- Rowan Borchers
Written in 15th century Arabic, the Tunisian sex handbook The Perfumed Garden might seem irrelevant today – yet generations of translators have poured over its advice. Rowan Borchers examines why this medieval tract, which seems to have found a modern incarnation in a Yemeni photographer’s work, has fascinated sultans and sexologists since the 1410s, and what makes it a must-read.
When the explorer and writer Sir Richard Burton died in 1890, his wife Isabel burnt dozens of his unpublished works. In a letter to the Morning Post, she confessed to destroying his new translation of a medieval Arabic sex manual, The Perfumed Garden. ‘Out of two thousand men, fourteen would probably read it in the spirit of science in which it was written’, she wrote, ‘The others would read it for filth’s sake, and pass it on to their friends, and the harm done will be incalculable.’ Her destruction of the manuscript led to Isobel’s vilification in the press. The incident demonstrated the confused Victorian approach to sexuality: unable to discuss it frankly, foreign depictions of ‘perversion’ like The Perfumed Garden provided an outlet for sexual intrigue.
19th century English interest in The Perfumed Garden is perplexing. The target audience was very different: written between 1410 and 1434 for a minister of the Sultan of Tunis, the treatise is a sex guide for married Muslim men. The contents range from advice on positions, to the shapes of animals’ penises, to cures for impotence. Jim Colville’s 1999 translation includes a poetic summary of the book’s themes:
Women desire what in men cannot last,
Youth, wealth and health, and not coming too fast,
Long-lasting and slow is what women expect,
And for seconds he’s equally quick to erect.
The premise is that women are always unfaithful when left unsatisfied by their husbands. The author, Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafwazi, writes, ‘the tricks of women are more numerous and cunning than those of the Devil himself. The Word of God tells us that ‘the cunning of women is great’, while ‘the cunning of Satan is weak’. We therefore conclude that the cunning of women is superior.’
To overcome women’s infidelity, al-Nafwazi describes how to ensure marital fulfilment. ‘The kind of man who is repulsive to women is of shabby appearance, ugly to look at, and has a small, limp and weedy penis’, he warns. ‘He inserts his flaccid little thing inside her only with the greatest difficulty, jerks once or twice then hauls himself off her, taking longer to do so than he did on the job.’ Al-Nafwazi provides dozens of the nicknames for the penis: rough translations include ‘pigeon’, ‘weeper’, ‘long-neck’, ‘goat’, and ‘Cyclops’.
While the hilarity of names like ‘plunger’, ‘ravisher’, or ‘tinkler’ is cross-cultural, The Perfumed Garden was largely alien to its Victorian English readership. The tract built on a long history of Islamic sexology. The writer Tashkopruzade later said that Ilm al-bah, the study of sex, was one of the sciences which built Islamic civilization. Within this tradition, writing The Perfumed Garden was a serious undertaking: as the sponsor tells al-Nafwazi in the preface, ‘Only an idiot or half-educated fool would laugh at this or shut his eyes to it.’ Al-Nafwazi also builds on Islamic folk tales and rituals – take the derision for Musaylima, who blasphemes by proposing sex in positions which correspond to ritual prayer.
Yet The Perfumed Garden fascinated the quintessential Victorian intellectual and colonialist, Sir Richard Burton. Though he was an establishment figure, Burton was obsessed with colonial depictions of sex, and his raunchy translation of Arabian Nights precipitated the first public debates about pornography. Through the 1870s and 1880s, his underground print house, the Kama Shastra Society, published dozens of erotic Indian and Arabic texts.
For Burton, The Perfumed Garden was the perfect vehicle to explore his interest in homosexuality. Within British art and literature, sodomy was portrayed as a common ‘oriental’ depravity. Burton had previously written about a ‘zone of vice’, extending from the Mediterranean to China, centering on Egypt, ‘that classical region of all abominations.’ His eroticized descriptions of same-sex relationships across the world have led many biographers to conclude that he was bisexual.
With no British version in existence, Burton continued his search for oriental intrigue by translating The Perfumed Garden. When he began work in 1886, he was surprised to find no reference to gay sex. ‘It is only to be regretted that this work, so complete in many respects, is defective in so far as it makes no mention of a custom too common with the Arabs not to deserve particular attention,’ he notes in his translation. ‘I speak of the taste so universal with the old Greeks and Romans, namely the preference they give to the boy before the woman.’
Burton’s first translation had already corrupted the original prose, fabricating exotic details about the Arab world in a florid and exaggerative style. But he remained convinced that The Perfumed Garden had more to offer – a ‘lost chapter’ discussing homosexuality. Burton travelled to French Algiers in search of an original manuscript of the book, which he thought would reference gay activity. Burton dedicated his last years to this second translation of The Perfumed Garden. The project turned al-Nafwazi’s short treatise into a 1,282 page tome, including a 200 page essay on sodomy.
Burton’s wife, Isabel, never understood Richard’s obsession with homo-erotica. After his death, she wrote to a friend asking for advice: ‘Why did he wish the subject of unnatural crime to be so aired and expounded?’ Yet the public demanded Burton’s translations: after Isabel destroyed his revised version of The Perfumed Garden, publishers offered her £6,000 to retrieve another copy.
By focussing on foreign sexual habits, Burton and his peers achieved a degree of frankness otherwise impossible in Victorian Britain. His translations of erotic texts helped westerners reimagine their own sexualities. Colette Colligan, who has written extensively on Richard Burton and homosexuality, argues that his writing ‘appropriates an Arab text and exploits Arab sexuality not only to explore forbidden sexual topics in England, but also to construct fantasies around a compromised European male sexuality.’
Since Sir Richard Burton’s first translations, Al-Nafwazi’s tract has retained public interest. Every decade, new English translations are published, many attempting to correct the Orientalism of Burton’s 19th century prototype. Perhaps this enduring interest is owed to the author’s pertinent approach to sexuality: ‘I may not have been the first to deal with this subject but, God knows, it’s one that needs to be more widely understood.’
By Rowan Borchers