If you have not yet seen Sex and the City 2, you have probably heard about its outrageous climax, which takes place at a market in Abu Dhabi. Samantha is wandering around the souk in shorts and a tee-shirt, bra strap showing. She gets chased down by a man who thinks she has stolen a purse. He grabs it-it’s her own purse-and many condom packs drop out. The men stare at her, horrified. Samantha stands up and yells, “Yes! Yes! I have sex,” and comically thrusts her hips as a circle of angry, hairy men crowd around and scowl.
The encounter reminded me of a scene in another movie, also in the genre of posh-lady-traveler-seeks-adventure-in-Arab-lands. In Sheltering Sky , Debra Winger plays Kit Moresby, a pampered, creative type who comes to Morocco to wander. That movie also ends with Kit in an Arab souk, surrounded by a crowd of angry men, also outraged by her loose morals. The movies are worlds apart in many ways. But the difference between these similar scenes hinges on one critical plot twist: Kit is being pilloried because she slept with an Arab man.
Why is that important? For much of the 19 th and early 20 th centuries, European leisure travelers made endless romantic speculations about the “secrets of the harems,” writes Judy Mabor in Veiled Half-Truths . They filled their fantasies with erotic scenes of dark-eyed women, but kept their distance; even as they fantasized, they pitied the poor, backwards Arab women, Mabor writes. In later years, however, Westerners began to feel guilty about these one-sided Orientalist fantasies. In Muriel Spark’s The Mandelbaum Gate , Hideous Kinky , and Sheltering Sky , the Western woman sleeps with an Arab man. The experience turns the tables on the usual fantasy. Now it’s the Western woman who becomes the other, exotic and dangerous. She gets humbled as she is forced, temporarily, to live by Muslim mores. For a while, she leaves her smug cocoon of Western superiority.
In Sex and the City 2 , Samantha could easily have slept with an Arab man; she sleeps with everyone else, after all. This might have helped her understand the sex appeal of the veil, and the allure of a world in which sex is not always immediately there for the taking (just as she once experienced this on the show with her tantric yoga instructor lover). But nothing like that happens. The Arab men on the show are all tea-pourers or personal shoppers or camel herders. The cute butlers who are assigned to the women at their posh hotel are off-limits because one is sweetly in love with his wife, and the other is gay. The rest of Arab mankind is a sweaty, hairy, angry mob even Samantha wouldn’t touch. To find the women a suitable man to sleep with, the movie has to dredge up a Danish architect and Aidan, Carrie’s ex-boyfriend, who mysteriously shows up at the souk. They travel 18 hours by plane for a romantic adventure with people they could have met at home in safe, superior New York.
Kit Moresby escapes from the mob, but she is forever chastened out of her louche, pampered existence. Samantha heads to the airport, huffing, “New Middle East, my ass!” Soon after, we cut to her screwing the Dane on a car as fireworks burst behind. We are, of course, supposed to be cheering for sexual liberation here. But really, the whole thing is more effective, as Moe Tkacik suggests, as a terrorist recruitment video .
Photograph of man by Salah Malkawi/Getty Images.