The average romance-novel hero hasn't changed much since the genre's development in the late 19th century—he's dashing, arrogant, commanding, hopefully rich, possibly even a prince. But is he an Arab? More and more commonly, the answer is yes.
It seems that an Arab man can now get on the cover of a romance novel in the United States almost more easily than he can get past airport security: According to the Chicago Tribune, the sales of sheik-themed romance novels have quadrupled in the years since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Up to 20 of these novels per year, with titles like Expecting the Sheikh's Baby, The Sheikh's Virgin, and The Sheik and the Bride Who Said No, go through print runs of 100,000 copies or more. Typically, these stories feature a white American or British heroine who travels to a fictional Arab country (messy real-life politics aren't welcome in the world of romance fiction), becomes involved with an Arab prince through accident and/or circumstance, and ultimately marries him. Some of these sheiks* are polished business magnates, while others hark back to the Valentino-style desert Bedouin of yore. But they all have a few things in common: All of them are rich and powerful, all of them are irresistibly sexy, and all of them are dangerous.
The august romance-novel publisher Harlequin has devoted an entire line—"Harlequin Presents"—to international romance titles, offering up "sophisticated men of the world" with names like Cesare, Santiago, and Lysander, as well as Zahad and Rafiq. But what sets the sheik novels apart from the other global-flavored titles is that the U.S. is not currently engaged in a war in Greece or Sicily. Lighthearted escapism is the supposed raison d'être of the romance genre, so what happens when such novels are set in the present day, in a part of the world that we see on the nightly news? What is it that makes these swarthy princes of the desert so hot now, capturing the imagination—and dollars—of the American romance audience at a time when the Middle East seems more perilous than ever?
Although they may seem out of place in a genre famed for Fabio, Rhett Butler, and other Euro-American rogues, Arab men fit particularly well into the traditional romance-hero mold, and have in fact been a long-running staple of the genre. Since romance novels originated in a time when women were expected to keep their desire firmly under wraps, it fell to the male protagonist to initiate and even force sexual encounters upon the heroine in order for her to be "allowed" to experience them at all. The ur-sheik romance, titled simply The Sheik and written in 1919 by E.M. Hull, is the story of a brash young Englishwoman captured and raped by a desert prince when she dares to venture, escort-free, into the Algerian desert. In spite of all the violence, it ends happily with true love and marriage, and the book quickly became a bestseller. (The 1921 film adaptation rocketed Rudolph Valentino to international sex-symbol status, despite—or, perhaps scarier, because of—his character's penchant for kidnapping and rape.)
It's still considered less appropriate for women to seek out or enjoy sex than it is for men, and it's this lingering sense of outlaw desire that continues to give the romance genre its erotic frisson. Although the modern romance heroine typically has a career and goals besides marriage, she still requires someone to force her to give into her sexual desires—and that someone is typically an imposing, demanding, and sometimes frightening male lead. And to many American readers today, there may be no man more imposing, demanding, and frightening than an Arab man.
More than five years after the attacks of 9/11, it's all too easy to find news stories of ordinary Arab-American men—to say nothing of Sikh, Latino, and Israeli ones—detained at airports, taken into custody, or even "rendered" overseas. In the fall of 2002, thousands of people living in the U.S. were forced to register with the government, found guilty of no crime except being Arab or Muslim men. (Afghanistan is a Muslim country, but not an Arab one, though many Westerners regularly conflate the two.) The real conflicts currently being played out with Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan—and the consequent coverage of the often poor social status of women in these countries—have invested Arab and Afghan men with a tremendous, fearsome power in the American imagination, and, paradoxically, may have renewed our romantic interest in them.
Arab men make perfect romance-novel heroes precisely because they are seen as intimidating and powerful, all the better to educe the desire of their Western conquests. Indeed, 88 years after The Sheik was published, many sheik-themed novels still translate erotic power into actual abduction scenarios. In Jane Porter's 2006 offering The Sheikh's Disobedient Bride, for example, an American journalist is kidnapped by a Bedouin prince ("he was danger, destruction...a savage on fire") and held captive in his desert camp until she finds herself hopelessly in love with him, and eventually becomes his willing bride. Kidnapping and forced marriages are such common plot devices that one sheik-specific fan site (www.sheikhs-and-desert-love.com, which divides titles by theme) devotes pages and pages to listing them all. This same site features book reviews with titles like "Being Sold for a Bride Price May Not Be as Bad as it Sounds!" and "Abduction and Forcible Confinement: Human Rights Violation or Frisky Romantic Adventure?"—the review, unsurprisingly, tilts towards the latter.
In the real world, of course, the "frisky romantic adventure" of falling in love with one's captor is known as Stockholm Syndrome and is treated as a serious psychiatric disorder. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to infer that sheik-romance fans actually support kidnapping—but the popularity of this "fantasy" storyline in a time when Western soldiers, journalists, and contractors are frequently abducted and killed in Iraq is discomfiting. Abduction scenarios reinforce the idea of men from "over there" as uncivilized at the same time that they position them, in the world of romance fiction, as arrestingly hot.
Of course, not every sheik novel features an abduction; in Loreth Anne White's The Sheik Who Loved Me, our heroine is an undercover spy matching wits with an Arab prince on his private island, while in Jacqueline Diamond's Sheikh Surrender, the sheik meets the heroine while searching for his brother's killer. Even so, the language used to describe the Arab man in each novel is remarkably similar: "fierce," "savage," and above all, "dangerous." "His brow was prominent over his eyes giving him a predatory look...an air of refined yet dangerous aristocracy." "The American didn't understand his world. His world was primitive and it fit him." Such panting descriptions, though common in many types of romantic fiction, are especially loaded in the context of these sheik stories: Differing plot points aside, the common thread of the books is the "danger" and "savagery" of even the most princely Arab protagonists—qualities that are all too often ascribed to the entire Middle East by real-life pundits and politicians whose intentions are anything but romantic.
There is another side to books like The Nanny and the Sheikh and Sheik Daddy, one in which their Arab protagonists are portrayed as sexy, intelligent, and lovable—all qualities absent from most mainstream media depictions. In this respect, these novels humanize Arab men far more than the mainstream news reports and terrorist dramas in which they've been featured since 9/11. However, when the intelligence and sex appeal of the titular sheiks are only revealed after they have abducted an American woman or forced her into an unwanted marriage contract, it's hard to argue that such portrayals are effecting positive change or breaking down old stereotypes. Annie West, one sheik romance author, proclaims of her heroes on the Harlequin website that: "[T]heir appeal has grown on me. Maybe it's their larger than life aura. Maybe it's the echo of some exotic Arabian Nights fantasy." Maybe it's still very, very unexamined.
Ultimately, what can we make of this trend? According to a recent Romance Writers of America market research study, almost half of all paperback fiction sold in the U.S. falls into the category of romance fiction, with more than 2,000 titles published in a typical year. Though sheik novels make up only a tiny percentage of this number, the sheer vastness of the market for romance fiction makes their recent rise in popularity a notable one. Given current stereotypes, any media portrayal of Middle Eastern men as sexy and desirable is in some respects a positive step. But when that desirability is predicated on an underlying savagery, it's worth asking why it appeals to thousands of American readers. We can't police desire, but we can investigate its cultural roots: If, in our collective imagination, we see even the most attractive and high-ranking Arab men as fundamentally violent and criminal, is it any wonder that we'd rather see them on a book cover than on an airplane?