PERSONAL

READING ROMANCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

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Eloisa James’ Desperate Duchesses series.

If there is one thing I love just as much as Shakespeare, it’s romance novels. The two are intertwined, I think, given Shakespeare’s penchant for romance. Every comedy has a  couple to root for, every ending showcases a big wedding. I love happy endings more than anything. I think they’re particularly hard to write, and I think authors who do strive for them are very brave. What is braver than insisting on a happy ending, despite it all?

I love historical romances most of all. They always promise tension, a game of cat and mouse, a slow burn, the forbidden glimpse of an ankle, a disheveled cravat. When I was a teenager growing up in the Middle East, I would buy fat historical romance anthologies from Book Corner. It was difficult to find anything else because the country was very careful not to put anything even slightly steamy for sale. What they didn’t know, however, was how terribly steamy those anthologies were. They were fooled by the covers, which always showed a demure lady in a modest, pastel dress.

I was hooked. Not because there was sex on the page – though that was very useful for someone who would never, ever be told how bodies worked – but because I could understand the heroines. The same shackles that held them down were also holding me down, even though years and years of history separated us. I saw myself in every suffocated bluestocking, in every duchess with a bitingly sharp tongue. It was comforting, mostly because I was – am – a bit odd.

Odd is a good thing in a historical romance. And I wanted to feel like I, too, could be a good thing.

I was privileged. I am privileged. Book Corner could very well have decided not to carry those novels. I could have grown up without romance. I could still be in Abu Dhabi.

You’d get lucky, sometimes. I had my romance novels, and my sister once managed to get her hands on a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn. The bare breasts on the cover were covered in a thick layer of shiny black Sharpie. I still remember how she painstakingly removed it, annoyed that anyone would deface the cover of a novel.

Still, it was hard to want to read romance novels when you lived in the Middle East. Once, a family friend visited from California and brought along with her a Debbie Macomber novel. It was a contemporary set on a ranch, so nothing like the historicals I had read. I wasn’t a fan of the hero, but read it cover to cover anyway. Another time, my best friend managed to get hold of a particularly steamy novel. That book became contraband on the playground at school. It was passed surreptitiously from girl to girl until the whole lot of us had read it.

It taught my friend what she did want, and it taught me what I didn’t want. But, more importantly, it created a safe space between the two of us. You could trust a girl that read a novel like that without drawing attention to herself.

What I’m really trying to get at is that all of this was unfair. It’s unfair that I wasn’t able to just walk into a bookstore and grab Sarah MacLean’s first book, or that I couldn’t enjoy a dreamy cover showing a woman in a rumpled dress in the arms of a man with shirtsleeves hanging onto his biceps for dear life. Without romance novels, I would have never learned from the masters. With no learning, there would be no writing of my own.

And there are hundreds of pages of my writing now.

I’d still be looking for the answers to questions that nobody was allowed to ask back home. Maybe I would be innocent to the point of being a bit stupid, though I find that hard to believe.

With approximately five romance novels underneath my belt (three historical anthologies, the Debbie Macomber, and the contraband romance novel), I became the one stop shop for any and all forbidden questions.

“Can you get pregnant if you swallow?” girls whispered to me.

“No,” I would reply sagely. “Not at all.”

I know it all seems comical, but it was the reality of our existence. We skipped the chapters about reproductive biology in class, so how were we supposed to know anything? Like I said: innocent to the point of being a bit stupid, though not on purpose. It’s a lot easier to control a girl when she doesn’t know very much. The Internet was of no help. Even Wikipedia pages were blocked.

Romance novels get a bad rap, but they don’t deserve it. When I think of all the questions they answered, I can’t help but be grateful. They told me that I deserve nothing but complete and utter fulfillment. And historicals in particular made me feel a little less alone. They told a teenaged Shereen that she didn’t have to be sexy to be desirable or interesting. What a comfort to someone who didn’t feel very sexy, let alone pretty. What a comfort to an adult who knows that she’ll only ever been seen as tiny and cute. In my novels, demure and modest was fine.

All of it was fine. I learned very quickly that all of us deserve to be loved, that most of us have this yearning for it, and that, a lot of the times, our actions are dictated by that very same yearning. I became empathetic and sensitive. I want all women to be able to explore that. I don’t want it to have to be through playground contraband. I don’t want them to have to rely on a family friend visiting from another country.

If our questions were not going to be answered, then the least we deserved was a healthy stock of romance novels.

I sometimes wonder what Shereen would be without Shakespeare. Half a person, probably. Shereen without romance novels would be even less of a person, I think. It’s been a privilege to be able to explore both with abandon.

A privilege that I would willingly bestow on everyone with absolutely no hesitation. After all, there is nothing like curling under the covers with a juicy romance novel, and drifting off to sleep convinced that you, too, will be capable of such vulnerability and openness.

Convinced that you’re worth loving.

Which, as any romance novel will tell you, you are. More than anything, you are worth loving.