Explorations of the "desert passion industry"

Publication year

From the introduction to the volume:

Few romance subgenres have drawn as much sustained critical attention—including attention to race—as the “desert” romance: books which, as Amira Jarmakani explains, “feature a sheik, sultan, or desert prince as their hero” and which deploy a desert setting as the framework for narratives featuring “gender fluidity, racial anxiety, and the realities of war and terrorism” filtered through “masculine/feminine, black/white, and fantasy/reality dichotomies” (252). Scholarship on this subgenre begins with work on E. M. Hull’s epochal bestseller The Sheik (1919) and continues with studies of the contemporary desert romance, which surged in popularity in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Analyses of the racial status of the desert romance hero feature prominently in this critical corpus—at times, like Hull’s Sheikh Ahmed ben Hassan, he is a racially ambiguous figure; at times he is unambiguously Arab—along with studies of how these texts represent gender and sexuality and of the relationship between all of these topics to the artistic and narrative traditions of orientalism. [...] Jarmakani’s chapter (Chapter 11) attends to the place of desert romances in the romance industry, and it discusses scholarship on the explanations that desert romance authors give for their attraction to this subgenre and for why, in their view, readers continue to purchase and enjoy them. (15)


As metaphor, the desert illustrates the two main frames through which desert romances have been interpreted; they can be understood both as orientalist escapist fantasies and as feminist explorations of female sexual desire. Each of these characterizations is equally reductive and simplistic. Accordingly, the most interesting research on the sub-genre combines these two broad interpretations. (252)


Romance novels navigate the interrelationship between fantasy and reality in interesting ways, particularly since successful romance writers are often those who convincingly incorporate accurate historical and geographical details into their fantasy narratives. Yet this characteristic of romance novels also opens up a set of questions about the relationship of what is understood to be “real” to that which is understood to be “imagined” and/or “fantasy.” Contemporary desert romances are self-consciously fictional in a way that many other forms of global or internationally-based romances are not—they purposely create fictionalized settings in order to avoid subjects and settings that their readers may find uncomfortable or difficult to fantasize about. My research into authors’ reasons for creating fictionalized Arabia indicates that their reasons are—wittingly or not—parallel to the logic of orientalism. Many explained that they sought to draw on the longstanding erotically charged figure of the sheikh—as associated with many tropes and themes within the discourse of orientalism, such as Lawrence of Arabia, Arabian Nights, and the idea of the East as sexually lascivious – without invoking the figure of the violent terrorist or oppressive and hyper-masculine Arab man. In other words, romance authors choose one pole of the classic orientalist binary—that of the erotic and sensual Middle East—to craft their sheikh-heroes, while reserving the other pole—that of the irrationally violent terrorist—to graphically represent the obstacle that the sheikh-hero and his heroine must overcome. (255)