Feeling “sheiky”?

Jennie King Mellon Library, "Bedouin Sheik," Flickr, c.1880-90
Jennie King Mellon Library, "Bedouin Sheik," Flickr, c.1880-90

The sheik or desert romance category is dominated by American authors these days but this was not always the case. The British invented the desert romance subgenre in the early 1900s with novels such as Robert Hichens’ The Garden of Allah (1904). E.M. Hull famously transformed both the subgenre as well as (arguably) the romance genre when The Sheik was published in 1919 and turned into a film starring Rudolph Valentino in 1921. Sheik novels were popular in the 1920s but fell out of fashion by the end of the decade. They would not be revived until Mills & Boon published Violet Winspear’s Blue Jasmine in 1969. Winspear and other British romance novelists produced a handful of sheik romances in the 1970s and 1980s, but most American novelists did not jump on the desert bandwagon until the 1990s.

Barbara Faith, however, was one of the earliest American romance novelists to write sheik romance novels, beginning in the mid-1980s. Barbara Faith de Covarrubias (1921-1995) produced over 40 romance novels during her lifetime, winning a RITA Award in 1982. She wrote five desert romances under the Silhouette imprint: Bedouin Bride (1984), Desert Song (1984), Flower of the Desert (1986), Lion of the Desert (1991), and Desert Man (1994). Faith’s first sheik novel uses leitmotifs familiar from Hull’s The Sheik. The hero of Bedouin Bride, Rashid Ben Hasir, is harsh, domineering, arrogant, patriarchal, considers women to be property, and doesn’t mind if they remain veiled. Rashid kidnaps Katherine and incarcerates her in his Moroccan desert palace, forces her to dress like a Moroccan woman, and rapes her (but she enjoys it, of course, because it allows her to luxuriate in sex without the guilt of giving in to Rashid). However, Rashid ultimately repents of his actions, undergoes a change of heart, and releases her. Love humbles Rashid and transforms him, giving Katherine power over him.

There is no doubt that Faith’s desert romance perpetuates Orientalist discourse as Edward Said delineated this concept in his landmark work of 1978. In many ways, the Middle East is represented as the West’s “inferior Other”—a place where gender relations are deeply unequal, women have few rights or professional opportunities, and Muslim men are shown to be aggressive, ruthless, oversexed, and sometimes cruel in their treatment of women.

In her desert romances, Faith acknowledges the cultural difficulties to be overcome when an American woman falls in love with a Moroccan man. Yet she also challenges the dichotomy between West and East, showing that Muslim men and their families had more in common with Americans than might first appear. In Flower of the Desert (1986), the sequel to Bedouin Bride featuring Katherine and Rashid’s daughter Jasmine, the family ride out to the Moroccan desert to live with their Bedouin relatives. When Jasmine finds the women have little say in the affairs of the tribe, she is outraged. She tells them that not all Muslim women lead such lives. Moroccan women in the cities “go to universities and many of them work. A lot of them aren’t even veiled.” In fact, “Women in Morocco and in almost every country in the world have demanded and received equality with men. They are lawyers and doctors and heads of state, engineers and astronauts” (134-135). Parts of the urbanized Muslim world are not so different from the West, Faith suggests.

Jasmine urges the Bedouin women to rebel and go on a labour and sexual strike, following Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. After all, what have they got to lose? Their menfolk might get angry, but “Don’t tell me they’d beat you because I don’t believe it. I’ve been here for almost two weeks and I’ve never seen any of your husbands raise a hand to you” (136). In this novel, Moroccan men dote on their families, particularly their wives and daughters. In Jasmine’s own experience, both her Moroccan father and grandfather “could turn a grown man pale with a look, but all she’d ever had to do to get her own way was to let her lower lip start to tremble” (16-17).

Why is this representation of Muslim men and Moroccan culture important? When Faith was writing in the mid-1980s, American cartoons, comics, advertisements, television shows, and movies universally portrayed Arabs as evil characters and denigrated Muslim culture. American popular fiction perpetuated “the common stereotype [that] Arabs and Muslims are indolent, prone to violence, deceptive, dirty, and given to excesses, whether of a sexual, financial or rhetorical nature” (Cristison 1987). The overwhelmingly negative image of Arabs in America was so marked that ABC News correspondent John Cooley commented in 1983 that “Arabs are probably still the only group in the U.S that anyone dares to portray in pejorative terms. This kind of thing would never be tolerated by other ethnic groups in the United States—Italians, Jews, Blacks, Irishmen, whatever.”

However Orientalist these sheik novels might be (and many scholars such as Emily Haddad, Amy Burge, Jessica Taylor, and Evelyn Bach have discussed this in their academic work, as I have in mine), the fact remains that Faith’s romance novels stand out for treating the sheik hero like any other Western romantic hero, and for insisting on the humanity, love, kindness, generosity, close bonds, and sheer normalcy of Muslim families.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin.

Christison, Kathleen. 1987. “The Arab in Recent Popular Fiction.” Middle East Journal 41: 397-411.

Hsu-Ming Teo

Hsu-Ming Teo is affiliated with Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, and is the author of Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels. Find out more about Hsu-Ming Teo.

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