereafter got engaged to his boss’ daughter.  My mom knew how to take care of that “other” woman.  She killed that relationship with her kindness.  To make a long story, well, less long, she bought a one-way ticket to Egypt and married my father a week after she arrived.  The rest is history.

Seriously however, Desert Passions is a delight to read because it explores something that Said failed to address, the intervention of Western female writers and “feminist Orientalism,” a discourse of assessing objectionable aspects of life in the West as “Eastern” and whose social and political function is intended to “transform” Western society.  The book goes on to explore the rise and history of the Orientalist Romance novel, with specific emphasis on sheik romance, tourist turned traveler, terrorism, harems, heroines and heroes.  The last chapter seems pleasantly out of place for an academic work.  It covers reader responses from online forums trying to understand why the “sheik fever” is still simmering in the post 9-11 era.  In it Hsu-Ming Teo quotes the well-known Harlequin author Liz Fielding:  readers want a man that is “totally in control of his world, at one with his environment.  Commanding, dynamic…and yes, passionate.  He is like a Latin or Greek lover squared.”

Realistic?  I think not.  But that’s what the Romance Genre is all about.  Let’s can turn the lights back on and open the tent to reality here.  While I do know how to calculate the square root of a number, I’m not about to tell you (at least not here) how I compare to Latin or Greek lovers.  Does changing my major five times make me in control of my world?  I don’t drive a hybrid, so that counts me out of the environment part also.  And my kids won’t listen to me, so I must not be commanding either.  So maybe I’ll say that I’m passionate.  Yes.  I’m very passionate.  I’m passionate about books and art, the very marrow of life.


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Mohammed Shamma is a writer/illustrator living in Berkeley, California with his wife and two kids. His story, “Echoes” was published in Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy. Read more about his work at: or connect with him on Twitter at @mohammed_shamma.


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Latest Comments

  1. Rin says:

    Wow, I love romance novels, I’m writing one, but I have to disagree. Sheikh novels are not empowering. They reprise the savage trope because the sheikh is often a kidnapper. He’s often half or completely white to make him more appealing and/or safe to white readers with fears or disapproval of Arabs. Whiteness is idealized. The white heroine drives the hero mad with her red or blonde hair; her superiority’s even explicit sometimes when it’s written he’s never loved anyone like her before. She has no rivals or else, they fail spectacularly.

    1. Rin says:

      Nothing against you or even these novels. I look at them as fantasy. But please don’t paint them as our salvation or feminist. They are just old-fashioned Orientalist.

      1. Hsu-Ming Teo says:

        Hi Rin, I agree with you that (i) these novels are fantasy and (ii) they are not women’s salvation, nor do they necessarily set out to empower women. They do, however, make use of the liberal feminist agenda to create white heroines who “save” oppressed “brown” women and this is deeply problematic.

        The issue is not that these novels are feminist; it is that, traditionally, liberal feminism has often been Orientalist – something feminists themselves increasingly recognize. (See Antoinette Burton’s book “Burdens of History”, or Joanna Liddle and Shirin Rai’s essay “Feminism, Imperialism and Orientalism: the challenge of the ‘Indian woman”.)

        Another point I try to make in Desert Passions is that the books within this subgenre are really diverse. There are many examples of the kind of plot and characters you mention in your first post. However, there are also others which critique the very tropes you mention.

        Good luck with your own romance novel!

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