Playboy Magazine Jan 2011
The letter from Egypt’s most esteemed religious scholars- old gray men in turbans who act as the country’s moral compass- was provocatively addressed: “To the Boys of the Brothels,” it began. Never mind that there is no such thing as a brothel in modern day Egypt. Their message issued earlier this year, was clear: A pernicious piece of erotica literature had infiltrated Egypt’s borders, its contents so vile, so lecherous and obscene, that it threatened to “destroy our youth and spread vice” throughout the country. The book’s publication was “offensive to public decency.” It had to be banned before it caused “ruin and catastrophe.” Its publishers should be thrown in prison for disseminating pornography.
What trashy piece of “literotica” were there Muslim clerics talking about? Was it the newest Harlequin romance or (heaven forbid) the latest issue of Playboy? No, what they were trying to ban is a one thousand year old epic that is widely viewed as the cornerstone of Middle Eastern literature- the one celebrated piece of writing the Muslim world has ever produced: One Thousand and One Nights.
This is not the first time a Muslim country tries to ban the book (it is already banned in Iran), a fact that may strike some Wrstern readers as a bit odd. After all, most Americans think of One Thousand and One Nights as a children book featuring a cast of disney like characters such as Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin and his magic lamp.
But the truth is those antique turbaned men in Egypt were right about one thing : One Thousand and One Nights is a raunchy, bawdy, burlesque brimming with penis jokes, horny harem girls, threesomes, foursomes and even a bit of bestiality thrown in for good measure. It is no means the only form of “Muslim Erotica”; on the contrary, the Middle East has a long tradition of erotic literature, from the classic 15th century work The Perfumed Garden to Salwa al-Neimi’s 2009 novel The Proof of the Honey, which chronolices the sexual awakening of a young Arab woman. But it is by far the most infamous.
Then the author describes One Thousand and One Nights… how it was translated by the French Antione Galland in 1704 and it was a “chaste translation”. Then after a century it was translated from Arabic by Sir Richard Burton “uncensored” to the Victorian gentleman and was labeled as ” a book for men and students of Muslim society.” Then the book became really famous in the English speaking world.
How things have changed since then. Today, not even the most passionate enthusiast of the Middle East would consider the region to be the font of sexual wisdom and eroticism that Westerners like Burton, Flaubert or even Burroughs once did. It is the west that is viweed as a place of sexual laxity, while the perception of the Middle East is a place of austerity and forced chastity.
Of course , the region still produces some of the most vibrant literature in the world, boasting two recent Nobel Prize winners, the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz and the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. Both men, like many of their contemporaries, have written frequently and openly about sexual relationships between men and women, and both, also like many of their contemporaries, have been criticized and condemned by their religious and political authorities.
Meanwhile, a new generation of writers- such as the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef and the Lebanese -born Jumana Haddad, whose Arab cultural magazine Jasad or “Body,” has caused a sensation throughout the region for its highly sexualized content- are reviving the Middle East erotic literary tradition. Add to this a host of contemporary novels such as Abduh Wazin’s Garden of the Senses, Leila Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris and Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh, which has been called a Saudi Arabian Sex and the City, and it is clear that erotica is still very much alive and well in the region.
Still, one can not ignore the irony that 125 years after Burton used One Thousand and One Nights as a tool of sexual liberation in England, the British read and study the book in public schools, while in the Middle East religious leaders persist in their attempt to have it banned. At least in the case of Egypt, that attempt seems doomed to fail.
After the Egyptian clerics tried to prosecute the publisher of a new Arabic version of One Thousand and One Nights under a draconian obscenity law, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information and the Egyptian Writers’ Union leapt to the book’s defense. Thanks to their efforts, the Egyptian public prosecutor threw out the legal case against the book and Egyptians were able to continue reading a text that so indelibly defined their culture for hundreds of years.
As for the new version of One Thousand and One Nights that the Egyptian clerics were so scandalized by- it sold out within weeks of its release.