The ancient ‘Arabic Kama Sutra’

by JOOBIN BAKHRAD

Similar to the book of the One Thousand and One Nights, The Perfumed Garden is narrated in a lively style PHOTO/Alamy

A 15th-Century collection of erotic stories called The Perfumed Garden challenges Western perceptions about sex and the Arab world, writes Joobin Bekhrad.

When it comes to lust and literature, there is often a tendency to conjure particular images: shades of grey, a little girl named Lolita, or a writhing Lady Chatterley perhaps, and little birds fluttering about every which way. Far before the likes of Nabokov and Nin, however, and before The Joy of Sex was ever a thing, there was the Kama Sutra, the ancient Sanskrit text attributed to Vãtsyãyana and often considered the sex book par excellence.

Even to those prudish and uninitiated in the ars amatoria, the Kama Sutra is a household name; so well-known is Vãtsyãyana’s slim volume that it has become nearly synonymous with erotica. Despite its legendary status, however, there are some who would regard it with little more than a grin. ‘Move over, ye bejewelled, bare-chested beauties’, they might say, gazing at a Mughal miniature depicting a saucy scene in the book, ‘and make way for the Sheikh!’


The Perfumed Garden, while edifying readers, places a heavy emphasis on entertainment

In addition to his famous translation of the Kama Sutra, the redoubtable Orientalist-cum-adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton (not that Richard Burton) also introduced to English readers a 15th-Century text attributed to one Sheikh Nefzaoui of Tunisia. Produced from an earlier French translation of the Arabic original, The Perfumed Garden presents a series of stories, all of which deal with (in vivid detail) the practice of lovemaking – or, as Burton’s translation elatedly refers to it, “coition!”

Unlike the Kama Sutra, which some might look at as largely educational, The Perfumed Garden, while edifying readers on various subjects, such as alternatives for the enlargement of male genitals and “everything that is favourable” regarding sex, also places a heavy emphasis on entertainment. The stories are narrated in a lively manner akin to those of the One Thousand and One Nights and one might argue that its explicit descriptions of all manners of sexual intercourse could put even Vãtsyãyana to shame.

The French manuscript Burton referenced contained a twenty-first chapter on homosexuality and pederasty absent in the extant edition, which Petronius would have doubtless relished. According to various accounts, Burton intended to include it in a revised edition, titled The Scented Garden; however, he died before being able to do so, and this unadulterated edition – along with many of Burton’s other writings – were later burned by his wife Isabel.

‘Spectrum of misperceptions’

Today, in an Arab world that is often portrayed as a sex-free zone and where the very subject of sex is taboo, works such as The Perfumed Garden may appear as freaks of nature or one-offs at best. Such books – “filled with joyous and highly explicit descriptions of sex” – even had heaven’s blessings, according to the academic Sarah Irving: “Far from being some kind of underground medieval Arab porn,” she writes on the ArabLit blog, “these erotic books were religiously approved, their advice seen as part of God’s gifts to humankind”.

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