The exoticization of a desert romance

“I got married secretly in a mosque,” says Elisabeth Elhazza. Her words are the title of an article in Tara, a Swedish women’s magazine, which gives an account of Elisabeth’s marriage to “seven years younger Khairi Elhazza from Libya,” how he proposed, and how “Elisabeth said yes without hesitation and stepped into what was, for her, an unfamiliar and strange culture. ‘Now I am one hundred percent Libyan,’ she says.”
The delicate phrasing of “what was, for her, an unfamiliar and strange culture” in the first sentence of the article marks the fine line the writer attempts to tread between exoticization and political correctness. That attempt seems to break down by the third sentence with a volley of “à la” phrases, from a description of the clothes provided by Khairi’s family (“à la Jasmine of Aladdin”), to a description of her fairy tale wedding in Libya (“à la A Thousand and One Nights“).

The article proceeds to delve into details about gold bracelets, souks, henna, traditional Libyan clothes–shopping and family and hospitality and harem pants, as Elisabeth’s unhesitant decision to take a step into this strange culture is portrayed positively as adventurous spontaneity. “Life’s too short to wait and hesitate!” Elisabeth, described as bubbly, says. As she put it, “I married Khairi, and that I got this culture into the bargain is incredibly exciting.” What a bargain! How fun!

She describes how wearing traditional clothes made her feel “like family,” talks about the summer home they are building in Libya, and shares their plan to name their son Jacob, which works in both Arabic and Swedish. The article ends with editorial advice to live in the moment and realize “we are all people,” followed by some notes about Libya in officious travel guide mode.

The incongruity lies in the fact that this feel-good extravaganza begins with the ominous words “I got married secretly in a mosque.” The prominence given to religion in the title is matched by the misleading introduction of Elisabeth as having “found love and Islam.” It is only towards the end of the article that it is revealed Elisabeth has not actually converted: the secret marriage at the mosque was a strategy to avoid any criticism marring the happy day, as some of Elisabeth’s friends and family weren’t exactly ecstatic about the match. Yet it is this little detail that becomes the title of the article. Secret marriages in mosques make for a good headline!

Media coverage of interfaith marriage more often than not takes up issues of conflict, from the potential tensions and obstacles the couple faces to the inevitable negotiation of social and religious identity that will have to take place. When it comes to Muslim/non-Muslim marriage, the conflict is often literal. From the countless stories of Muslim fathers abducting their children and taking them “back home,” to sensational accounts such as Fatwa by Jacky Trevane or Not Without My Daughter, most representations of Muslim/non-Muslim marriages seem to be portrayed as either a recipe for disaster or an escape from one.

In this context, can some exoticization be forgiven in light of such an overtly positive portrayal? The piece was first brought to my attention by someone who thought that it was a positive portrayal of immigrant integration and the creation of a multicultural society, and was of the opinion that it should be read as celebrating difference. But to see it that way, you would have to turn a blind eye to the article’s intensification of difference, its depiction of another culture as exotic and alien, and its hijacking of the appeal of the “desert romance.”

As far as I’m concerned, to call something stereotypical but positive is oxymoronic. It has the same duality as Povel Ramel’s Swedish version of the song The Sheik of Araby, which portrays a sheik who “offers romance” at night, only to “turn back into an Arab again” at dawn.

The Tara article offers up an Orientalist fairy tale. But just because it’s a rosy portrayal of a white woman’s involvement with a foreign Muslim man doesn’t mean it escapes the exotic fairy tale/Islamic nightmare dichtonomy.
Tasnim Qutait is a Muslim woman living in Sweden, having grown up in Libya, Egypt, Sweden, and Britain. She graduated from London University with a BA in English Literature and is currently completing her Masters at Uppsala. She has taught ESL, worked as a freelance journalist, and translated a collection of folktales. She blogs on a strictly sporadic basis at eastwords. This article was previously published at Muslimah Media Watch.

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