Mohja Kahf and Nadine Sinno (eds.), Constructions of Masculinity in the Middle East and North Africa: Literature, Film, and National Discourse (Cairo and New York: American University of Cairo Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Mohja Kahf and Nadine Sinno (MK & NS): Let us start out by saying that we avoid the term “Middle Eastern” as a colonizer term. We explain in the book our preference for the more neutral geographic terms “Southwest Asian” and the acronym “SWANA” over “MENA.” For marketing reasons, understandably, the publishers could not go with that in our title, and we were flexible with them. However, we think that eschewing the term “Middle Eastern” which comes with a whole set of implicit Orientalizing connotations, and using a less familiar term, actually does some important work pertinent to the gender topic itself. 

Nicole Fares organized a Middle East Studies Association (MESA) panel about this topic, and her inspiring vision that it needed a whole volume propelled us to this project. Attendees of the panel were excited about the multidisciplinarity of the presentations and the ways the papers “talked to each other” despite the disparate fields of their writers. They were excited that the contribution on gayness challenged both Orientalizing narratives and local heteronormative narratives. We also felt that, generally speaking, books dedicated to the study of gender in SWANA tend to focus on women’s struggles, which are very important. However, it is equally crucial to talk about the challenges that men of the region experience, as well as the shifting notions of gender and sexuality with regard to Arab, Turkish, and Iranian masculinities—and the impact of such challenges, resistances, and societal changes on both men and women, as represented in cultural production.

There is a common notion that masculinity in the region is this one static thing. Otherwise intelligent people of the region itself will refer in passing to “the Middle Eastern man” as if there is some classic male model that remained unchanged until quite recently. It is the sort of manhood typified in the Syrian faux-historical series Bab al-Hara, for example, which utterly disrespected women and men of the Mandate era. That series perpetuated a nostalgic narrative for this sort of “honor”-preserving, highly patriarchal, utterly heteronormative masculinity as some sort of timeless “heritage.” One with strong associations with anti-imperialist nationalisms in the region, putting that sort of halo on this concept. Umpteen other texts push that narrative. That is all faux. We want to knock that pasteboard over. There were gay and gender-nonconforming men in every era of our societies in the region. Heteronormative men also always had to strategize choices about gender behavior to maximize privilege across an array of repercussions.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MK & NS: The essays in this multi-disciplinary volume examine constructions of hegemonic, marginalized, and non-normative masculinities in the SWANA region, through literary criticism, film studies, discourse analysis, and studies of military culture. The historical scope of the volume nicely spans colonial to postcolonial periods, but on balance more of the essays offer emphasis on the late-twentieth century to the contemporary period.

The book is particularly relevant to those seeking scholarship on masculinities in modern Arabic literature and Arabic literature in the diaspora. Contributions include textual analysis of literary works such as those of Rashid Al-Daif, Hoda Barakat, Najib Mahfouz, Zakariya Tamir, Hasan Nimr, Ahmad Danny Ramadan, Raja Shehadeh, and Ibrahim Nasrallah. Cinema is another strong contender, with contributors examining masculinities as represented in Tunisian, Iranian, and Palestinian film. Readers of cultural studies will be interested in sections offering gendered discursive analysis of British and Egyptian satirical journals in the 1870s and 1880s, the politics of work in Ottoman Beirut, and the dynamics of militarism in Turkey, Kurdish Iraq, and Jordan. The volume includes theory work that takes on Orientalist portrayals of Arab men in visual “gay tourism” discourse, and analysis of twentieth-century productions in North and South America.

Together, the essays depict how masculinity is being constructed, dismantled, and reconstructed in Southwest Asia (the “Middle East”) and North Africa.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MK & NS: Both of us have had longstanding research interests in women and gender studies, particularly postcolonial and Muslim feminism. Mohja’s work, whether creative or scholarly-academic, centers Arab feminism and postcolonial critique, such as her set of poems in the latest issue of Contemporary Levant that annotate women’s protest history in the Syrian Revolution through an anti-imperialist Syrian feminist lens. Nadine’s articles have explored issues including women’s imprisonment in Arabic literature, women’s blogging during times of war, and compulsory unveiling in France as represented in film. Gender, of course, also includes masculinities and so this work focuses more on Middle Eastern masculinities and the lived experiences of men, including queer masculinities.

This is the first edited volume for both of us, so this project allowed us to engage more closely with scholars whose work both intersects with and diverges from our own, and its interdisciplinarity gives us the opportunity to step outside our fields. We enjoyed bringing scholars from numerous disciplines together in a truly multidisciplinary dialogue through this volume, and we learned a lot about the amazing work that scholars are doing within and beyond our field as it relates to performances and representations of SWANA masculinities.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MK & NS: The target audience for our book is academic readers: scholars, professors, and students. The book will be vitally useful to scholars in the humanities with a focus on gender and sexuality research. By exploring masculinities, contributors unearth the ongoing resistances of marginalized identities to hegemonic masculinity—in the military, in civilian society, in cultural production. This study, gathering critical mass with others of its ilk on other regions as well as SWANA, can help to shore up the daring needed for imagining genders and human collectives arranged in ways that are more compassionate and ethical than the arrangements of today.

We also hope that academics will find this book an ally in their conversations with non-academic people in their lives, especially those “otherwise intelligent people” mentioned above who think that SWANA masculinity has been one unchanging thing. 

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

MK: I am currently working on the political and material histories of anti-Blackness in classical Arabic discourses, as well as on a comparative view of pre-modern writing in Arabic by women. Why is the Arabic writing of pre-modern women typically framed as scarce? I want to lay down a gauntlet that women’s writing in pre-modern Arabic literature is more prolific than women’s pre-modern writing in English, French, Greek, Latin, and other traditions that I have been able to survey, except perhaps Japanese. With regard to Arab anti-Black racism in the pre-modern literary and intellectual tradition, how can we overcome the narratives that work against recognizing it, while simultaneously dismantling Orientalist arguments about it?

NS: I am currently working on a research project dedicated to studying postwar graffiti and street art in Lebanon, in addition to co-translating two novels by Omani author Huda Hamed and Lebanese author Jabbour Douaihy.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, by Mohja Kahf, pp. 1-10)

Grassroots uprisings during 2011 in many Arabic-speaking countries as well as the 2009 Green Movement in Iran and the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey showed that a new wave of questioning is simmering in the millennial generation in the SWANA region, questioning that touches nearly everything about the status quo ante…. These highly charged moments show that gender role change is (again, and continually) breaking new frontiers in SWANA, with some men right in step with it and others vehemently pushing back. They also underline the need to bring research on men up to speed with research on women of SWANA.

Syrian queer folk and their allies were also a vital part of the early nonviolent uprising in the Syrian streets. In 2010, the Assad regime had arrested groups of gay men in sweeps in Damascus… Homophobia, though perhaps as present there as anywhere, was not a prominent characteristic of the nonviolent phase of the Syrian uprising. By 2012, after the uprising had begun to militarize, homophobia was evident in Syrian-grown armed rebel brigades and when, in 2013, Islamist extremists from Da’esh (ISIL) joined the armed rebellion, public executions for alleged homosexuality became their all-too-frequent practice….

In October 2017, well after the initial grassroots uprising in Egypt had been commandeered by Islamists and the military in quick succession, Egyptian authorities conducted an arrest sweep against gay men in the wake of the Cairo concert by the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, which has an openly gay member, Hamed Sinno. On one hand, the fact that the band, which “had been outspoken about LGBTQ issues in their music and public statements” (Holsiln), managed to snag a Cairo gig attended by 35,000 concertgoers is a significant indicator of ongoing change in social attitudes. On the other hand, after a photo of a concertgoer waving a rainbow flag went viral, the regime of Abdel Fattah Sisi proceeded to arrest dozens on charges of “debauchery” in an anti-LGBTIQ sweep, an appeasement of conservative social attitudes. Change, powerful pushback—but a residual increment of change, nonetheless. These developments around heteronormative as well as queer male gender roles place an array of issues about masculinity at the center of current debates about the future of state and society in Southwest Asia and North Africa. This volume is about masculinity, inclusive of queerness, not centered around queerness—but queerness keeps surfacing in central ways in SWANA at this moment in history, and it is no wonder several (though not all) of the contributions in the book refer to it. Queer and trans issues can no longer be relegated to afterthought status in any book about masculinity anywhere….

Besides heteronormalization, other configurations linking male identity to modernizing nationalisms began emerging over a hundred years ago. Zeynab (1913) by Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal is considered the first Arabic novel, and with it Arabic national narrative right away has the trope metaphorizing a fertile woman into the land of the nation, whose honor men must protect….Perhaps even this is reactive to the ways in which colonial discourses themselves metaphorized the colonized territory of SWANA as a (veiled) woman to be possessed; perhaps the nationalist is metaphorized as a man because of anti-colonial nationalist discourse’s will to power over a position of being victimized (emasculated) by colonialism, as theorized in numerous works by Frantz Fanon. The dichotomy of “tradition verses modernity,” in any case, is outdated, or at least needs more precision, because usually what is signified by “tradition” is itself a product of older shifts in masculinity.

Masculinity at the start of the era covered by this volume is not some static norm, then, but a masculinity already reactive to European imperialism and changes in world economies, and even before that always-already in flux. In fiction, the model looked upon by the writers of mid-century as the granddaddy patriarch of their past appears in the characters of al-Sayid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad in Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy and Miteb al-Hadhal in Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. Shaikh Khaled in Ibrahim Nasrallah’s Time of White Horses is another example. Mahfouz’ patriarch acquires, in film adaptation, the epithet si’al-Sayid, meaning “master the Master,” doubled masterliness. A religious variation on this patriarch is the Sufi ideal of tender-hearted spiritual knighthood, a man who behaves gently with women and can be moved to tears by pondering the Divine presence but, like Algeria’s famed Emir Abdul-qader (1808-1883) or Sudan’s Mahdi (1844-1885), also can jump on his actual horse, weapon in hand, ably to protect home and community in a crisis. Secular or religious, the old-school patriarchs of modern Southwest Asian and North African literary depiction have Antar-like virility, bravery, and generosity; are obeyed by loyal wives and children; and are expected to defend the honor of women kin, demonstrate both forcefulness and forbearance, and model anti-colonial nationalist stances. Feminist writers tend to be less sanguine, depicting darker variations that equally, however, create old-school patriarchs as the “before” figures, as evident in most of Nawal Elsaadawi’s novels (Woman at Point ZeroGod Dies by the Nile, The Fall of the Imam). In the iconic first novel of Turkish feminist Duygu Asena, Kadının Adı Yok (The Woman Has No Name, 1987), the protagonist Cici’s father is the epitome of violent and abusive patriarchal authoritarianism.

These old patriarchs depicted as left over from the nineteenth century are represented as dwindling as the twentieth century moves forward, and the ways they embody masculinity are replaced with a number of other models…. Older (but still not timeless) notions about masculinity compete with newer ideas after the social changes of mid-to-late century and the emergence of left-wing regimes in Iraq (1958), Syria (1963), Libya (1969) and other states, heralded by the Free Officers’ Movement in Egypt taking over the state in 1952 and its key officer, Gamal Abdul Nasser, nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956, to widespread adulation in the Arabic-speaking world. Politicized young men with Baathist allegiances in Turki al-Hamad’s Saudi male entitlement coming-of-age novel, Adama (1998) (themselves virgins by default, in a still strictly gender-segregated and sexually strict Saudi society, having only furtive glances, a stolen kiss or two, prostitutes, and the sexual double standard working for them), excitedly discuss the 1969 overthrow of Libya’s King Idris as news of the Libyan Free Officers coup emerges. It’s “better to have Libya governed by Nasserites than for it to remain under the control of imperialists and their reactionary traitor henchmen,” one of the young men enthuses (186). Out of this second wave of anti-colonial struggle, the modern secular figure of the fida’i(literally “self-ransomer”) fighting against imperialism or Israeli occupation comes to center stage in Arab masculinity, idealized as a hero volunteering to stand bravely and selflessly against impossible odds, who is quick-tempered when it comes to nationalist pride, and who can also sweet-talk a young woman into sleeping with him the night before his self-sacrificing mission for the greater good. The fiction of Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972) often features men who fall through the cracks of that idealization, and the male protagonist of Palestinian feminist Sahar Khalifah’s novel about the West Bank under Israeli Occupation since 1967, Wild Thorns (1976) tries and fails at this ideal, while the working class pragmatist who never aims for the heroic ideal seems to provide a more enduring model of resistance to the Israeli Occupation. These mid-century young ideologues typically see themselves in some part as allies of women’s liberation, and see their nationalist, modernist, anti-imperialist ideologies as requiring men and women to work hand in hand against older gender barriers that keep the nation backward. In a key transition moment of SWANA neo-patriarchy, however, those anti-imperialist fida’i types morph into male identities that provide a masculinist ideological excuse for the hypermasculine militia men of Lebanese and Algerian civil wars, or the predatory paramilitary thugs called “shabiha” cultivated by the “anti-imperialist” regime in Syria from 1982, just as those clean-chinned, handsome officers who had led anti-colonial coups became brutal dictators-for-life of enormously corrupt police states—setting the stage for the Arab Spring, where we began.

Indeed, perhaps we end where we began because many of the liberatory, anti-colonialist, even progressive discourses in SWANA countries in the twentieth century have replicated patriarchy and have hegemonized a violent model of masculinity in their methods even when eschewing them in their embraced ideologies, and even when this neo-patriarchy is more nuanced than, and different in many ways from, the older classic patriarchy. If we keep on analyzing the old-form straightforward patriarchy, we waste energy on a straw-man and fail to recognize the clever twists in SWANA neo-patriarchy.