September 17, 2023

Sexual Themes in Arabic fiction

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A World Governed by Desires

Arab literary heritage abounds with books discussing all aspects of sexual relationships, celebrating the body, glorying in sensual pleasures, and relating saucy jokes and anecdotes. Many of these were written by respected imams and were read widely for centuries. Both before and after the advent of Islam, Ancient Arabic poetry was packed with bold, erotic tropes because the Arabic language has always been concerned with the body and its desires, and has a full dictionary of terms for lust.

For their part, the stories of Alf laylah wa laylah (A Thousand Nights and One Night) have made a huge contribution to the Arabian library. With their narrations embodying the freedom of the folkloric mind, they focused liberally on sex and lust, and their role in determining destinies. All of this was in a language free from any limits, running counter to the dictates of the religious and social authorities.

For many reasons and through multiple translations, the Nights played a pivotal role in establishing how the world, especially the West, perceives the Arabian East. This perception has ranged between two polarised visions: either a lustful East drowned in desires, even in immorality, which is encapsulated in the notion the West has about harems, or a puritanical Orient that does not know the road of bodily pleasures at all, where any sensual experiences happen covertly and people live a hypocritical existence in which their secret lives are at odds with their public personae.

For their part, the stories of Alf laylah wa laylah (A Thousand Nights and One Night) have made a huge contribution to the Arabian library. With their narrations embodying the freedom of the folkloric mind, they focused liberally on sex and lust, and their role in determining destinies.

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