The Docile, the Vulgar, and the Beautiful: Depictions of Black, Egyptian, and White Women in the Afro-Arab and African Diasporic Novel
In the “The Arab World and the West in the Post-Colonial Arabic Novel,” Iraqi literary critic Najim Kadhim leaves the postcolonial intellectual with a moral predicament as he wrestles to reconcile his thoughts of the “friendly” Americans and Westerners he met abroad, with the “colonialist…. big enemy of the Arabs” West. While recognizing how the postcolonial Arab discourse has functioned as a counter-response to the West, Kadhim paradoxically urges Arab novelists and intellectuals to move toward a more positive portrayal of the West in Arabic novels. Although the East-West encounter was addressed through a sexual prism, negative portrayals of the Western (White) woman are particularly dominant. The Arab counter-response to Western hegemony and Orientalism was often sexualized, depicted in a “sexual relation between the educated Eastern man and the Western woman,” according to the late Syrian writer George Tarabishi.
This paper conducts a comparative analysis of understudied autobiographical novels such as David Du Bois’s … And Bid Him Sing, Idris Ali’s Dongola, and Bahā’ Tāher’s historical fiction novel Sunset Oasis and their portrayals of Black, Egyptian, and White women. Sex and sexuality is a literary device through which the protagonist negotiates his proximity to the power, or a shade of it, that alienates him to validate his existence. Despite offering a sexualized East-West encounter, the three novels in question hardly offer negative portrayals of White women, whereas Egyptian and Afro-Arab women are ghettoized and erased.
Drawing on Anne Norton’s critique of Eurocentric ideas of Islam and Muslims, this paper exposes the Eurocentricity of postcolonial male-centric depictions of women in fiction. Norton’s “clash of sexual civilizations” conceptualization shows how the European discourse on sexuality in Muslim societies versus Europe is a misrepresentation and concealment of reality. Such misrepresentations sustain the Islam and the West binary, declaring the latter superior to the former through the sexuality lens, creating the “clash of sexual civilizations” as a subcategory in the ultimate clash of civilization discourse defining Muslim and Western societies. This paper is concerned with how these misrepresentations impact race-consciousness of the reading masses and argues that this Eurocentric treatment of women lures postcolonial male writers into a discursive entrapment, as they consume a false narrative about European sexuality as a frontier. Oblivious to the racial logic undergirding these depictions, these narratives end up centering whiteness while relegating Arab African women to the margins.