x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Love is an arrow through the heart

Valentine's Day leads to a re-examination of cultural values and ideas about love.

Valentine's Day will generate high emotions next week - and not just from those in love. Some people will be waiting excitedly to see if they will receive gifts and meals, while others will be angry at the hold that this occasion is gaining in the Middle East. The negativity of the latter focuses around its vulgar commercialism and its celebration of a very fickle interpretation of love. These are complaints that echo around the world.

But there is an additional criticism that comes from this region: that Valentine's Day is alien and even contradictory to Middle Eastern culture.

The myths that a society venerates about love tell us a great deal about its views on this subject. So if Valentine's Day is alien, what myths tell us about the shape, value and role of love in the Middle East?

I've spent time talking to women in the Gulf exploring which myths and legends they feel most connected to when it comes to love. I offer them a selection of western fairytales like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, alongside Middle Eastern tales like that of Layla and Majnun and Scheherazade.

Much to my surprise, many of the younger women have never heard of the Middle Eastern heroines and align themselves more closely to the western archetypes. This should concern those who put forward the argument that the western notion of love is "alien". Middle Eastern storytelling and the values it conveys are already being eclipsed in the English-speaking Gulf population. And this is significant because the myths and stories of love at the centre of our society shape our social values and expectations.

Consider Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, which convey an idea of love as something passive for women, waiting to be liberated by princes who judge them for how they look rather than who they are. This looks-based love conquers all, including social and geographic barriers.

By contrast, in Scheherazade, love is not mentioned; Scheherazade is a story of the social consequences of a woman's infidelity, but also the power of the supposedly softer woman's skills of guile and intelligence. In Layla and Majnun love is seen as the downfall of the two characters. Instead, the story of Layla and Majnun puts forward a model of family duty, and a warning that stepping outside of family convention can have catastrophic outcomes.

Somehow, neither model of love seems to fit the aspirations of young Middle Eastern women. Where family duty or cleverness was once used to determine a woman's destiny, today's woman does want love, and also wants a more individual say in who she marries. However, Middle Eastern discourse does not appear to allow women to talk of love, which is why the western stories - including Valentine's Day - have captured imaginations: they finally offer an outlet to talk about love publicly. This is despite the fact that the model of love put forward by such stories is problematic, based on superficiality, instant gratification and the need to be constantly high by "being in love".

Those who argue that Valentine's Day and western ideals of love are "alien" to the Middle East must offer an alternative model that captures this aspiration for "love". And this has to start by talking of love publicly. If this doesn't happen, then the superficial saccharine kind of love will come to occupy centre stage in the discussion, because it will be the only kind of love talked about openly, and to which people can aspire. And human beings will always gravitate to some form of love than no love at all.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk