Monday, July 16, 2012

Spoiler: Spanish ladies

Week three of the blog! Already this is longer than any other blog I’ve written! Do I get a medal? A cookie?

For real now: the conclusion of The Sheik

Sheik Ahmed had just rescued Diana Mayo from the Robber Sheik Ibraheim Omair, but in the process been badly wounded. As they all ride back to the camp, Diana is worried about Ahmed, who is still unconscious. Once back, Raoul Saint Hubert (who is also a doctor?) overhears Ahmed’s semi-conscious feverish mutterings recapping his relationship with Diana, which end with “Diane, Diane, how could I know how much you meant to me? How could I now that I should love you? […] Diane, Diane, it is all black. I cannot see you, Diane, Diane…” (240).

The next day, Diana and Raoul are sitting by the unconscious Ahmed’s bedside and she distractedly comments on Ahmed’s hands: “His hand is so big for an Arab’s” (243). Ah yes, that well-known racial stereotype of Arab men having small hands. Is this a thing? Or is E. M. Hull just obsessed with hands?

Anyway, this off-hand comment leads Raoul to finally reveal the mystery of Sheik Ahmed. He answers: “He is not an Arab […] He is English” (243). So that explains the hands, then!

Then begins the fascinating story of Ahmed’s parentage:

His father was an English peer, the Earl of Glencaryll. His mother was a Spanish woman. As Raoul explains it, “many of the old noble Spanish families have Moorish blood in their veins, the characteristics crop up even after centuries. It is so with Ahmed, and his life in the desert has accentuated it” (244).  I’m not sure what characteristics this long-lost “Moorish blood” is supposed to explain.  It can’t be Ahmed’s stubbornness, his temper or his tendency to mistreat women, since we soon learn that his father had all of those. Is it his skill with horses? Looking good in a djellaba?

Long ago, Raoul’s father was great friends with the old sheik, Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, “a wonderful man, very enlightened, with strong European tendencies. As a matter of pure fact he was not too much in sympathy with the French form of administration as carried on in Algeria, but he was not affected sufficiently by it to make any real difference” (245).

Raoul’s mother had recently died (everyone’s mother is always dead in this book), and Raoul’s father had gone to stay with the old Sheik to take his mind off his grief. One evening some of the Sheik’s men found a woman wandering in the desert. She was young (around 19), pregnant and unwell and wouldn’t answer any questions about herself. She basically spent all her time crying.

She and her son, once he was born, stayed in the camp and the whole tribe adored the baby (Ahmed, of course). The old Sheik, in fact, fell in love with the woman, but she would not agree to marry him. Sadly she never fully recovered her health and when she was near death she finally told them her story (just like Raoul is finally telling Diana Ahmed’s story):

It turns out that Ahmed’s mother was the only daughter of a noble Spanish family. At seventeen, she was married to Lord Glencaryll, without “any regard to her own wishes” (247). But, like Diana, she grew to love him. However, he had a terrible temper and when he was drunk (which was often) it was even worse. It’s pretty clear that he beat her, as well as emotionally abusing her. Lord Glencaryll took her on a trip to Algiers and wanted to travel into the desert with her:

“He had been drinking heavily, and she did not dare to upset his plans by refusing to go with him or even by telling him how soon her child was going to be born.  So she went with him, and one night something happened – what she would not say […] whatever it was she waited until the camp was asleep and then slipped out into the desert” (248).

I can’t remember who (and thus apologize for the lack of citation), but at least one of the academics writing on The Sheik has pointed to the way this narrative complicates the gender/race politics of the present-day narrative.

The way I see it, while the two stories locate gendered violence as something that men do to women, E. M. Hull by telling them both does not allow us (the reader) to think that this happens only in the ‘uncivilized’ areas of the world.  Ahmed’s mother (who is never given a name in the book) flees from the violence of a British man into the desert, where she is treated well by an Arab man. Diana is abducted from the desert and treated badly by a man who she believes is Arab, but who (heritage-wise) is British/Spanish. But…in both of these stories, the badly treated women love the men who treat them badly. The men who might treat them well (the old Sheik, Raoul Saint Hubert) met them too late.

Well, once Ahmed’s mother died, she left him with the old Sheik who adopted Ahmed, giving him his name and raising him in the desert. When Ahmed was fifteen, he was sent to Paris for an education and met Raoul. He was a “handsome, high-spirited lad” (250) with a quick temper, who didn’t like to obey anyone except the old Sheik. He spent two years in England as well, but Ahmed always wanted to return to the desert and the father he loved.

The old Sheik had never told Ahmed of his parentage or told Lord Glencaryll about his son (according to his mother’s wishes) and once he did, managed to do so in perhaps the worst way possible. Raoul’s father had the task of telling Lord Glencaryll about his son and learned that apparently the tragedy of his wife’s disappearance had cured him of his alcoholism (and his temper). This seems unlikely, but I guess we’ll go with it.

Then, Raoul’s father sent for Ahmed and told him the whole story.  This did not go well: Ahmed lost his temper and cursed out basically everyone possible, up to and including all of England. He refused to see his biological father and returned immediately to the desert, sending all letters his father sent addressed to Viscount Caryll (his courtesy title) back unopened, with ‘Inconnu, Ahmed Ben Hassan’ written on them.

So, that went well. After that, Ahmed was a changed man: “all the loveable qualities that had made him so popular in Paris were gone, and he had become the cruel, merciless man he has been ever since.  The only love left in him was given to his adopted father, whom he worshipped” (256).

And that is the story of Ahmed. Full of questions about the nature of inheritance, the role of nature and culture in forming a person...

Back in the present, Diana’s opinions of Ahmed aren’t really changed by this story. She still loves him and thinks of him as an “Arab of the wilderness”; “the mere accident of his parentage was a factor that weighed nothing” (259).

As you may have already guessed, Ahmed does not die. Slowly he regains consciousness and his strength. When he is getting better, though, he begins to avoid Diana and she is afraid that he is no longer interested in her. One night, Ahmed reveals that he is planning to send Diana away. He thinks she can go back to her old life. She gets angry, thinking he is simply tired of her, but Ahmed reveals that he loves her and it is because of that that he is letting her go. Distraught, Diana tries to kill herself (this book doesn’t go by half measures) and Ahmed stops her and gives in. He will not send her away and they will live together in the desert. The last words of the novel are Diana’s:

“I am not afraid of anything with your arms round me, my desert lover. Ahmed! Monseigneur!” (296).

And that was E. M. Hull’s The Sheik. As a novel, I’m not sure most people today would be 100% enthusiastic about it. But it is very interesting, especially in the context of race and gender in pop culture history. It is also pretty epic. If anyone else has read it, I’d love to hear your opinions! If not, have I inspired you to read it or is my epic summary good enough?

There is also a sequel -- Sons of the Sheik -- about Ahmed and Diana’s two twin sons, one raised in the desert and one raised in England. I don’t own a copy, but if I can find one I might review it too, if requested. It has a dancing girl in it! And whipping!

Next up… another article from 1920s movie magazine and then the first of many sheik romances inspired by The Sheik. Most of them are much much shorter, so I promise the posts won’t be quite so epic… Maybe I’ll start with Desert Barbarian


  1. 1) I would read this book with whipping in it! Then do Lawrence of Arabia's autobiography!

    2) I would have assumed that the 'Moorish characteristics' were his darker skin and other physical characteristics that made her think he was an Arab? Accentuated by his life in the sun? I mean, that's the obvious interpretation. I feel like I'm always reading books written or set before the war that describe Europeans who've been working in the sunnier British colonies as becoming "as dark as a native." It's a common trope. It's interesting that she dances around that, though, if that's what she means. Considering how into his Arab exoticism this book is, she seems to be going to lengths to make sure we don't picture a white-skinned woman with a brown-skinned man. Is that true throughout, do you think?

    3) It's interesting about the 'small hands' thing though - I don't know that one. Weirdly enough, what that immediately made me think of was that Arabian horses I think are/were a fair bit smaller than European breeds of horses. Wikipedia seems to agree that I'm not making this up.

    I wonder if she's conflating the two - it doesn't seem out of the question, since she does that elsewhere too, doesn't she?

    4) his backstory - I don't get it. Did the adopted father only tell him he wasn't his biological father when he revealed how his mother had died because his biological father was abusive and an alcoholic? Why didn't Ahmed also get angry with his adopted father?


    1. Sons of the Sheik is fun because of all the twins in it! Twin Sheiks (one English, one sheikly). Twin French valets! The whipping is perhaps more prominent in the film version, which sadly took away the twin aspect, but did maintain the doubling, through having Valentino play both the Sheik and the Son of the Sheik. So maybe I'll review that in the future.

      I think we are supposed to picture him as darker skinned and you're almost certainly right that that's what she means by 'Moorish characteristics'.

      The 'revealing parentage' part is a bit complicated. His mother made them all promise not to reveal anything to anyone until Ahmed was of age. She was afraid that Glencaryll would hurt Ahmed, like he had hurt her. The old Sheik also doesn't tell Ahmed anything because he's afraid of losing him to the English world. So the old Sheik never actually tells Ahmed anything, he leaves it all to Raoul's father.

      Why isn't Ahmed mad at his adopted father? I don't really know. I think maybe he's mad at everyone who reminds him of the man (his biological father) who hurt his mother?