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Monday 19 September 2011

Abu Nuwas, Islamic Poet of Male Love

Although in the modern world, the Islamic countries are known as those most hostile to male love, it was not always so.  In earlier times in the Moslem lands, famous Iranian and Arab poets such as Hafiz i-Shirazi and Abu Nuwas praised and rued the charms of boys (whom they plied with wine and seduced). Sufi holy men from India to Turkey sought to find Allah by gazing upon the beauty of beardless youths. Storytellers included gay love tales in the Thousand and One Nights. Artists like Riza i-Abbasi amused kings and princes with exquisitely wrought erotic Persian miniatures and calligraphies. Mullahs and censors railed against male love, but men of all walks of life, from Caliphs to porters, delighted in it and all looked forward to being attended by fresh-faced tellaks (masseurs) in the hamam, and “unaging ghilman (youths) as beautiful as pearls” in paradise.

Abu-Nuwas al-Hasan ben Hani Al-Hakami (756–814), (best known simply as Abū-Nuwās), was one of the greatest of classical Arabic poets, who also composed in Persian on occasion. Born in the city of Ahvaz, in Persia, where his father was from southern Arabia and his mother was Per­sian. His first teacher was the poet Waliba ibn al-Hubab (died 786), a master who initiated him into the joys of pederasty as well as poetry.

Originally trained in theology and grammar, he gained his great fame as a poet who excelled in lyrical love poetry, in lampoons and satire, and in "mujun" - frivolous and humorous descriptions of indecent or obscene matters. As with many other Islamic poets, he particularly celebrated in his poetry the love of wine - and boys. As one of the earliest Arab poets to write lyrical love poetry about boys, his achievement and influence  helped to bring the genre to great heights.

Abu Nuwas' poetry is characterised by an astonishing lack of inhibition and one of the most attractive features of his diwan is the extent to which his verse reveals its author's personality. What emerges is a likeable, if rather louche, character with an outrageous sense of humour, sharp wit, unaccompanied by malice, and considerable sensibility who let no convention save, on occasion, the order of the caliph, restrain him in his pursuit of life's sensual pleasures. In his khamriyyat, Abu Nuwas offers a glimpse of the hedonistic and dissipated world he inhabited: the world of Baghdad high society at the zenith of the Abbasid caliphate.

I die of love for him, perfect in every way,
Lost in the strains of wafting music.
My eyes are fixed upon his delightful body
And I do not wonder at his beauty.
His waist is a sapling, his face a moon,
And loveliness rolls off his rosy cheek
I die of love for you, but keep this secret:
The tie that binds us is an unbreakable rope.
How much time did your creation take, O angel?
So what! All I want is to sing your praises.

    (Love in Bloom; after Monteil, p. 95)

His preferred type of youth was the pale gazelle, whose face shone like the moon, with roses on his cheeks and ambergris in his long curly hair, with musk in his kisses and pearls between his lips, with firm boyish but­tocks, a slender and supple body, and a clear voice. Beardless boys held the great­est attraction - the growth of hair on the cheek was likened to that of apes - but here also Abu Nuwas flouted social norms by describing down on the cheek as erotically appealing, since it preserved beauty from indiscreet glances and gave a differ­ent flavor to kisses.
The only woman who played an important part in his life was Janan, a slave girl, but, because of his libertine conduct, she never trusted the sincerity of his love. When she asked him to renounce his love of boys, he refused, saying that he was one of the "people of Lot, " with reference to the Arab view that the Biblical Lot was the founder of homosexual love. Abu Nuwas was sexually interested in women or girls only when they looked like boys, but even then he considered their vagina too dan­gerous a gulf to cross. As he said (symboli­cally): "I have a pencil which stumbles if I use it on the front of the paper, but which takes great strides on the back." He also wrote about the pleasures of masturbation, which he saw as inferior to the love of boys - but preferable to marriage.

Although his fame rests on his erotic verse and flagrant disregard for religious rules, towards the end of his life he underwent a change of heart, and once again devoted himself to religious studies.

See also:

Abu Nuwas, the first and foremost Islamic gay poet (Gay Art History)

Abu Nuwas (c. 757- c. 814) (Encyclopedia of Homosexuality)

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