The Kiss and the Word - Oriental Love Scenes
Samira still lives with her parents in the Old Town of Damascus. A newly-married couple has just moved into the apartment upstairs. Rolling her eyes, Samira says that she’s been having trouble getting to sleep lately. Every night it’s the same thing. It starts with the clacking of high heels on wooden floorboards that resonates through the ceiling of her bedroom. Then there’s a rhythmic squeaking, accompanied by a duet of groans. Samira herself is far removed from such scenes, because although she has just turned thirty-two she is still unmarried, and therefore still untouched.
Extramarital sex is frowned upon throughout the Islamic world; in some countries it is even forbidden by law. In Saudi Arabia adultery is punishable by death; people are whipped for violating the law that enforces segregation of the sexes, and the country is swarming with plain-clothes vice police. Any hint of romance is nipped before it gets a chance to bud. The Western cliché of prudish and sexually repressed Islam seems to fit. Yet even in Saudi Arabia there is no law that interferes in the sex lives of married couples. In this context not only is everything allowed, it is also desired.
Woman as eternal temptress
As early as the eleventh century al-Ghazali claimed that Oriental people had a very sensual disposition. The Persian religious philosopher extolled sexual satisfaction as one of the unbeatable advantages of having a wife – alongside cooking, cleaning, and the bearing of children. In the twelfth volume of his revival of the religious sciences, Of Marriage, he wrote about sex drive: ‘The desire that is associated with its satisfaction […] is intended to indicate the promised bliss of Paradise, for it would be futile to give someone the prospect of a bliss he had never experienced.’ Paradise as eternal orgasm. Matrimony, however, is also reliable protection for a man against the seductive power of other women. Al-Ghazali quotes a saying of the Prophet as proof of this: ‘When a woman comes, it is as if a devil came. Therefore if one of you sees a woman and finds pleasure in her, he should go to his wife, for with her he will find the same as with the other.’ Of course, Mohammed knew the old maxim: whet your appetite elsewhere, but do your eating at home. But why a devil? Arab feminists like the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi see Islamic matrimonial tradition as having one origin above all: man’s fear of the eternal temptations of womanhood. A woman can drive a man mad with her charms, control him and, above all, distract him from his important religious duties. This also almost happens in the Biblical story of Joseph the dreamer. Zuleika is the beautiful and cunning wife of Potiphar, who took Joseph in to his house when he was young. She falls in love with Joseph, who grows up to be an attractive young man, and then she just can’t leave him alone.
In the Koran the life of Joseph is related in the twelfth sura, the sura called ‘Joseph’. It is a particular favourite, above all because of the very erotic version of the seduction scene. One day, by chance, Joseph and Zuleika happen to be alone in the house. According to the Koran, ‘…she in whose house he was sought to make himself yield (to her), and she made fast the doors and said: Come forward. […] And certainly she made for him, and he would have made for her, were it not that he had seen the manifest evidence of his Lord. […] And they both hastened to the door, and she rent his shirt from behind.’ As luck would have it, the unsuspecting husband has just arrived at the door. The scorned woman quickly turns the tables, claiming that Joseph wanted to seduce her and must be punished immediately. However, the evidence is against her, and initially Joseph is spared. All that’s left for the husband, who so narrowly escaped being cuckolded, to say is: ‘Surely it is a guile of you women; surely your guile is great.’
Joseph almost succumbed to the beautiful Zuleika, but he was lucky, because God was on his side. Nonetheless, his example shows how dangerous womankind, those crafty temptresses, can be for men. A woman must therefore know her limits within a marriage and subordinate herself to her husband. Once she has been domesticated, the man – so al-Ghazali seems to tell us – at last has time for the important things in life: pious prayer, religious study, a water pipe and political discussions with his friends in the coffee house.
Klepacki: The Kiss and the Word (pdf, 236 KB)
Translation: Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Fikrun wa Fann