America has never stopped repeating stories about cowboys and Indians, even when the frontier is somewhere else
Depending on who you believe, Osama bin Laden died in a dramatic last stand after an unexpected raid, or cowering feebly in a corner after his captors gave him up to U.S. forces. The most wanted man in the world was announced dead by an elite Navy SEAL team with the phrase “Geronimo E.K.I.A”—“E.K.I.A.” being the code for “enemy killed in action,” and Geronimo the codename for bin Laden. Even if they have to fly to Pakistan to do it, our cowboys are always hunting Indians.
Despite inexplicable contradictions, the official account of bin Laden’s death largely prevails. It conforms to and supports a deeply embedded U.S. myth, one that imagines the rugged individualist masculinity of the cowboy out for justice—here represented by the elite team of SEALs—protecting his vast terrain from savage intruders. It also serves as a justification for state-of-exception measures that are presumably required in order to preserve the freedoms of the state, since the official account boasts that vanquishing bin Laden was “an inspiring illustration of the merit of dogged intelligence work.”
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. As a prisoner he was transformed into a tourist attraction, appearing in the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (as well as two other Worlds’ Fairs). In various popular culture depictions, he is at once lauded for his fierce commitment to defending the freedom of his people and reviled for his violent, barbaric, warrior ways. 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—in Time, the Chicago Tribune, and even Bitch magazine—largely focused on the sensational aspect of the narratives. These articles 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.
Immersing myself in the world of desert romances for the past seven years—I followed popular romance blogs, read approximately 40 desert romances, and interviewed six desert romance authors—I came to understand that the way authors craft sheikhs as believably romantic heroes tells us a great deal about the kinds of fantasies that fuel the war on terror. One potent fantasy easily dismissed and denigrated as romance novel trash is the desire to be conquered and tamed. In Sharon Kendrick’s The Playboy Sheikh and the Virgin Stable Girl, for example, the sheikh explains to the heroine that “horses are like women … neither respond well to harsh treatment” and later applies his knowledge to the heroine herself: “She was like an unbroken horse, he realized. All fire and spirit—with an innate need to be conquered.”
Described by desert romance author Liz Fielding as a “cowboy in robes,” the sheikh-hero incorporates some of the qualities of the U.S. icon of masculinity, such as his facility with horses and his rugged individualism, even though his frontier is in the desert. Like the cowboy, the appeal of the sheikh taps into founding U.S. national mythologies by emphasizing his ability to tame or conquer wild terrain and the sorting of indigenous, tribal peoples into natural elements in the landscape (bedouins) and evil, hostile characters to be eradicated (terrorists). Because desert romances narrate the romantic sheikh as a leader allied with U.S. and western European powers, he also represents the continual displacement of the limit of the frontier. Extending the logic of Manifest Destiny, desert romances show how U.S. imperialism proceeds by displacing the territorial limits of the western U.S. onto the material resource of oil, particularly the reserves found in the Gulf region of the Middle East. Through narratives of protection and security, U.S. relationships to oil-producing countries in the Middle East is also often framed in terms of an “innate need to be conquered.”
Heroines in desert romances often encounter or imagine sheikh-heroes through the trope of the cowboy. The heroine in Trish Morey’s The Sheikh’s Convenient Virgin, for example, encounters a “man wearing traditional white robes and a headpiece, and as his angled gaze stared regally off into the distance he looked every part the warrior king. She could just imagine him sitting astride a horse atop a desert dune, reins in one hand, a rifle in the other. King of the desert.” Holding “reins in one hand, a rifle in the other” this sheikh could be straight out of the Wild West, though his robes and “headpiece” rather invoke a Wild East. The sheikh-cowboy cross-association is especially evident in those novels that portray the sheikh as a modern-day horseman, such as Abby Green’s Breaking the Sheikh’s Rules or Laura Wright’s A Bed of Sand, in addition to those already mentioned. These novels reinforce the rugged masculinity of the sheikh by emphasizing his ability to “harness nature’s harshest landscape”—whether that proves to be the desert, the Wild West, or the rebellious heroine herself. In Dana Marton’s Sheik Seduction, for example, the heroine “pictured robed men racing over the sand on beautiful horses, their swords drawn, the sheik at the very front. They would be brave and fierce, whisking her to safety.”
In a sense, the expansion of the frontier into the deserts of the Middle East were foreshadowed even during Geronimo’s own time, when “Wild Arabs” or “Bedouins” were incorporated into displays of trained horsemen at entertainment venues like the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Some have argued that these “Wild Arabs” were viewed as Eastern “Rough Riders” which is apparently an old cowboy term for those who ride the most resistant horses. In this case, the adjective “wild” in “Wild Arabs” would simply invoke the idea of the Wild West and therefore serve to relate the skilled Arab horseman to the iconic cowboy figure.
The relationship between cowboys and Middle Eastern horsemen would not have been so jarring at the turn of the 20th century, since the Middle East was mainly imagined through the lens of the Holy Land. While Geronimo was put on display at the 1904 St. Louis world’s fair, one of its other main attractions was a replica of the Holy Land. Geronimo was reportedly courted by a “Wild West” entrepreneur to participate in the same shows as the “Wild Arabs.” These intersections are not accidental. They demonstrate a long-embedded link between popular understandings of both the frontier and the desert as land to be conquered and people to be turned into dioramas.
Returning to the moniker “Rough Rider” helps to uncover some of this history. While it may refer to the actual act of taming and riding resistant horses, many would more readily associate the term with Teddy Roosevelt, who famously led an all volunteer cavalry that took the name “Rough Riders” during the Spanish-American war. It is undoubtedly aligned with U.S. expansionism and imperialism, which is itself deeply connected to the mythology of the frontier, the lie of the “virgin land,” and the arrogance of Manifest Destiny. Though the Middle East does not fit the traditional paradigm of settler colonialism (with the exception of Palestine), the oil frontier has functioned as a sort of proxy settler colonialism, both in the ways it drastically changed nomadic life by settling it, and in the subsequent appropriation of natural resources by outside imperialist forces.
Sheikh-heroes not only participate in the seemingly inevitable taming and settling of their lands, they naturalize it as necessary and desirable. Romantic sheikh-heroes are sexy because they reterritorialize the cowboy in the harsh terrain of the desert. In Loreth Anne White’s Loved by the Sheik, for instance, the sheikh-hero “rode with a fierce and reckless abandon. Bareback. Like a wild desert warrior born with the beast between his legs.” These desert warriors are not only “born with a beast between their legs,” they also know how to tame and conquer that beast. They represent an unbridled masculinity that can harness and tame reckless forces, like the terrorists they quell.
Most importantly, sheikh-cowboys are part of some of the underlying fantasies that help perpetuate the war on terror. Reflecting broader non-fiction stories about the war on terror—like the account of bin Laden’s capture and killing—desert romances present the war on terror as a righteous battle for justice against evil forces. They also graphically represent the more insidious idea that Arabs have an innate need to be conquered.
When I interviewed Linda Conrad (the author of Sheik Seduction, among other desert romances), she voiced the industry sentiment that the popularity of sheikh-heroes was likely declining. She predicted that military romances—and Navy SEALs in particular—would trend up in popularity. Her prediction was based on the then-recent news of bin Laden’s death at the hands of Navy SEALs. Military romances are indeed a popular subgenre, and though I haven’t tracked whether SEAL heroes have supplanted sheikhs, the prediction in and of itself demonstrates how popular fantasies are intimately bound with the war on terror. The stories we tell about the war on terror matter—not just because they shape the psychic terrain, but also because they lay bare the imperialist fantasies that seduce Americans into supporting perpetual war.