Sex, violence and “The Arab Mind”

I still support the war in Iraq, but we need to rid ourselves of our perverse myths about Middle Eastern men and women.

Topics: Iraq war, Neoconservatism, Anti-Semitism, Iraq, Middle East, Books,

Sex, violence and "The Arab Mind"

“The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. One book that was frequently cited was ‘The Arab Mind,’ a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai … The book includes a 25-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression … The Patai book, an academic told me, was ‘the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.’”

– Seymour M. Hersh, the New Yorker, May 24.

Poolside in Baghdad last June, I told some American journalists that I thought Iraqi men were pretty cute. They thought I was joking. The invective exploded: “Fat, sexist Arabs” was the party line. I was shocked, not least because these same reporters routinely criticized the American occupation for treating Iraqis poorly. And I was hurt, too. Many Iraqis looked like my own people. They looked like Jews. If Arabs are fat and sexist, what are they saying about Jews behind my back? Slurs against Arabs are, after all, just another form of anti-Semitism.

At the time, I worried that these casual bigotries showed an American inability to see Arabs as fully human. Perhaps this incident should have served as a wakeup call for me that my optimism about our ability to win Iraqi hearts and minds was misplaced. But as a supporter of the war I buried these doubts, and hoped for the best. Even if the journalists were giving vent to prejudices they would have been ashamed to voice about Jews, blacks or Asians, I thought better of the American soldiers I met.

I still support the war, and I still think most of the American military in Iraq did a remarkable job in seeing past such bigotries. But the abuses of Abu Ghraib make me think I should have taken the journalists’ remarks more seriously. There is something about Westerners and the Arabs and sex, it isn’t simple, and it needs discussion before it capsizes our relationship with the Arab countries. One good place to start is a bad book by an American Jew.



It is hard to take seriously a book titled “The Arab Mind,” though apparently some influential people in our government did. The simple-mindedness of the title sticks in the throat, even knowing that author Raphael Patai, who died in 1996, also published a book called “The Jewish Mind” and even knowing that the pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism popular at the time he wrote might have influenced his decision to group all Arabs together. The Arabs Patai studied lived in Morocco, Lebanon, Iraq and Somalia. It is rather like writing “The North American Mind” and treating Mexico, the United States and Canada as part of one culture.

No matter that Patai earned two doctorates, and studied not only Arabic and Hebrew but also Aramaic, Syriac and Arabian inscriptions. No matter, even, that he professed an “incurable romanticism” about the Arabs and a “lifelong attachment to Araby.” Only Patai’s own history — he was born in Hungary and educated in Budapest and Germany at the cusp of the Nazi era — reassures us that he would have every reason to avoid racist stereotypes. Patai was among that generation of Jewish refugees who lived in Palestine (for 15 years in the 1930s and ’40s) and then in the U.S., where he taught at Columbia, Princeton and — his longest stint — at Dropsie College, a Jewish institution later merged into the University of Pennsylvania.

As its title might suggest, Patai’s book lacks intellectual rigor. Worse, it’s a smear job masquerading under the merest veneer of civility. In fact, it’s so sloppy and so biased that the best reason to read “The Arab Mind” today is for what it tells us about Westerners and what we want to hear about Arabs. In 1972 it was still possible to write as though psychology were something that applied to other folks; today it’s fascinating to discover just what Patai fastened upon. What’s interesting isn’t so much that, in Hersh’s words, Patai believed that “Arabs are especially vulnerable to sexual humiliation” as that Patai mirrors a long stream of highly sexualized or sex-obsessed Western views of Arabs. There is no straight line from “The Arab Mind” to Abu Ghraib, or to the war in Iraq, but there is a suggestive trail.

The Western preoccupation with the sexual aspects of Arab culture is so deeply ingrained that it remains unanalyzed: Think of “1,001 Nights” and “The Sheik” (which was an international bestseller before it became a vehicle for Rudolph Valentino), or the imagery of the harem and the veil. Of course the lowest-common-denominator Western imagery of Chinese, Japanese or sub-Saharan African cultures incorporates sexual stereotypes too, but the focus isn’t as intense as in our view of Arab cultures.

Part of the problem may be that there aren’t all that many Arabs living among us — 3 and a half million, or hardly more than 1 percent of Americans, in the most generous estimates. But the other part is that the stereotypes have little to do with our actual experience with Arabs in the United States or during travel overseas. Even more than their cousins the Jews, who represent only 2 percent of the American population, Arabs are the stuff of myth.

The myth begins with sexual repression — not ours, of course, but theirs. Only one-tenth of the pages of “The Arab Mind” discuss sex, but nearly all the discussion circles around the issue of repression. It begins in the cradle: Patai’s diagrammatic Freudianism leads him to assign a prominent place to “Arab Child-Rearing Practices,” the third chapter.

“Is there such a thing as a general pattern of child-rearing practices in the Arab world?” he begins, and answers that “even two such widely separated cultures as those of Morocco and Iraq appear quite similar when compared with the Greek, or Italian, or Sub-Saharan Negro culture.”

Appear quite similar to whom? The French anthropologist Germaine Tillion, whose expertise is Berber culture, famously argued the opposite a decade before “The Arab Mind.” She wrote that the key traits of what northern Europeans take to be Muslim or Arab society — the seclusion of women, endogamy, male circumcision, the prohibition against eating pork — are more usefully treated as fragments of an ancient Mediterranean culture underlying what are now Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultures. Tillion argued that child-rearing practices in southern Italy and France had until recently a tremendous amount in common with North African mores. Tillion’s subtle, elegant and concise book, published in English as “The Republic of Cousins” (and recommended to me in Baghdad by the Iraqi-American intellectual Kanan Makiya), is, unfortunately, largely unknown outside France.

It certainly appears to be unknown to Patai. Having determined by fiat that his method is valid, Patai goes on to claim that because every noun in Arabic is either masculine or feminine, “there are no words for ‘child,’ ‘baby,’ ‘infant,’ ‘toddler’ and so on.” Patai argues that because of this linguistic structure, there are no child-rearing practices in Arab culture, only boy-rearing or girl-rearing. Therefore Arabs imprint unusually sexist attitudes on their children from the day they are born.

It apparently did not occur to Patai that while nearly every noun in French, Italian and Spanish is masculine or feminine, there are words for “child,” “baby” and so on in those languages. As common sense would suggest, there are words for “child” and toddler” in Arabic too. In both modern standard Arabic and Iraqi dialect, at least, “tofl” means child and “radhee” toddler, regardless of gender. And of course Arabs speak of children and toddlers in general, just as other speakers of gendered languages do.

Did Patai make a basic mistake, hardly credible in someone who had taught Arabic at the high school level? Or was he perhaps trying to mislead the reader? A few pages on, Patai’s discussion of the raising of little boys suggests biases so strong as to show bad faith.

“Comforting and soothing of the baby boy often takes the form of handling his genitals. Mother, grandmother, other female relatives and visitors, as well as his older siblings, will play with the penis of the boy, not only to soothe him, but simply to make him smile … The association of the mother, and hence women in general, with erotic pleasure is something that Arab male infants in general experience and that predisposes them to accept the stereotype of the woman as primarily a sexual object and a creature who cannot resist sexual temptation. The most frequently stated purpose of female circumcision is to ‘calm down’ the women, that is, to diminish their libido.”

One wonders how Patai’s avowed Arab friends reacted to this extraordinary piece of rhetoric. Patai’s sources for the caressing of little boys’ genitals are few; in the footnotes, he writes that an anthropologist “informed me that, according to one of his informants, this practice stopped in Lebanon after the child began talking and walking.” One informant of one anthropologist is worthy of citation? The data is thin indeed. Common sense suggests that some mothers in all cultures fondle their children inappropriately, but most mothers in any given culture do not. Short of a massive study of Arab mothers, I’m not prepared to accept that they are systematically so different from Israeli or Italian or Spanish mothers.

Even if Patai is right about Arab mothers, his reasoning remains highly flawed: The upper-middle-class Viennese Jewish children observed by Freud also associated the mother with sexual pleasure. Apparently that is what breast-feeding children do.

So why do only Arab men grow up thinking of women as sexual objects? And how is this connected with the pre-Islamic North African practice of female circumcision? A culture can believe that women can’t resist sexual temptation without circumcising them (for instance, traditional Afghan society). But a casual reader might come away from this paragraph with the impression that Arab mothers, by masturbating their infant sons, lay the groundwork for the circumcision of their daughters and the pathology of Arab society.

It will come as no surprise that the eighth of Patai’s 16 chapters, “The Realm of Sex,” emphasizes the repression of Arab societies compared with European culture. But it also abounds in elementary mistakes and misleading remarks. “Whenever a man and a woman meet, the devil is the third” may well be “a Sudanese Arab saying,” as he writes, but it is also a variant of a celebrated hadith, or saying of the Prophet, reported by Tirmithi. This hadith is far more important than a regional folk saying; Patai should make more rather than less of it if he means to diagnose Arab pathologies. It underlies what Tillion has called “a sort of etiquette that obliges any boy to pay court to any woman he may find himself alone with”; she observes that in Mediterranean society — not merely in its Islamic variants — “we see sexual obsession imposed on men.”

Patai is also on shaky ground discussing how Arabs talk about sex. He claims that “the very word for ‘wife’ (zawja) in Arabic is felt to be too indelicate to use, because of its sexual connotations (it is derived from the verb meaning to couple).” Yet my sedate Iraqi Arabic conversation book — originally published in 1949 — calmly uses “zawja” and the related adjectives “mitzawij” and “mitzawja” (“married”); the Quran also uses a variant of the word in distinguishing prohibited sex from sex within lawful marriage.

In fact, Patai’s insistence on Arabic repression doesn’t square with the Quran, which can be strikingly plainspoken about sex. In the important sura 24 aya 31, referenced by Muslims as one of the justifications for veiling women, the Quran urges “believing women” to keep secure their faroujejooneh, or genitalia, and in sura 3 aya 4 (often referenced because it permits Muslim men to take up to four wives) we are told fenkahou matab, “have intercourse according to your taste.”

It is obvious by the time we reach Patai’s fourth chapter, on the Arabic language, that no matter what he claims, Patai is not illuminating a culture he loves so much as building an indictment. Here the goal is to show that Arabs are irrational. Patai states that because of the structure of the Arabic language, “for the Arab mind it is of relatively little concern whether two past actions, events or situations recalled were simultaneous or whether one of them preceded the other. It is almost as if the past were one huge undifferentiated entity.”

It is true that in classical Arabic, as in biblical Hebrew, the tenses do not correspond to those in the Indo-European language group. But in the Arabic dialects, there are prefixes to denote action currently going on and action in the future (in Iraqi, “d” for current action and “rah” for the future, and in formal Arabic, “sah” or “sofa” for the future). In formal Arabic, and the Quran, the prefix “f” is added to a series of verbs expressly to show a sequence in time (more or less, “and then this happened, and then this, and then that”). In both formal Arabic and Iraqi there is a structure approximating the Indo-European subjunctive (“if I were rich, I would buy a Ferrari”). The past is no more “one huge undifferentiated entity” than the Arab dialects or the Arabs themselves.

Whatever the merits of Patai’s argument about Arabic’s tense structure, if he is going to argue the inferiority of Arabic on this basis, he could just as well argue its superiority on the grounds that it is far more logical and complex than any of the modern European languages. It is also puzzling to think of the people who gave the world the zero, algebra and the foundations of astronomy as indifferent to calculating time. But Patai doesn’t spend even a page on the scientific aspect of “the Arab mind,” and to the extent that he takes notice of Arab cultural achievements at all it is to proclaim their inferiority to Western models. The Arab decorative arts represent a “neglect of reality,” and Arab music is also deficient: “Many music-loving Arabs who have had a European education despise traditional Arab music … Most musicians and music critics incline toward Westernism.”

By now it should be clear that those Americans who took “The Arab Mind” seriously as a sourcebook on Iraqi culture would have reinforced any existing negative images of Arabs they had and added plenty of new ones. Although there is something to be said for Patai’s willingness to analyze rather than merely describe, the reader interested in a philosophical treatment of Arab culture would do better to consult the Tillion book, or Columbia University anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Veiled Sentiments” (about the Bedouin of Egypt’s western desert). Both books are far more intelligent, careful and subtle.

The seriousness with which this amateurish text was apparently taken does no honor to this administration; more experienced Arabists than I might want to investigate just how well Patai really knew Arabic. The majority of his citations from books published in Arabic are drawn from translations into the European languages or Hebrew (and thence into English by Patai), which also raises questions about accuracy. He does indicate in the notes that his translations of some Arabic newspaper articles are his own, which gives one pause after finding so many errors in his remarks on the language.

But the larger point is that no one seems to have cared much about accuracy, neither Patai nor his neocon readers. Patai says more or less what we’ve long wanted to believe, and that was enough. And the objectifying, dehumanizing and contemptuous tone of Patai’s discussion of a people he claims to like is inseparable from his arguments. It is a great tragedy if it influenced American conduct in Iraq.

Part of the reason I supported the war is inseparable from my conscience as a Jew. If I am not willing to intervene to save Arabs from a tyrant, why should Christians have been willing to intervene to save Jews from Hitler? “Never again” can’t apply only to my people. It is terribly ironic that Patai’s repressed Arabs are the inverse of the Jews of medieval and 19th century myth, oversexed, underinhibited and, in the case of women, readily available. But maybe it is to be expected. It might be that the two anti-Semitisms are inseparable the one from the other, and that it is no coincidence that European sentiment against the Jews has risen along with European and American sentiment against the Arab world and the Arabs and Muslims among us.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that the main reason Bush attacked Iraq was to strengthen Israel, not least because it would play too neatly into the anti-Semitism that positions Arab-Israeli relations as a zero-sum game. But I suspect that any influence “The Arab Mind” had on American policymakers tapped into the deepest level of Westerners’ troubled feelings about Jews, Arabs and sex.

Thanks to the always gracious and patient Dr. Ameer Hassoun, originally of Baghdad, for his assistance with the Arabic language.

Ann Marlowe is the author of "How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z" and "The Book of Trouble," published last month.

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