The Sheik and the Vixen

State Library of South Australia, "Bridget Darmody on a camel," Flickr, 1892
State Library of South Australia, "Bridget Darmody on a camel," Flickr, 1892.

The contemporary sheik romance novel tends to ignore the real countries of the Middle East. We get mythical sheikdoms and principalities: Sedikhan, Manasia, Kaljukistan, Marakite, Bahania, Tamir, El Zafir, Beharrain, Al Ankhara, etc. Elizabeth Mayne’s The Sheik and the Vixen (1996) is an exception. Set in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the First Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), it grapples with geopolitical realities in an unusually complex way.

As the novel begins, Haley Bennett—our entrepreneurial Texan heroine—is flying a plane that she designed to Kuwait, personally delivering it to a Kuwaiti sheik. “Call it a vendetta,” she tells her father: “A strike back at purdah.” The sheik has about 20 sons, she explains, and although all of them were “educated at Oxford, Harvard and Yale. . . None of his daughters have been.” She wants this “conservative Muslim sheik” to know that with the right education, “a woman can do as fine a job as a man” (11-12).

Unfortunately, Haley arrives on August 2, 1990, just as Saddam Hussein’s forces invade and bomb Kuwait City. She fights off Iraqi MiGs, aided by a skilful Kuwaiti flying an F-15. The pilot is our hero, Sheik Zayn Haji Haaris, one of those 20 well-educated sons. He forces her to land in Saudi Arabia, where she is arrested, despite her protest that “I’m an American citizen, you barbarian!” (19).

Cover art, The Sheik and the Vixen, 1996, Elizabeth Mayne, Silhouette Books

Elizabeth Mayne, The Sheik and the Vixen (cover), Silhouette Books, 1996.

Sheik Zayn places Haley under house arrest in his palace, both for her own safety and because Saudi laws do not permit women to drive cars or roam unescorted by male relatives. Countless sheik romances have decried the limitations placed on women in “Arab” and “Muslim” contexts, but this one describes the laws of a specific country—Saudi Arabia—and refuses to generalize about Arab cultures and countries or Islam. It’s equally remarkable in its treatment of the invasion. Sheik Zayn tells Haley, for example, that although it was probably due to Kuwait’s wealth and oil, United States policy may have been partly responsible: “It has been implied by your government that we Arabs do not have the right to set the price on oil from our wells, that we must sell oil at the price America is willing to pay” (63-64). He describes the fear generated, not just by the invasion, but by the American response. “At this very moment,” he says,

your president is telling King Fahd that American forces must be allowed to take over the defense of Saudi Arabia… There have been threats from Washington that we must shut down Iraqi pipelines through Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Your government’s assistance in this, an Arab problem, has been refused, but should your government go through with its threats to place soldiers in Saudi Arabia, there will be grave repercussions. This is Arab land and we will not surrender it… (63-64).

In contemporary sheik romance novels, the white Western heroine usually saves the day, especially for Muslim women and children. The Sheik and the Vixen subverts this motif. Because Haley’s father and uncle are trapped in Kuwait, she marries Sheik Zayn and travels there under his diplomatic passport and protection. While there, she arranges for Kuwaiti women and children to be delivered to her family’s airport hangar, commandeering a rickety plane to fly them to safety. When she returns to Kuwait to rescue her husband, however, he rebukes her. “You got a rush, didn’t you?” he asks.

A great big ego boost to your head all because you flew a forty-year-old plane jammed with a hundred frightened children out of Kuwait. How fortunate we third worlders are to have Americans to our rescue! … I want you to know…that over ten thousand people, and more than half of those, very young children, have passed through this embassy in the past five days. All have been transported safely out of Kuwait and into Saudi Arabia without risking a single life… You listened to gossip and came to your own conclusions. (p.180)

Rather than save the day, our gung-ho American heroine turns out to have put everyone in unnecessary danger.

Over the last decade, a significant number of romance novels have engaged with American foreign policy, combining love plots with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and their aftermath. Elizabeth Mayne’s The Sheik and the Vixen stands out for its awareness of how those in the Middle East might view American ignorance of and arrogance toward their countries, cultures, and customs. As Sheik Zayn learns to value women’s independence and initiative, Haley, too, learns the pitfalls of national and cultural chauvinism. It’s a distinctively cross-cultural, interreligious variation on the theme of “sheik romance.”

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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