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literature

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Middle Eastern Literature: Arabic  
 
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Such famous ninth-century poets as Abu Tammam, al-Buhturi, and Ibn al-Mu`tazz composed both homoerotic and heteroerotic love poems, but far more of the former. Homoerotic poetry was certainly not unwelcome at the caliphal court, and some caliphs actively encouraged it.

The libertine caliph al-Amin (reigned 809-813), in particular, who patronized Abu Nuwas, was notorious for his fondness for the court eunuchs, and in particular the black eunuch Kawthar. According to a famous story, his mother attempted to lure him away from the eunuchs by dressing up the court slave girls in boys' clothing, bobbing their hair, and painting artificial mustaches on their faces.

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The ploy succeeded in deflecting al-Amin's attention but also initiated an extraordinary vogue among the aristocracy for these "boy-girls" (ghulamiyat) that was to persist for several generations.

There is no evidence that these ghulamiyat were identified in any way with lesbianism--they were, after all, meant to appeal to men. A few of them, however, were said to have had lesbian affairs, as were some of the slave girls in general, particularly some of those who were trained in poetry and song and commanded high prices--and considerable prestige--among the upper classes.

Lesbian Love Poetry

A certain amount of lesbian love poetry is preserved, but though the anthologists, uniformly male, evince little bias against lesbianism, they also display strikingly little interest in it, and most of the female poets we know of are represented as fully heterosexual in both their lives and their art.

Ninth-Century Court Wits

Some years after al-Amin, under the caliph al-Mutawakkil (reigned 847-861), homoerotic poetry again found favor at court, amid an atmosphere of general hedonism and libertinism. Al-Mutawakkil also offered encouragement to the mukhannaths, passive homosexual male transvestites who served as musicians and court jesters, and particularly the celebrated Abbada, whose witticisms were faithfully reported by anthologists for centuries.

Other court wits devoted their talents to composing scandalous essays with titles such as Lesbians and Passive Male Homosexuals, The Superiority of the Rectum over the Mouth, and Rare Anecdotes about Eunuchs. All these works are unfortunately lost, but we find extensive quotations from them in later Arabic works of erotica, the earliest surviving of which dates from the late tenth century.

Al-Jahiz's Prose Discussions of Homosexuality

Extant prose discussions of homosexuality are in any case not lacking for the ninth century, most notably in the works of al-Jahiz (died 868), one of the greatest prose writers in the history of Arabic literature.

In his role of objective observer of the human scene, al-Jahiz broaches the topic frequently, remarking, for example, that "you will find among women some who prefer women, others who prefer men, others who prefer eunuchs, and yet others who like them all without distinction, and the same holds true with men's preferences for men, women, or eunuchs."

Elsewhere, however, he shows himself quite hostile to homosexuality in either sex, declaring it unnatural and shameful. He also remarks on the abruptness with which male homoeroticism has become a public, and literary, phenomenon, and offers an interesting, if not entirely convincing, explanation.

The revolutionary troops from eastern Iran who installed the Abbasid dynasty of caliphs in 750, he tells us, were forbidden to take their wives with them on campaign and resorted for sexual satisfaction to their pages; they then brought this newly acquired taste to Baghdad, where it has since flourished.

Besides its inherent implausibility, this explanation fails to account for an obvious continuity with both sexual and literary patterns known from the pre-Islamic eastern Mediterranean, and one that is deducible, although evidence is largely lacking, for the pre-Islamic Iranian world as well.

Al-Jahiz would not have known much about these earlier traditions, but, ironically, his own work reflects them. Certainly his most extended discussion of male homosexuality is to be found in his well-known Maids and Youths, a debate between proponents of the love of boys and the love of women (won by the latter, which is not surprising, given al-Jahiz's own views).

The advocate of boys lists such advantages as their not menstruating or getting pregnant and their generally greater availability, whereas the advocate of women points out that boys are attractive for only a very short period--until their beards grow--but women can retain their allure into their forties.

What is striking is that the form of this debate, as well as many of its arguments, parallels similar debates in the Greek literature of late antiquity. Similarly, poems on the beard topos look almost like--but are not--translations of Greek poems preserved in the sixth-century Greek Anthology.

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