Love among the Arabs

David Tresilian , Tuesday 30 Apr 2024

This year’s Arab History Days at the Arab World Institute in Paris focused on the various meanings of love in the region, writes David Tresilian



The annual Arab History Days at the Arab World Institute in Paris are now in their tenth edition, having established themselves as a popular rendez-vous for audiences eager to find out more about current thinking on topics that have ranged from the Arab city, the theme of the first History Days in 2015, to landscapes, climates, and societies, the theme of last year’s event.

This year’s edition of the History Days, held over the weekend of 23-24 March at the Institute’s left-bank premises in Paris, took as its theme the various meanings of love in the Arab world, inviting its participants, mostly French academics specialising in aspects of Arab history and culture, to turn away from their usual teaching and research and address the general public.

The results covered a wide range of topics, with talks and panels considering love of different kinds, including romantic, conjugal, filial, and of course also religious love, as well as love distributed widely in time and space, from love among the mediaeval Arabs, as revealed in literary and other texts, to contemporary expressions of love, and from styles of love in the Maghreb to those associated with the Mashreq and with rural and urban areas.

As has been the case in previous years, this year’s History Days also saw the award of the Grand Prix du Livre des Journées de l’Historie, which is awarded each year to the best book published in French on an Arab topic during the previous year in association with the Académie du Royaume du Maroc. This year’s winner emerged from a crowded field that included works on drugs in the Middle East (Stupéfiant Moyen-Orient. Une histoire de drogue, de pouvoir, et de société by Jean-Pierre Filiu) and Palestine (Des morts en guerre, rétention des corps et figures du martyr en Palestine by Stephanie Latte Abdallah and Creuser la terre patrie. Une histoire de l’archéologie en Palestine-Israel by Chloe Rosner).

Presided over by Vincent Lemire, a professor of Arab history at the Université Paris-Est just outside Paris, the judges awarded the Prize to French historian Cyrille Allier for his L’archipel Ibadite. Une histoire des marges du Maghreb médiéval, a work on mediaeval Ibadi Muslims, a sect of Islam associated today mostly with North Africa and Oman, at a ceremony on 22 March.

Various participants over the two days of the History Days pointed out that love can take very different forms, sometimes being outside or opposed to social structures and sometimes being institutionalised within them. Romantic love can lead to personal revolt or even something akin to madness, inviting those moved by it to reject established societal or familial bonds. It can give rise to a peculiarly intense experience in which the outside world seems to diminish in significance when compared to the relationship with the loved one.

Other forms of love are more easily tamed and in fact are also at the root of social bonds, being recognised in institutions such as marriage and the family and expressed not in revolt or repudiation but in identification with the social order. Who is to say which is the more authentic style of love – that expressed in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers are the victims of society, or that found in the novels of the English writer Jane Austen where love and marriage are its foundation?

As is so often the case with events of this sort, the sheer number of talks and panels taking place during the History Days, often concomitantly in different parts of the Institute, meant that audiences could not attend all the programmed sessions. This year’s event was also not live-streamed on the Internet or broadcast on the French radio station France Culture, as has been the case for some sessions in previous years, meaning that if a session was missed there was no way of making up for it later.

Perhaps the absence of live-streaming or radio broadcasts in part explains the notably high attendance at some of the sessions this year – with most of those the Weekly attended attracting large and attentive audiences such that there was often standing room only for latecomers. This would have been a boon for the participants, no doubt happy to be sharing their thoughts with larger audiences, but it may also have come at the cost of outreach to those unable to make it to the Institute for the History Days this year or not living within easy distance of them in Paris.

Compared to previous editions of the History Days, taking place over three days and not two as was the case this year, this year’s edition seemed to have attracted fewer participants, reflected in the reduced time available. There was also little participation from the Arab region, notably when compared to earlier years and certainly when compared to the first editions of the History Days when Arab and Anglophone academics also participated.

Perhaps the History Days, like many other events these days in France and elsewhere, are suffering from budget cuts, making it impossible to invite participants from further afield. Perhaps the unique character of the History Days – an event that brings together the worlds of academic research with the interests of the general public – has also contributed to its undoing, since perhaps the academics would rather be talking to their peers.

However, it would be a pity if the History Days do not survive or continue to shrink from their earlier ambitions, since there are fewer and fewer venues now available for such communication to take place. With the latest round of cuts for French higher education, largely funded by the state, coming into effect this year, the number of young people willing to devote their careers to academic study is shrinking in France as elsewhere even at a time when it is more necessary than ever for the results of this research to reach wider audiences.

This is perhaps particularly the case when it comes to research on the Arab world, which is often misunderstood or falsely represented in Europe.


Aspects of love: One of the best-attended of the History Day’s earlier sessions was a panel discussion on love in the Arabian Nights that featured specialists on this classical Arab work from French universities.

Chaired by Aboubakr Chraibi, a professor of Arabic literature at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO) in Paris and the author of well-received scholarly accounts of the Nights, the panel considered three tales from the collection in detail, examining them for what they can tell us about the different forms of love in the Arab Middle Ages.

Among the tales were those of the Caliph Al-Mutawakkil and the slave girl Mahbuba, recounted on the 352nd to 353rd nights of the Nights, Al-Mutalammis and his wife Umaima, recounted on the 385th night, and the young prince of the black island, one of the stories folded into the interconnected tales told on the third to the eighth nights.

Describing these stories as expressing “historical,” Bedouin,” and “urban” forms of love, Chraibi and the panel brought out the ways in which love is presented as crossing social boundaries (between the Caliph and the slave girl), as being closely related to elaborate self-expression, notably in poetry (Al-Mutalammis and Umaima), and as involving ideas of fidelity and deception, not only in the famous frame story in which King Shahryar is unconvinced of the fidelity of his wife the storyteller Scheherazade, but also in inset stories (the young prince of the black island).

Other sessions at the History Days continued the historical theme by looking at expressions of love in other mediaeval texts and at particular periods, among them in mediaeval Andalucia and, though this was an outlier, among the ancient Egyptians.

However, they also brought the topic right up to date with other sessions on contemporary forms of love in the Arab world, including discussions of the expression of love in the contemporary Maghreb, the “crisis of love in the contemporary Mashraq,” and love as this has been represented in Arab cinema and in the work of modern Egyptian women artists such as Tahia Halim, Inji Efflatoun, and Gazbia Sirry.

Speakers at the panel on love in the contemporary Maghreb focused on the ways in which norms regarding its expression have changed in tandem with broader social changes. With increasing rates of education, including higher education, and changing aspirations and ambitions, notably among women, the ways in which the younger generations in the Maghreb today may be expressing feelings of love may be very different from those employed by the older generations, the speakers said.

Add to this the widespread adoption of social media and the increasing numbers of people who may live either temporarily or permanently abroad as members of the Maghreb Diaspora, notably in Europe, and it is easy to see that young people’s lives, including their affective lives, are subject to a much wider range of influences than was generally the case for their parents.

Similar changes have been operating in the Mashraq, speakers at a later panel said, noting that while some of these have given rise to tensions, they can also be understood as opportunities. Speaking from the Arab Gulf by videoconference, professor of anthropology at New York University Abu Dhabi in the UAE Laure Assaf said that while sociological changes in the Gulf have been identified as lying behind the region’s high divorce rates, mostly of arranged marriages, they have also led to a new interest in the whole subject of love and marriage, for example.

Similar changes elsewhere have also brought about an extension of opportunities for individuals who may not previously have benefitted from them, other speakers said. In Yemen, for example, said sociologist Morgann Pernot, changes in family life since the 1970s, unfortunately linked to periods of civil conflict and economic pressures leading to emigration, have led to changes in the choice of marriage partners and an increase in the average age of marriage among rural women.

In contemporary Palestine, said researcher Mariangela Gasparotto, the disruptions of war and economic crisis have called into question any aspiration to marry or to enjoy a stable family life for many. While the Palestinian situation is a special case because of the ongoing social and political crisis in the country, one way in which it might be linked to concerns elsewhere is in the sometimes very high costs associated with marriage.

An examination of modern literature, surely one of the greatest reservoirs of affective expression in any language, was missing from this year’s History Days, but there was a session on cinema given by three French doctoral students.

Camille Leprince of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris talked interestingly about samizdat videos from contemporary Algeria, Marc Khoreich of the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris gave an overview of the treatment of love in Egyptian cinema, and Nadine Asmar of the Université de Bretagne Occidentale took the audience through developments in Lebanese cinema with a focus on the presentation of love and sexuality from the pre-Civil War decades through the Civil War and to the contemporary period.

Journées de l’Histoire de l’Institut du Monde arabe – Amours dans le Monde arabe, 23-24 March.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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