“What Did a Francophile-Arab Read?”

Regarding The Sheik, it’s hard not to fixate on the disturbing scenes and questions that Teresa has already brought to our attention. I anticipate that these topics will drive much of the discussion that we have in class this week, but, in the spirit of trying to turn our attention elsewhere, I’d like to think briefly about Ahmed Ben Hassan’s bookshelf, which Diana encounters the day after she is kidnapped and raped. Kneeling beside the bookshelf, she asks “What did a Francophile-Arab read?,” expecting to find the shelf full of novels because they “would harmonise with the atmosphere that she dimly sensed in her surroundings” (67). Instead she finds that the shelf is filled with sport and travel books (mostly written by Raoul, one of which is personally dedicated to Ahmed) as well as books on veterinary surgery, which we learn later that Ahmed studied in England.  The content of these books as well as the evidence they offer of Ahmed’s linguistic skill (books written in French, annotated in Arabic), disturb her even further because they reveal a much more calculating, intelligent, “civilized” captor than she initially imagined. The bookshelf becomes a recurring image in the novel, and Diana turns to its contents (particularly Raoul’s books) often over the course of her captivity.

We’ve seen the image of the bookshelf recur throughout our readings this semestere: the Harvard Classics five-foot shelf, Virginia Woolf’s personal library of women’s fiction, and Amitav Ghosh’s grandfather’s bookcase. Each of these bookcases offers a distinct vision of literary prestige and makes different assumptions about what belongs in the canon. Thinking about the bookshelf in these terms, I’m interested in what vision of literary prestige, what kind of canon that Ahmed’s bookshelf might offer. What do we make of the gap between Diana’s assumptions and the true contents of the bookcase? And what is the role of the novel here?

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