Constructions of Masculinity in the Modern Middle East in Comparison to the Western World

When someone refers to a man who is inherently masculine, what vignette is conjured in your mind? If you are from the West, particularly America, chances are that a physically fit, morally sound, silent-but-strong, somewhat reserved man with few effeminate characteristics springs to mind. For me, I picture my father: a soldier, solidly built, reserved, quiet, yet inherently intimidating; a silent enforcer, well groomed without particular attention to sartorial pursuits, who engages in "manly" activities: physical fitness, a steady job, fixing things, being the head of the household and ruling with a firm yet gentle hand. Of course, as American society evolves and changes, this concept of masculinity changes- for some, masculinity means a rustic-type man who hunts, drives a truck, and enjoys hands-on tasks. For others, the word can evoke a Wall Street banker: successful, busy, who wears a smart suit and carries a briefcase as he earns the salary which will provide for his children, wife, and any mistresses he may have, a la Tiger Woods. While the details are interchangeable, depending upon one's social status, income, and geographical location (one is much more likely to associate owning a rifle with "manliness" in the southeast United States than someone from the West Coast, who may tend to associate a Bluetooth headset and a Rolex wristwatch more with the masculine identity).
However, after having spent the better part of the past few years in the Arab world- Morocco and Egypt with excursions to Jordan and, very shortly, Turkey- my idea of masculinity is slowly changing. Some of the most innately masculine men I have encountered here share very few of the attributes I once considered essential to the characteristic repertoire of a male. Masculinity here means something altogether different than in the Western world. In America, would a man with oil-drenched hair, a prominently displayed pot belly, chest hair spilling out of his open button-down, tighter-than-necessary pants, a unibrow, glittering jewelry- especially in the form of rings, shiny black dress shoes, gingerly smoking a water pipe be considered the archetype of a "man's man"? Probably not. In fact, most of the men I have recently found myself drawn to here in Egypt would be considered "metrosexual" at best in the context of American society. They belly-dance in public; sing at the top of their lungs; hug, kiss, and even hold hands with other men in public; they have no problem straddling another man, very closely, in close crotch-to-butt proximity, on the back of a dilapidated motorcycle weaving through Cairo traffic. But somehow, these are some of the most inherently "manly" men I have ever encountered. How is this? I have been pondering this question for quite some time, and I'm not sure I fully understand it yet.
For one, these men are, cliché as it may sound, completely comfortable with their sexuality. Of course, this is the way in which they have been raised, but beyond that, they exude such an innate bravado that posturing or acting "macho" is rendered completely unnecessary. There is no societal taboo on holding another man close in an embrace. This could be for several reasons:

1. Such close public contact between men and women is prohibited- since this kind of public affection is forbidden, or haram, who, then, can you share your affections with? Should one live a solitary public existence, completely devoid of physical contact or expressions of warmth? Of course not! There's Mohammed, the shopkeeper; and Mostafa, the doorman, and Ali, the friend of your cousin's wife who you met once, at their wedding.

2. The post-colonial remnant of European occupation- France and the British Empire at one time or another controlled large portions of North Africa and the Middle East. When a people are colonized, it is inevitable they will adopt some of the customs of their colonizers. This comfort with what could, in other spheres, be construed as evidence of sexual deviance from the norm, may perhaps be a mannerism introduced into the Middle Eastern social scene by their European conquerors. Which raises another point: if the Middle East is (mistakenly in large part, might I add) considered archaic, backwards, and stagnant socially, politically, and economically, why do they retain European traits, which are considered too "progressive" or "liberal" for many in the United States? But I digress..

3. The alleged "lack of homosexuals" in the Middle East- if there are no homosexuals in Muslim countries as the governments claim, there is no fear in being accused of being gay ifyou act on familiar terms with another man in public. After all, the posturing that occurs in America between men is restricted largely due to a machismo desire to avoid being called "gay" or having their sexuality, their most prized possession, questioned in any way. Without that threat, why not express your fondness for your friend Ahmed in the public domain?

But without regard as to the reason for this social anomaly, how is it possible that even to me, a woman raised in the US and filled with American concepts of sexuality and the like, these Arab men can still be so completely manly, sexy, and desirable? Perhaps because, as a student of Middle Eastern culture, I am aware that while a man may exhibit some less-than-manly behaviors in the public sphere, one can be absolutely certain that he (assuming he is of an earlier generation than my own) is nothing short of paradigm of masculine strength and vigor at home, where most Arab men rule their homes with an iron fist: unquestioned, immovable, the be-all end-all of their family's world. They expect their wives to submit and cater to their needs, their children to obey without question, and their servants to perform their duties perfectly and without prompting. Also, the abundance of testosterone, as evidenced in the staggering amount of body hair, can't hurt their case, can it?

I'm sure to revisit this topic, because it is endlessly fascinating to me, and as my familiarity with Arab society grows, I'm sure my perception of this phenomenon will continue to evolve.

What are your thoughts, my dears?

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