East of Freud: Sexual narratives in the Persian and Arab worlds

The history of sexuality in the Persian and Arab worlds challenges our Western ideas about the categories of erotic desire

By Galit Atlas-Koch

As between women and youths, do not confine your inclinations to either sex; thus you may find enjoyment from both kinds without either of the two becoming inimical to you…During the summer let your desires incline toward youths, and during the winter toward women.

Qabus Nameh: Amir Onsorol-ma-Ali enjoins his son, Gilan Shah, 1082

The Israeli poet Yona Wallach deconstructs and reconstructs examines and challenges the concept of "sex." "We're told that there's another (another) sex," she writes. "It's good that someone hears about it. If there's another sex, bring it here and let's speak frankly." Her voice is a woman's, or perhaps a man's; it is certainly the voice of a worn-out and confined sexuality. She says, "We, too, are so tired of our virgin wives," seeking her own sexuality and desire as well as that of her kindred virgin, puritan women, and within Israeli poetry, she clearly symbolizes a different, provocative woman who oscillates between center field and society's margins, between darkness and light.

Is there indeed "another" sex? A sex that is neither in opposition to nor defiant of Freud? One that is not Jewish or Christian, not European, and not Western, one that arises from a different history that psychoanalysis barely acknowledges? Do we, too, carry such a sex within us?

The concept of sex, which was an embarrassing and threatening word in my youth, a word that according to Michel Foucault became "sexuality" in the beginning of the 19th century, is accompanied by a tension between prohibition and pleasure. This tension is resolved somewhat differently in different cultures. The mystery of sexuality involves not only touching ourselves and each other, but also touching solace, divinity and the abyss, loneliness and existential sorrow, the experience of infancy, and the excitement of adolescent awakening.

In this short essay I try to play with the different categories associated with Western sexuality, and with another cultural sexuality, east of Freud. Touching upon Arab and Persian traditions, I question what we teach and learn in psychoanalysis on sexuality and our own sexualities, inhibitions, and desires.

Many have pointed out the connection between desire and culture. Deleuze and Guattari claim in Anti-Oedipus (1972) that capitalism organizes the individual's desires so that they are channeled mainly toward production and consumption in the monetary domain. Their claim is that rather than being a universal myth, Oedipus is a particular historical one that derives from capitalism, whereby capitalism defines our desires. Elsewhere, Deleuze (1994), communicating with Foucault, counters Freud's perception of culture as sexual sublimation. He claims that culture is in fact creating the form and expression of the individual's sexuality, whereas desire does not emanate from lack (as opposed to the Oedipal framework, which represents a complex surrounding lack) but is rather rooted in abundance. In his opinion, culture produces many kinds of sexuality. In Freud's Vienna, for example, the mother and the father were the origins of the boys' and girls' sexualities, but in 1960s Paris, cinemas and schools created new forms of sexuality. Sexuality, he explains, can be channeled toward Brigitte Bardot or Yves Montand, or to various objects of desire—from the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, all the way to a Mercedes in Monte Carlo. Similarly, every generation has a different concept of the body and of what stimulates desire.

In the postmodern era, many of us deal in different ways with the shattering of the strict categorical and structured identity of male-female, Jew-Arab, heterosexual-homosexual, developed-primitive. After queer theory, and following Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and others' notion of sexual orientation as a continuum rather than a category, we try to understand different kinds of sexual desire and how cultures define them, challenging the idea that hetero-, bi-, and homosexual experiences can be easily distinguished or differentiated. Arab scholars argue that these dichotomies are part of modernity and the Western world.

Janet Afary (2007), a historian whose main expertise is modern Iranian history, proclaims that before the Constitutionalist Movement (1906), homosexuality, polygamy, temporary marriage, and sex segregation were widely practiced and never faced objection. Josef Massad (2007), a Palestinian scholar and associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, argues that the promotion of gay rights in the Middle East is a conspiracy led by Western Orientalists and colonialists that "produces homosexuals, as well as gays and lesbians, where they do not exist" (P. 162-163). "The lexicon we currently use in Persian to describe erotic events is fundamentally different from the one used up to a century ago," says blogger Mohammad Memarian (2009). "Sexuality in today's Iran is different from the one in old Iran, for we have got modernized, and modernity has fundamentally changed our understanding and experience of sexuality." What do we know about other definitions of sexuality? What do we, psychoanalysts, know about these dichotomies between masculinity and femininity, heterosexual and homosexual, Us and Them?

Regarding European anti-Semitism and especially its expression in Nazi Germany, the distinction between Jew and non-Jew was made categorical and absolute. These days, in the Middle East, it is clear that there is an Us and a Them, Arabs and Jews, and as we know, We usually use Them to define Us. According to Said (1978), Arab culture was mainly used by the Europeans as a means to define themselves by defining the Orientals. For example, qualities such as lazy, irrational, uncivilized, and crude were attributed to the Orientals, thereby automatically deeming Europeans active, rational, civilized, and sophisticated.

Analyzing the dichotomy between psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, and asserting that the latter was not defined as a form of psychotherapy so much as it was defined in contrast to psychotherapy, Aron (2009) explores Western cultural dichotomies that are in the background of the definition of psychoanalysis. These are polarities that existed in Europe between Jews and non-Jews, masculine and feminine, heterosexuality and homosexuality, passivity and activity. Historically, Aron writes, suggestibility was associated with the primitive, with degeneracy, with women, hysterics, neurotics, and Jews. Freud wanted to eliminate suggestion in order to keep his analytic findings objective, scientific, and universal rather than idiosyncratically Jewish. Psychoanalysis, then, was thought to eliminate suggestion and encourage independence and activity, with a split between masculine autonomy, which is valued over feminine dependence (Aron, 2009).

As I will describe, these dichotomies were not always as clear in the Arab world. Before 1948, an estimated 900,000 Jews lived in what are now the Arab states. The history of the Jewish communities in the Arab world is not widely known and is often denied for political reasons. Although Jewish-Arab and Jewish-Muslim relations are often viewed in terms of conflict, the relations have not been exclusively antagonistic by any means, and in broad historical terms, Jews have been less ill-treated in the Arab world than elsewhere. Shohat (2008), for example, questions the Eurocentric perception of the opposition between Arabs and Jews, and particularly the denial of Arab Jewish (Sephardic) voices both in Middle Eastern and American contexts.

In Israel, our grandmothers who emigrated from Arab countries had to learn to speak "our" language and not "theirs," Arabic, so they would not be considered primitive and one of "them." This required a great and painful adjustment, because in Arab countries such as Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, and Yemen there was no such distinction. Unlike in Europe, where Jews spoke Yiddish, in Arab countries Muslims and Jews shared not only a language but also their culture and traditions, although they practiced different religions. Jewish writers, poets, and scholars played a vital role in Arab culture, and Arabic was even used in hymns and religious ceremonies. In that historical sense, the distinction we are familiar with between Arabs and Jews proves invalid.

Another Western familiar polarity exists between heterosexuality and homosexuality. In most Arab countries, same-sex relations were widely tolerated and frequently celebrated for well over 1,000 years. It is evident that gender and sex were treated differently than in the West, so that being penetrated by another man, for example, did not render the penetrated man feminine. Gender, sexuality, sexual relations, homosexuality, and related concepts are literally brand-new expressions in the Persian language. Middle Eastern scholars such as Afary and Massad describe how modernity actually undermined the pluralistic and free tradition of sexuality and legalized a narrow form of marriage and heterosexuality. As evidence, Afary asserts that before the advent of the constitutional monarchy (that is, before the Pahlavi dynasty assumed power in Iran in 1925), same-sex relationships were accepted among various social classes and were, to an extent, common practice. The same is true for other Arab countries.

Massad (2007) argues that "Western male white-dominated" gay activists, under the umbrella of what he terms the "Gay International," have engaged in a "missionary" effort to impose the binary categories of heterosexual-homosexual onto cultures where no such subjectivities exist, and that these activists in fact ultimately replicate in these cultures the very structures they challenge in their own home countries. Massad writes that, "The categories gay and lesbian are not universal at all and can only be universalized by the epistemic, ethical, and political violence unleashed on the rest of the world by the very international human rights advocates whose aim is to defend the very people their intervention is creating" (pp. 49–50). He adds that what is emerging in the Arab world (and, in fact, the rest of the Third World) is not some universal schema of the march of history but rather the imposition of these Western modes by different forceful means and their adoption by Third World elites, thus foreclosing and repressing myriad ways of movement and change and ensuring that only one way for transformation is possible.

As we know, much of what we practice as Westerners and work with as psychoanalysts was developed and formed in a very specific cultural atmosphere. It is sometimes surprising to remember that everything we learn and teach in psychoanalysis about sexuality refers to European standards and models only. East of Freud, different subjectivities existed that defined different emotional experiences and required different kinds of transformations toward movement and change than those needed in Europe and America.

Examples of the codes governing same-sex relations can be found in the "Mirror for Princes" genre of literature (Andarz Nameh), which mentions both homosexual and heterosexual relations. Often written by fathers for sons, these books contain separate chapter headings on the treatment of male companions and of wives. Authority figures, teachers, fathers, and mystics, who were all very well aware of Sharia (the code of conduct or religious law of Islam) and morality principles, wrote and described homosexual desires and acts. For example, Sheikh Saadi, known as a poet and ethics teacher, wrote in 1257, "At the height of youthfulness, as it happens and you are very well aware, I had some sort of affair with a gorgeous one, a boy." Rumi, a 13th-century Persian Muslim who was a well-known poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic, explicitly uses bodily terms to describe homosexual love and sexual intercourse. These texts were included in school curricula until 1930.

For more than a millennium, male homoerotic relations in Iran were bound by rules of courtship such as the bestowal of presents, the teaching of literary texts, bodybuilding and military training, mentorship, and the development of social contacts that would help the junior partner's career. It was common for men to exchange vows, known as "brotherhood." A long courtship was inherent to these relations. The couple traded gifts, traveled to shrines, and spent nights together. In a similar manner, sisterhood sigehs1 involving lesbian practices were also common. Like the "brotherhoods," these lesbian sigeh courtship rituals were codified and continued from the classical period into the 20th century. Tradition dictated that a woman who sought another as a "sister" approach a love broker to negotiate the matter. The broker would take a tray of sweets to the prospective beloved. A dildo or a doll made of wax or leather was carefully placed in the middle of the tray. If the beloved accepted the proposal, she would throw a sequined white scarf (akin to a wedding veil) over the tray. If she was not interested, she would throw a black scarf on the tray before sending it back (Francoeur, 1997–2001).

As mentioned, the sexual atmosphere in 19th-century Europe had been institutionalized to a very considerable degree. European writers and artists often described the more libertine and less guilt-ridden sexuality they found upon visiting the Middle East (recall Burton and the many versions of One Thousand and One Nights). Said (1978) and Massad (2007) note that sex was always an important feature of Orientalist fantasy; the different energy of the other gives rise to notions of sexual promise. It is simultaneously alluring and threatening, and was perceived by the dichotomizing eye as decadent, irrational, barbaric, and immoral.

With a patronizing but not unusual assumption that Arabs are more primitive and less conscious, Patai (1973) claims that Arab societies suffer mainly from shame (a more primitive phenomenon), whereas Western societies suffer from guilt (a more developed one). I assume that this might seem true from a Western Orientalist point of view, one that recruits Them to take hold not only of Our shame but also of Our sexual desire. Thinking about the way we experience sex, our body, and our desires, one of the challenges in talking, writing about, and acting on sexuality is the complexity of pleasure, shame, and guilt. As with other polarities (see Benjamin [2004] on the feminine and the masculine), we need to be able to own the shameful and reclaim what belongs to us. As always, the challenge is to hold both poles in the midst of the complexity of our being and our contradictory identities and desires.


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1. A form of contractual temporary marriage, lasting from a few hours to 99 years, common among heterosexuals.

About the Author

Galit Atlas-Koch PhD is a psychoanalyst, creative arts therapist and clinical supervisor in private practice in Manhattan. She is on the faculty of the Institute for Expressive Analysis (IEA), Faculty at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP), and an editorial consultant for Psychoanalytic Perspectives. She has published articles about gender and sexuality, among other topics, and is a former psychology columnist for SBC publishing house, Israel.