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Middle Eastern Literature: Arabic  
 
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The expression of male sentiment is one of the dominant themes in classical Arabic literature from the ninth century to the nineteenth.

In poetry, traditionally considered the supreme art among the Arabs, love lyrics by male poets about males were almost as popular as those about females, and in certain times and places even more popular. But in prose literature as well, including such varied genres as anecdotal collections, vignettes in rhymed prose known as maqamat, shadowplays, and explicit erotica, homoerotic themes, mostly male but also female, are anything but rare.

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Even though homosexual behavior is condemned in the strongest terms by Islamic law, a position reiterated by numerous legal and pietistic works devoted to the subject, homoerotic love generally appears in poetry and belles lettres as a phenomenon every bit as natural as heteroerotic love and subject to the same range of treatments, from humorous to passionate.

This striking affirmation of homosexuality does not, however, go back to the earliest period of Arabic literature. In the extant poetry from the sixth, seventh, and early eighth centuries--from a generation or two before the advent of Islam through its first century--there are virtually no references to homosexuality at all.

It was during this period that love poetry developed into an independent genre, or rather two, one playful and teasing, the other, known as udhri verse, passionate and even despairing; but both were initially uniformly heteroerotic.

Abu Nuwas and Pederastic Love

Then, quite abruptly in the late eighth century, in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the newly founded capital at Baghdad, a generation of poets began to celebrate the illicit joys of wine and boys, in verses whose sparkle and charm have made the most famous of them, Abu Nuwas (died ca 815), one of the glories of Arabic literature.

The love celebrated by Abu Nuwas is of a type familiar from ancient Greece. The objects of his affection are adolescent boys, whose charms are conventionally described in terms virtually identical to those for women: wide hips, a narrow waist, languid eyes, and so forth.

The sexual goal, implicitly understood in his chaster poems but graphically described in the more licentious ones, is anal intercourse, with the poet taking the active role. The boy is presumed to submit, if he does, out of mercenary rather than sexual motives, while the poet, as penetrator in the sexual act, retains his masculinity intact.

An interest in boys was fully compatible with an interest in women, and even Abu Nuwas wrote a number of love poems directed at the latter. Besides their physical attractions, boys and women also shared a subordinate status in society; in poetry about boys this subordination is often further emphasized by making the boy a member of the lower classes, or a slave, or a Christian.

Since drinking wine is forbidden by Islam, taverns were normally run by Christians, and one of Abu Nuwas's favorite themes is the seduction of a Christian boy serving as cupbearer during a night of revelry in one of these taverns.

Convention stated that a boy lost his allure once he became adult, the transition being marked by the growth of his beard. The first down on the cheeks was universally considered an enhancement of the boy's beauty, but also heralded its imminent termination.

This crucial transition became an extremely popular topos for poetry and soon enough generated a response defending the unspoilt beauty of a fully bearded young man. Both points of view continued to find advocates for centuries, resulting eventually in anthologies of "beard poetry" devoted exclusively to this debate.

Nevertheless, the age differential between active and passive partners in a male homosexual relation remained crucial since the sexual submission of one adult male to another was considered a repugnant idea in this society and assumed to be the result of a pathological desire to be penetrated.

The adult passive homosexual was an object of derision, and not normally a subject for poetry, an exception proving the rule being the licentious poet Jahshawayh (ninth century) who flaunted his passive homosexuality and wrote panegyrics on the penis.

The Two Genres of Erotic Verse

Explicitly sexual poetry such as Jahshawayh's fell under the generic rubric "licentious" (mujun) and was distinguished from the chaster love lyric (ghazal). From the time of Abu Nuwas, both of these genres were cultivated in both heteroerotic and homoerotic varieties, and the speed with which the homoerotic love lyric, in particular, became established in the normal poetic repertoire is astonishing.

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