Sex, Tourism and the Postcolonial Encounter: Landscapes of Longing in Egypt

May 19, 2011

Like so many other people, I am often tired and drowning in a morass of demands. At these times I long to be somewhere calm, hot and by the sea because, as Jessica Jacobs points out, a beach holiday is perceived as the "restorative for stressed overworked women". My imagination draws on places that I "know" because I have been there and/or visited in fantasy. These fantasies, alas, are full of the well-worn imaginings and representations of the socio-cultural-emotional narratives and stereotypes that circulate too easily in the West. Jacobs' book Landscapes of Longing in Egypt, to use its evocative subtitle, unpicks these dreams of escape.

Jacobs analyses both Western and Egyptian representations of the self and the other in her account of sex and tourism, and stimulates the reader to reconsider many assumptions. She carefully traces the links between past and present to offer a theoretical account that illuminates how historical imagination lives on in the present. Those resonances certainly persist in the wish to visit Egypt (in fact, organised trips to the Nile were the first excursions that Thomas Cook made into the tourist industry) and in the similarities between the intrepid 19th-century female traveller and the contemporary female tourist. Here, we see the European desire to inhabit a space and place that in the Western imaginary is resolutely positioned as pre-modern, and the declared wish to "lose oneself", drawing on these representations.

But this is not a straightforward process because, as Jacobs argues, the Sinai has been constructed as a pre-modern place not only by the Western media but also by the Egyptian tourist industry. These constructions are woven through with the touristic desire for "authenticity" and "genuine" encounter, both with other human beings and with the place itself.

Many European women go to the Sinai for casual relationships; others make a trans-cultural life based in both Europe and the Sinai; yet others remain in Egypt and build a life there that is shaped by their yearning for authenticity. From her interviews with European women who have made their lives in the Sinai either fully or partially, Jacobs draws out their disenchantment with modern times with its stresses and strains. Significantly, their disappointment is not just with Western societies but also with Western men, who they describe as "not manly enough" - unlike, they argue, Egyptian men.

Interestingly, Jacobs does not resort to the commonplace view that these European women are the victims of patriarchal Egyptian men. Rather, she argues that these women are agentic and autonomous; further, that unequal economic resources notwithstanding, there is a complex of emotional needs that circulate in these intimate relationships.

This is a lucid account of tourism and draws usefully upon postcolonial understandings of the historical-socio-economic web that exists between "the West and the Rest" to understand the intricate relationships between European women and Egyptian men. Jacobs offers a salutary reminder that the longing to "lose oneself" is always problematic and never neutral, and that the desire "to leave the hell of work to a paradise of leisure" is always freighted with historical-socio-cultural resonances.

Perhaps one way to create less laden social and intimate relationships is for those of us from Europe to realise that we do not need to lose ourselves so much as to get over ourselves.

Sex, Tourism and the Postcolonial Encounter: Landscapes of Longing in Egypt

By Jessica Jacobs. Ashgate, 154pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780754647881. Published 10 November 2010

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