“Wild Wild East”

Amira Jarmakani uses romance novels as a key to understanding U.S. desire and the frontier, whether in the “Wild West” or the Middle East.

“The military’s own comparison of bin Laden to Geronimo reveals a more complicated story. Though he is known for being an indomitable, resilient, and fierce fighter in battles against U.S. and Mexican soldiers for Apache territory, Geronimo was eventually captured and held as a prisoner of war by American forces…He reflects an ambivalence about the settling of the frontier, ultimately demonstrating the tension between longstanding U.S. policies of expansionism, settler colonialism, and imperialism, and the national mythology of U.S. exceptionalism, which depicts a freedom-loving and –promoting nation.

While the ambivalence surrounding Geronimo and bin Laden is tied to the iconic stature each figure reached, both are symbolically associated with the expanding frontier and its importance in U.S. national mythologies. If the desert can be understood as an extension of Wild West notions of the frontier—especially if one understands U.S. engagement with the Middle East post-WWII as an expansion into the oil frontier—then our conflicted feelings about these figures reflect a larger ambivalence toward the frontier as a symbol of freedom and territory to be conquered and settled.

Though the cowboy has long served as an icon of the frontier, he has been interestingly reincarnated in the figure of the romantic sheikh-hero—represented in a subgenre of mass-market romance novels—whose popularity rose in the years following 9/11. An early spate of news coverage in 2005-2006 about the popularity of so-called desert romances…asked how readers of the subgenre could fantasize about an archetypical character so closely associated with violence and terror. But they missed the opportunity to show how popular culture can reflect a more broadly held set of fantasies—in this case, about how desire shapes the war on terror.”

Jarmakani’s new book, An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror is now available.

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