Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, November 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0815632375, $34.95. 225 pages.
Review by Andrea Duranti, University of Cagliari, Italy
“One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one”, wrote Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, a work that changed forever the way of considering that “creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine” through an accurate and thorough multidisciplinary analysis of the condition of women in the human society. More modestly, yet not less effectively, Masculine Identity in the Fiction of the Arab East since 1967 aims at opening a window on a relatively new field of study, namely the analysis of the plural paradigms of masculinities in several countries of the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq), using the literary fiction produced in these nations as a primary source.
On one hand, the originality of this appreciable work lies in the inauguration of a new vein of research in the field of gender studies applied to the Middle East, as most of the existing studies in this area are focused on women’s conditions or, in case of male-oriented studies, on homoeroticism and homosexuality in Arabic classic literature or in the contemporary societies. Samira Aghacy’s work on the homosocial but heterosexual Middle Eastern men represents, in this regard, a new and praiseworthy piece of scholarship that fills in an epistemological gap.
On the other hand, another outstanding peculiarity of this work lies in the innovative perspective that reconnects the development of specific typologies of masculinities to the troubled history of wars – and defeats – in the Middle Eastern area since 1967, with particular regard to the reaffirmation of a violent, patriarchal model of man, who exerts his power – and abuses of it – within the domestic environment as a kind a “compensation” both to the ban from the public sphere imposed by the dictatorships which rule those countries and to the sense of impotence and defeat in the aftermath of the Arab Waterloo of the Six-Day War, an Epicurean “lathe biosas” that, far from being canalized into the development of a refined culture, revives the Mediterranean myths of patriarchy and of familiar violence described in the novels of Italian writers like Gavino Ledda or Ignazio Silone. Aghacy writes that “since war is generally considered a quintessential male affair, a history of defeats in successive wars in the area destabilized men’s views of themselves and their central role in society” (6).
From a structural point of view, the book is subdivided into four chapters, whose evocative – albeit sometimes deceptive – titles, inspired by Greek tragedies and their psychoanalytical reinterpretation, guide the reader through the discovery of novels which are almost unknown in the West. The first chapter, “Oedipus King: Tortured Masculinity,” examines the literary representation of the most traditional patriarchal paradigm that seems to echo the concept of the male as a “stuprator” (rapist) described by Eva Cantarella in her notable study on masculinity in the classic world (Bisexuality in the Ancient World) with regard to the Ancient Rome, with a major difference. If the young Roman men were grown up as “conquerors” (both in a military and in a sexual sense), then the main characters of the novels here analyzed are frustrated conquerors who fail to exert a substantial control on the surrounding world and on their subjects (women – wives and daughters – and sons), as in Zilal ‘ala al-nafidha (“Shadows on the Window”), by the Iraqi writer Gha’ib To‘mi Faraman. Gender polarization and an archetypal depiction of a homosocial order, as such as a crude description of male violence, are recurring elements in these works, features of a challenged masculine identity that reacts with anger to the weakening of men’s role in the family and society.
The next chapter, “The Politics of Masculinity: Goal-(Dis)Oriented Masculinity,” deals with a different paradigm, or, better, with a series of paradigms, related to the role of intellectuals in the Arab societies: intellectuels engagées arguing for armed revolution, mouthpieces of a regime, or disenchanted Epicurean-Hellenistic writers committed to the representation of subjective and private dramas, they share the belief in the power of the Word to change the World or to represent a refuge, an “ivory tower” against the World itself. A particular relevance in these novels is given to the character of the feda’i, the Arab militant soldier, “whose defiant valor and firmness of purpose will liberate the vanquished land” (57), definitely a heroic figure that, countering to “Oedipus King”, becomes the homo faber of his own destiny and of the fate of his country, making history with his hands. This is a phallocentric model in which women have the ancillary role of providing stability, fertility and care to the hero – “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”, would say John Berger.
Then, Aghacy reprises, in a chapter titled “Dictator as Patriarch: The State and the (Dys)Functional Male,” the theme of emasculation already discussed in the first section of the book, focusing on the political “castration” of the dissidents and their imprisonment. The concept of masculinity as “activity” against female “passivity” returns here with particular regard to the monopolization by the State of the male features and of the femalization (i.e. passivization) of the whole population of subjects. The depiction of the humiliating torture of political prisoners assumes, on this regard, a strong albeit ambivalent symbolical value, of annihilation of the proactive attitude of the dissident, submitted, even sexually, by a hangman who metonymically represents the “male State” (or “sado/state”); nevertheless, the resistance of the tortured man can also acquire the value of a last heroic resistance (“a badge of courage”) against the emasculation imposed by the dictatorial rule.
Finally, completing an ideal path, with the fall of the King (“Oedipus Deposed: The Man’s Sex(uality)”), Aghacy focuses on a series of novels that challenge both the patriarchal and the heroic paradigms, evidencing the fragility of masculine identities in a post-war world, made vulnerable by the consequences of the armed conflicts that stained with blood the whole Middle Eastern region. Mutilated and disabled former soldiers, men who envy the fate of women for their being “outside history” (namely far from the political and military struggle), insecure and women dependent men are the typical characters described in the novels analyzed in the final, and, in my opinion, more interesting chapter.
Altogether, this work doubtlessly deserves words of appreciation both for the innovativeness of its perspectives, as formerly discussed, and for the theoretical effort of its author in offering a thorough and consistent framework to a remarkable number of novels from different countries, while the solid bibliography reported in the references evidences Aghacy’s mastery of the field. Yet this book represents a starting point for a new field of research, one that should be deepened not only by Western scholars but, first and foremost, by Middle Eastern men themselves. Indeed, if in the francophone Morocco a first attempt of breaking the taboos was made by the psychologist Abdelhak Serhane with his essay L’Amour circoncis, discussing the masculine sexuality in the Middle East still represents a wall hard to be destroyed.