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The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

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“The Sheik” and “The Son of the Sheik”

“The Sheik” and “The Son of the Sheik”

Italian-American actor Rudolf Valentino portrays the titular character in these two silent motion pictures. “The Sheik” (1921), based on Edith Hull’s 1919 novel of the same name, tells the story of how Diana, a beautiful and adventurous young Englishwoman, travels into the desert and meets a handsome, but barbaric, Arab “sheik” named Ahmed Ben Hassan. Enamored by Diana’s beauty, Ahmed abducts Diana. Although taken against her will, Diana eventually falls in love with her captor. In the end, it is revealed that Ahmed is actually the son of an English nobleman and Spanish mother, which explains his olive-skinned Mediterranean complexion. After discovering his European identity, Diana happily marries him. “The Sheik” draws upon popular conceptions of Arabs and notions of an exotic Orient. In her book Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000, Melani McAlister notes that Valentino’s “…masculine appeal lay almost entirely in his sexual allure. Marketing for “The Sheik” played up the titillation quotient of the Arabian setting assuring audiences that the movie was ‘in the full torrent of the Oriental tradition’ and that ‘when an Arab man sees a woman he wants, he takes her.’” Resonating with the sexual fascination and fantasy displayed in Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres’ nineteenth-century odalisque paintings, “The Sheik” portrays the Arab male as an uncivilized, domineering sexual predator. In the sequel, “Son of the Sheik,” Valentino reprises his role as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, but the story’s main protagonist is the Sheik’s son, also played by Valentino. The sequel film perpetuates several of the stereotypes seen in its predecessor.

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