Amira Jarmakani, An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror. New York: New York University Press, 2015.
J: What made you write this book?
Amira Jarmakani (AJ): The impetus for this book came when a dear friend and colleague, Evelyn Alsultany, sent me a link to a website called “Sheikhs and Desert Love.” The website, which now appears to be defunct, was operated by desert romance fan Erika Wittlieb from 2001-2007 and then seems to have been operated by Amazon for a few years. The latter shift demonstrates the popularity of desert romances (in other words, it was lucrative enough for Amazon to want to capture the desert romance fans who were visiting the site). At its height, the website catalogued so-called “desert romances”—mass-market romance novels featuring a sheikh, sultan, or desert prince as the primary (alpha male) hero. Though I did not have much experience with mass-market romance novels at the time, I was intrigued by the fact that sheikh-heroes had experienced a rise in popularity after the events of 11 September 2001. After investigating a bit, I was even more interested to discover that romance readers and writers alike denied any relationship between the increased popularity of this sub-genre and the concurrent war on terror. Despite this denial (which I would come to understand as disavowal), the desert romances themselves clearly engaged with the war on terror through plot twists that involved WMDs, uranium-enriching antagonists, and terrorist threats to the sheikh hero.
The sheikh has a long history as a caricature in US popular culture and, though his aggressive, potent virility is common in the realm of romance novels, what makes him curious is his steady rise in popularity in the intervening years since 11 September 2001. Because this same time period has seen a rise in depictions of Arab masculinity as violent and backward, it has provoked disbelief even within the romance novel industry that an Arab male—overwhelmingly associated with terrorism in the contemporary US-Anglo context—could serve as an object of erotic desire. If romance novels have long been the subject of vibrant feminist inquiry, the increased popularity of the sheikh character in mass-market romances in recent years suggests that they also have something to tell us about contemporary US imperialism, particularly as exemplified in the war on terror.
Not all romance fans enjoy the sheikh-hero. In fact, most do not. When I started investigating the sub-genre—by reading the novels, attending the 2008 Romance Writers of America conference, and following major romance blogs—I discovered that many readers attributed their dislike of the sheikh to the fact that the “reality” of violence and terrorism in the Middle East was too present for them to be able to fantasize about an Arab or Muslim hero. Because of this perceived surfeit of reality surrounding the sheikh-hero, authors have had to craft their desert romances in ways that can maintain a believable romantic fantasy for at least some readers. Precisely because of this inherent tension between fantasy and reality in the novels, they (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrate how fantasy and reality are co-constitutive in upholding the war on terror.
Desert romances are overwhelmingly set in fictionalized Arabia, a landscape I describe as “Arabiastan” for reasons explained in the book. As if to corroborate the argument that desert romances bear no relation to actual events, virtually every novel takes place in a country invented by the author, and the creation of fictional settings is one of the key tactics authors use to circumvent the surfeit of reality that threatens the viability of the sheikh-hero. Another tactic the authors employ is to use distinct ethnic, cultural, and religious markers to exoticize sheikhs without overtly racializing them or associating them with terrorists. Consequently, desert romances speak directly about race, gender, and religion, even as they claim to be universal and “color-blind” fantasy stories.
Desert romances therefore offer a unique perspective on the war on terror through their development of an under-analyzed figure: the liberal-enlightened Arab leader who chooses to ally with the US in the war on terror. Precisely because desert romances must combat what the general reader thinks she already knows about the reality of the Middle East in order to operate as fantasy narratives, they demonstrate how desire—at the collective, social level—mobilizes and animates contemporary US hegemony. As fantasy narratives that nevertheless obliquely reference reality, desert romances serve as immensely useful indirect articulations of the way that desire motivates contemporary technologies of imperialism mobilized in the war on terror. Focusing on the three specific imperialist technologies of security, freedom, and liberal multiculturalism, An Imperialist Love Story demonstrates romance to be a salient lens through which to understand how the war on terror works, and how it perseveres.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AJ: The book mainly takes up the topic of the war on terror in order to ask what fuels it. An Imperialist Love Story argues that desire operates as a primary means of perpetuating the war on terror. Though the US has clearly used overt forms of imperialism as a tactic in the war on terror—for example, in the invasion and occupation of Iraq—desert romances perhaps inadvertently chart some of the more covert tactics of contemporary US imperialism, namely those coded with positive or humanitarian connotations. The book argues that contemporary US imperialism adapts the structure of a love story. Cultivating the desire for security and stability so common to classic romantic narratives, the imperialist love story orients us toward willing subjugation to imperialist power, an orientation that enables the war on terror to persevere.
In desert romances, the architecture of imperialism in the war on terror manifests in a desire for wholeness that resonates simultaneously at the levels of the individual and of the state. Through its own self-presentation as a stable and benevolent force, the nation-state installs and magnifies the desire for hegemony, as exemplified through its key technologies. Another key concern of the book, then, is to understand contemporary US imperialism by investigating how it functions. I argue that it does so by deploying three technologies of imperialism —security, freedom, and liberal multiculturalism (described in chapters one, two, and three, respectively)—which obscure their own repressive nature while simultaneously training the characters of desert romances and subjects of the state to desire them. Through the example of the war on terror, the three technologies are alive and well in most desert romances. I demonstrate that the first technology, the quest for security, actually cultivates more violence and insecurity. The second technology bills itself as freedom, when it is actually about submission. The third technology masquerades as an exercise in tolerance and respect for differences, when it actually aims to manage, tame, and discipline difference. The final chapter of the book investigates the ambivalent architecture of desire in the imperialist war on terror, focusing on how it shores itself up through the promise of wholeness as exemplified in the framework of the love story. If the three technologies of imperialism reveal how desire can be oriented toward hegemony, the structure of the love story reveals how desire for hegemony can be perpetuated: the narrative drive toward wholeness trains desire to invest in the teleology of the stable, happily-ever-after ending.
As a book focused on romance novels, and popular literature more generally, An Imperialist Love Story is situated at the intersection of cultural studies and popular romance studies. In this sense, it is interested in the broad question of how everyday (popular) culture both shapes and is shaped by larger collective concerns. In short, it takes romance novels seriously and understands them as rich cultural artifacts through which one can chart, in this case, popular engagement with the war on terror.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
AJ: Working in the fields of Arab American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies while employing cultural studies methods, my research generally focuses on gendered orientalist formations in US popular culture. My first book, Imagining Arab Womanhood: The Cultural Mythology of Veils, Harems, and Belly Dancers in US Popular Culture, investigates popular representations of Arab and Muslim womanhood in US popular culture in order to understand how they function as cultural mythologies. It argues that orientalist representations of Arab and Muslim womanhood—the most common among them being those that could fall into the broad categories of the veil, the harem, and the belly dancer—operate as myths that have served to both shore up US anxieties related to expansionism and modernity as well as to justify US military action in the Middle East. An Imperialist Love Story extends my earlier work by continuing to ask questions about the stories told in US popular culture about the Middle East, while shifting toward more of a focus on masculinity (through the figure of the sheikh-hero) and on the war on terror and US imperialism. It also takes up a different set of materials, since it works with romance novels along with supporting blogs in the romance industry. It therefore remains within the field of cultural studies while moving away from a primary focus on visual materials.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AJ: Everyone wishes for their book to have the widest readership possible, and along these lines the book appeals most broadly to anyone interested in the war on terror and the stories we tell about it. In terms of scholarly conversations, the book engages with the fields of Middle East studies; cultural studies; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; critical ethnic studies; and, of course, Arab American studies.
In terms of impact, the book aims to intervene in, and contribute to, broad discussions about the contours of contemporary US imperialism. It considers contemporary US imperialism to operate through the three technologies of security, freedom, and liberal multiculturalism (mentioned above). These three technologies orient subject-citizens to the presumably positive values of security, freedom, and liberal multiculturalism, while actually operating in a way that undermines the basic tenets of these values. One way to think about this phenomenon is through the common trope of US exceptionalism (that is, the idea that the US is exceptional in its defense of liberal-democratic freedom and respect for multiculturalism)—when one looks closer at the framework of US exceptionalism during the war on terror, it becomes clear that it often works through a state-of-exception logic, which actually curtails civil liberties in the name of freedom and security.
The book could be adapted for a wide range of teaching contexts—from courses focused on militarization and the Middle East; to those focused on popular culture, romance novels, and cultural studies; to those interested in questions of US imperialism. I am currently developing an Instructor’s Guide to be released in conjunction with the book. It will offer additional resources, sample assignments, and discussion questions for use in the classroom, and additional explanations of some of the more technical and theoretical terms used in the book. The guide will be available and downloadable (free of charge) on the New York University press website.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AJ: One immediate project that builds on the book is an article about the etymology of the phrase “weapons of mass destruction.” Because WMDs appear in desert romances as a popular term, it got me thinking about the various valences the term has, what it has come to mean, and what kind of myth is built around it. For example, despite the preponderance of evidence that WMDs were not present in Iraq when the US invaded in 2003, the threat of WMDs still has tremendous power in narratives about the war on terror. The article explores how WMDs have been reterritorialized, both in terms of shifting attachments to geographical territories (that is, the use of these types of weapons in the domestic US context, for example in Ferguson), and in terms of what it means. For example, while earlier definitions focused on biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, in the last decade it has become more capacious to include high explosive weapons and cyberattacks.
Another, more long-term project, is focused on comparative orientalisms in the Americas. Belly dancing has enjoyed a surge in popularity in South America, as evidenced by its appearance in popular telenovelas (for example, El Clon) and in performances by the famous pop singer Shakira. Like the recent belly dance craze in the United States, the popularity of belly dance in South America seems to be linked, at least in part, to its marketability as a trendy new form of exercise. What distinguishes it from the phenomenon in the United States, however, is a parallel interest in flamenco that valorizes narratives of authenticity (a narrative replicated in popular engagements with belly dancing). Looking comparatively at the interest in flamenco and belly dance leads to a set of questions about their transnational trajectories: How do the connections between Spanish and Muslim cultural formations in Andalusia manifest, if at all, in a country like Argentina that has both a legacy of Spanish colonialism and a history of significant Middle Eastern immigration? How are these dance forms marketed in a way to capitalize on the narrative of a search for authentic roots? New scholarship on the Moorish Atlantic has uncovered some interesting and fruitful intersections of what Ella Shohat calls the “discovery doctrine”—a form of settler colonialism forged in Andalusia and deployed to the Americas. The framework of comparative orientalisms in the Americas therefore enables critical inquiry into the concept of settler colonialism as understood through the paradigm of the discovery doctrine.
J: How do you see your emphasis on popular romance as providing an opportunity to think differently about questions related to the so-called "war on terror"?
AJ: The book’s emphasis on romance novels and fantasy provides another angle of interpretation. Shifting away from fear as the primary frame of reference for the war on terror, which is a preoccupation fueled by the logic of the security state, the book turns toward desire. It asks: How are citizen-subjects oriented toward oppressive policies (like increased surveillance) as necessary and even appealing? How are they trained to desire hegemony (in the form of curtailed civil liberties, for example)?
The scope of the book’s argument reaches far beyond a strict focus on the desert romances themselves. To be clear, despite their increased popularity after 9/11, desert romances are not widely popular in comparison to other subgenres in the industry. Consequently, An Imperialist Love Story does not argue that desert romances are directly representative of larger cultural associations with the war on terror. Instead, it argues that the whole range of identifications, disavowals, and rejections of the sheikh-hero are broadly reflective of a complex set of cultural associations and identifications with the war on terror.
Rather than directly expressing the US view of the war on terror, desert romances indirectly articulate that which cannot be said: they offer a glimpse into the way that desire motivates contemporary technologies of imperialism as manifested in the war on terror. They do this precisely because of the exemplary ways in which they must negotiate the boundaries between fantasy and reality in representations of the sheikh-hero. Though the sheikh has a long history as romance hero, reaching all the way back to E. M. Hull’s 1919 novel The Sheik, contemporary desert romances have had to find ways of clearly distinguishing the sheikh-hero from popular associations with the fanatically violent Middle Eastern terrorist. In both the ways that they succeed in casting the sheikh as a hero in spite of powerful and overwhelming images of Arab and/or Muslim terrorists, and the ways they fail to make the sheikh desirable (for romance readers who repudiate the sheikh), the novels reveal a great deal about the imbrication of fantasy in the realities of the war on terror.
Romance novels are often denigrated as silly or trashy fantasies—escape narratives that bear no relation to reality. When accused of being naive and duped by the genre into leading an oppressed existence, avid romance readers often respond by explaining that the (usually feminist) critic is herself the dupe, since she assumes that the readers cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. At the same time, romance readers and writers also defend against the accusation that romance novels are trashy fluff by arguing that they learn a lot of historical and geographical facts by reading and/or writing them; indeed, good writers are deemed to be those who have done solid research and who get their historical and geographical details correct. In other words, defenders of the genre use both fantasy and reality as a means of validating the genre and of making it culturally meaningful. In so doing, they demonstrate that fantasy and reality are far from mutually exclusive; they are integrally, and sometimes inexplicably, bound up in one another. Because of the subgenre’s imagined (or disavowed) relationship to the war on terror, then, desert romances provide a means of investigating the way that often-unacknowledged fantasies guide and shape the realities of the war on terror.
Excerpt from An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror
From “Introduction: The Romantic Sheikh as Hero of the War on Terror”
A finger of fear stroked her spine as he advanced. His look intent, he radiated such masculine force that she doubted she could stop him. — Bonnie Vanak, The Sword and the Sheath
But even without looking directly at him she could feel the effect of the unleashed power and the blatantly sexual aura he radiated lying like a stone fist in her chest. — Kim Lawrence, Desert Prince, Defiant Virgin
His body tightened as if in preparation for attack, his emerald eyes radiating the intent. — Olivia Gates, To Touch a Sheikh
He was full of left-over nervous energy, enough to power his own nuclear weapons. — Linda Conrad, Secret Agent Sheik
A curious figure stalks the pages of a distinct subset of mass-market romance novels, aptly called desert romances. Animalistic yet sensitive, dark and sexy, this desert prince emanates manliness and raw sexual power. Though his aggressive, potent virility is common in the realm of romance novels, what makes him curious is his steady rise in popularity in the intervening years since 11 September 2001, years that have seen a concomitant, and dominant, rise in depictions of Arab masculinity as backward, particularly in relation to what is understood as a violent nature, and therefore as repulsive. In this respect, the figure of the sheikh-hero as a romantic figure demonstrates a set of ambivalent associations that thrive on the mix of violence or danger with the thrill of pleasure and desire. Indeed, this may be why the metaphor of radiation is put to much use in desert romances. Radiation invokes a potent reservoir of seemingly endlessly available and potentially dangerous energy. It is thrilling precisely for its potency; it remains on the exciting side of danger with reassurances (built into the overall plot narrative) that the heroine and the sheikh himself ultimately know how to harness and control his radioactive energy. Despite the “finger of fear [that] stroked [the heroine’s] spine” as the sheikh-hero approaches, despite the fear that she might not be able to stop him, even if she wants to—on the contrary, perhaps because of these things—the heroine is irresistibly drawn to the sheikh-hero. In these instances, her fear activates her desire—not because romance novels particularly appeal to duped, naive women, but because the books serve as abundantly fruitful materials for investigating how desire functions, particularly in relation to potent sociopolitical realities. The “nuclear weapons” that Sheikh Tarik in Secret Agent Sheik can power with his “left-over nervous energy,” it turns out, do not invoke terror in the heroine, which would be a logical response, given popular associations with Arab /Muslim men and nuclear weapons. She does not fear the sheikh-hero, because by this point in the plot, she has encountered the sheikh’s opposition—the real terrorists, who truly do seek nuclear power for evil means. The connection of the sheikh to nuclear weapons therefore serves as a way of highlighting his exceptionality. As a force of good, he has demonstrated himself to be allied with global US-Anglo powers that similarly seek to vanquish the terrorists. Radiation works as a powerful metaphor in this local example because of its ambivalent associations. The sheikh can simultaneously demonstrate his link to the thrill of risk and danger, while assuring the heroine that he has the ability to control the awesome power that radiation can release.
In this way, the novels’ invocations of radiation also reference contemporary discursive associations with radiation. If unleashed by the wrong hands, radiation can be globally catastrophic. Conversely, if organized and controlled by responsible, benevolent powers, it can be harvested as an alternative energy source beyond coal and oil, ensure global stability by keeping rogue forces in check, and even function as a palliative force in specific, focused medical contexts. Such narratives suggest that people must learn to subject themselves to the terrible power of radiation, even when they know about its potentially dangerous consequences. This book examines how people learn to submit to power through their own desire for subjugation. Radiation therefore also serves as a powerful metaphor for the larger concern of this book, which is to investigate how desire can serve as a primary engine to consolidate imperialist power, specifically in the power of the (US) nation-state to wage seemingly endless war. How does desire undergird the perpetuation of the war on terror, an operation that by its very name seems to be focused exclusively on fear?
The metaphor of radiation also invokes the realities of resource scarcity (and therefore energy scarcity). Though the Middle East is most commonly associated with oil as a key natural resource, the contemporary political and military focus on nuclear enrichment and on whether the goal of enrichment is to create energy or weapons demonstrates that radiation is at least equally as important. The prospect of resource scarcity seems to operate through the mechanism of fear—energy security is figured as central to national security, which is in turn oriented toward fear through its focus on defense. Security is conceived in terms of defending against those forces that may threaten it. This idea, however, fails to acknowledge that fear cannot function as subtly and effectively as desire in manufacturing consent. Hegemonic power here works by fomenting the desire for security and protection from that which is feared.
In both desert romances and mainstream narratives about the war on terror, the objects of fear are the evil forces who want to do harm to the protagonists because of their own spite, backwardness, or greed. Illuminated by the metaphor of radiation, then, desert romances demonstrate how desire works as a permeating, yet invisible, driving force of the war on terror on both a micropolitical and a macropolitical level. Stimulated by the thrill of danger, the protagonists in these stories learn that to be their own, true selves, they must subject themselves to love. While this basic plot description is characteristic of the romance genre as a whole, desert romances extend the love story to the context of the war on terror. These are love stories that play out on both the individual and the national levels—between both the sheikh-hero and the heroine and their respective countries. As the exceptional leader of his fictionalized Arab (or vaguely Middle Eastern) country, the sheikh-hero learns to love the (usually) US-Anglo heroine precisely because she can help him navigate an alliance with global superpowers; she, in turn, learns that subjecting oneself to the power of love is its own kind of freedom—one not captured by her liberal feminist orientation toward independence and equality. The hero and heroine’s love story necessarily also plays out on the world stage; in the narrative arc of the story, their coupling will literally lead toward world peace.
One reason desert romances increased in popularity after 9/11 is that they offer a supreme narrative obstacle—ethnic and cultural differences heightened by the threat of terrorism—that the characters must overcome to achieve a happy ending to their love story. What makes the stories remarkable objects of study is not that they portray a happily-ever-after ending between a sheikh and a US-Anglo heroine, but the way they do so—in the narrative choices the authors make to write successful romance novels. To be believable, the desert romances must engage with popular discourses about the war on terror, shifting the usual orientation of fear into one of desire. In orienting us toward desire, they demonstrate the war on terror, too, to be a classic, if imperialist, love story.
The imperialist love story of the war on terror does not have a happy ending—neither for the subjects of imperial power nor for its targets—despite the discursive energy expended on resolving the project of benevolent imperialism into a happy ending, or as corporate-bureaucratic speech might have it, a win-win situation. The lack of a happy ending, though, is nothing to lament. Reading the story with this realization can instead be an impetus for seeking an end to the war on terror, for freeing up the desires bounded by contemporary technologies of imperialism, and for spinning them toward truly liberatory aims.
 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1987); David Harvey, The New Imperialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[NOTE: The full introduction is available here.]
[Excerpted from Amira Jarmakani, An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror, by permission of the author. © 2015 by New York University. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]