New Perspectives on Erotica, Love and Humor in Arabia

A book review 

erotica arabia harem

New Perspectives on Erotica, Love and Humor in Arabia

Last weekend I finally started reading “Erotica, Love and Humor in Arabia”, the new book by historian, musician, and my dear friend Dr. George Sawa. It’s a collection of translated stories and poems from ‘The Book of Songs’ by al-Isfahani, written in the 10th century. “What?!”, you would ask me, “how could a historical book about such topic be related to Arabian culture?”

When we think about sensuality and sexuality in Arab societies, the first things that may come to mind are images from the Arabian Nights with their harem stories and the main heroine Scheherazade. At the same time, we may fall into the trap of feeling guilty of applying orientalist connotations to a very conservative culture that has nothing to do with Western exotic fantasies about harems and odalisques.  But is it really so, or is it just a one-sided view on the subject? 

oriental book arabian nights stories

The book perfectly challenges stereotypes and impressions regarding how we label cultures as conservative or open, as well as shows how differently we express ourselves about love and sexual relationships.  The hilarious, embarrassing and heartbreaking content of the book, as described by author himself, has both entertainment and educational goals. 

Dr. George Sawa has grouped translations into different chapters according to the main theme of each story, and, honestly… one could not avoid but blushing while reading even the table of contents, not to mention the actual stories. It’s truly shocking in its straightforwardness: penis and vagina, sexual acts, erectile dysfunction, big ass, small ass, homosexuality, etc.  From the very first page you realize that it is very different from everything you might have read before on this subject, or might have expected to read. For instance, the excerpt “Make my pants my necklace, and stick my anklet to my earring” would more likely evoke images of the Kamasutra, rather than a historical text from Arabia.

The original text is based on a collection of oral and written stories that pictured the life and thoughts of poets and musicians of early Islamic societies in Mecca, Medina, Baghdad and Damascus.  All stories and poems depict a very open-minded society that was not ashamed to talk about sex, praise male and female bodies in poetry and songs, as well as treat women as equal to men in their rights to openly express sexual desires. What impressed me the most is that al-Isfahani was actually sponsored by the government, where the vizier asked him to create a comprehensive account of artists’ lives at those times, including these spicy stories.

Orientalism new book

The book contains not only provocative anecdotes directly related to sexual acts, but a lot of romantic, flirtatious and heartbreaking love poems as well. Those stories show all the richness and creativity of language and spoken craft of that time. Some are very metaphorical, others are more literal in expressing desire or longing. All together they give some understanding of what would later become inspiration for the Arabian Nights, or even for more recent dramatic lyrics of classic songs performed by Um Kalsoum, Warda, Farid El Atrash, and other singers of the 20th century Golden Era. 

To me as a dancer, the novelty of the stories captured in “Erotica, Love and Humor in Arabia” is a completely different prospective on what we consider conservative or open-minded societies. Real culture is much more fluid, complex and nuanced, not fitting into any one-word label.


Have you already read the book "Erotica, Love and Humor in Arabia"? Share your impressions in comments below! :)


Author and model: Iana Komarnytska

Photographer: Pedro Bonatto

On photos above:

Skirt: Mundo Egípcio
Lipstick: O Boticario, Make B
Hair color: by World Salon

Book "Erotica, Love and Humor in Arabia". Translated and edited by George Dimitri Sawa.

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