THE BOOK OF WOMEN BY FAZIL BEY, CA. 1793
The Book of Women (Zenannâme or Kadınlar Kitabı in current Turkish) was one of four erotic poems written in Turkish by “Enderunlu” Fazil Bey (1757-1810), a Palestinian Arab brought up in the imperial seraglio in Constantinople. It describes the good and bad qualities of women of different nationalities and was written as a companion or pendant to his Book of Beauties, which had done the same for boys. The latter was written in 1792-3, so the Book of Women probably very soon after that.
“Perhaps the main importance of these two poems is that they provide the only concise document existing of the manner in which the old Turks, while as yet untouched by Western thought, considered the various nations with which they had come in contact. Also, if Zenan-Nameh gives no very distinct picture of all the women of the world, it at least provides one of the clearest to be found anywhere of the mentality of a Turkish artist in the Eighteenth Century.”
Like Fazil’s other erotic poems, the Book of Women has been periodically printed and suppressed in Constantinople. Though the least interesting of them from a Greek love point of view, it still has much to say about the attraction of boys and is, in any case, regrettably the only one of Fazil’s works to have been translated into English. This was only done in full by E. Powys Mathers in his Eastern Love volume III (London, 1927) and indirectly, “from the racy French version of M. St. J. Bondin, 1895, which is said by scholars to be the first correct European translation of the whole.”
Writing two generations before Bondin, the Egyptian scholar Sheikh Rifāʿah al-Ṭahṭāwī, visiting Paris, noted that “in the French language a man cannot say: I loved a youth (ghulām), for that would be an unacceptable and awkward wording. Therefore if one of them translates one of our books he avoids this by saying in the translation: I loved a young female (ghulāmah) or a person (dhlātan).” Unfortunately, Bondin adhered to this dishonest tradition, pretending that the lover who instigated Fazil to write was a female rather than a boy.
The truth was already known from the detailed description of the poem by E. J. W. Gibb in his monumental A History of Ottoman Poetry:
The plan of the Zenán-Náme, or Book of Women, is nearly identical with that of the Book of Beauties. After a short preface praising God the Creator of the two sexes we have a long section in which the youth at whose instigation the former work is said to have been written is again introduced. He visits Fázil, thanks him for that book, and then prays him to write another in which he shall do for the girls of the several nations what he has already done for the youths. […]The next section, which is interesting through the many allusions it contains to the customs of the time, is of the nature of an Ars Amandi; in it the youth is instructed with considerable detail as to how he must dress and deport himself in order to win the admiration of the fair sex.
Without having either the Turkish original or the means to read it, it is not possible to tell in what other ways the Greek love content of the poem may have been suppressed or reduced in the translation there has been no alternative to using. A few short excerpts were later translated by Anthony Reid. These are actually very similar to Mathers’ rendition, but use “boys” rather than Mathers’s slightly evasive “young friends” or “youth” and are generally more forthright about the poem’s boysexual content, as may be judged from the examples given here in footnotes.
Reasons for the Composition of this Poem
The following chapter is included because the foregoing description of the poem by Gibb makes it clear that the lover whose dialogue with Fazil is its subject was a boy, and not a girl as the translator here pretends:
AS A GALLANT WHO CARRIES THE CUP in a house of pleasure, so am I, Fazil, grave doctor in all learning, drunken with love, and thus unfold my theme. One day that lover who is my torment and the break in my heart, my soul and the abridgment of my world, my cypress that wavers in walking, ran to my wretched house as a falcon returns to her nest. I heard her quick feet upon the stair and my senses fainted; thrice my life was a gazelle startled into flight, and thrice it was pacified; a sweet trouble, as of wine, took hold upon me. At last my lover saluted me with a thousand gestures, giving her body all the curves of lam; then she closed the door and leaned against the wall and waited.
‘Command me,’ I cried, ‘ O excitation filling my face with light! Could any but the Crown Maker and Crown Taker have made those eyes?’
‘My black eyes are extinguished, alas,’ she answered, for they look upon the breast of a youth and remember my separation. I burned for my Fazil as a tulip; he is my nightingale, my flower, and my saz. I came to make a prayer to him, but is this hour suitable? I fear to see my words fall ineffective, an arrow blunted from his breast. If the thorn of my prayer cannot pierce him, then shall the flirting rose of my lips be closed for ever.’
‘O dream of the sea of hearts, I am ready,’ I said. ‘Pay me with the flame of your words and I press my breast to the thorn of the flirting rose. But that you command rather than beg, I beg and command; your orders are my joys, they are cups for all that I have of strength and care, and love is like he who pierced a mountain.’
Although my discourse was lacking in grace, her mouth began to smile. ‘Since you are in this plastic mood,’ she said, ‘may the True God so do that you never find a rival at my knee, or taste of separation, or the tricks of foes, or my ill-humour. Since you have hearkened kindly to my prayer, O you whose mouth is decked with eloquence, and since Khoban-Nameh, that book of every sort of boy, traced to my order, has brought you praises, write now of women. That is the flower for which I sigh, the desire which shakes me, the savoury morsel I hunger for, hot from the fire. Let it be a book consecrated to girls, let it flow from your ink-well. Make a rejoicing portrait of each kind of us, virtuous or abominable, gracious or terrible. And add that which be sweet for lovers. Call it Zenan-Nameh, the Book of Women. It is a serious draught which a schoolboy could not drink, I know, but drain its much bitterness for my sake, Fazil, since, when the work is over, I shall be yours; therefore accept the weariness of the moment, the importunity of the day for me.’
‘O excitation, leave this fatal plan,’ I cried, ‘to Leila or Zuleikha. You who were called Mahpareh, fragment of the moon, how shall I name you now? In this valley and garden of the world was never such a planting, so do not ask it of me. To make our divans for utter shamelessness would stain our reputation. If some feminine eyelet stay agape or has found a thing to close it, does that concern my verses? It is a road of mud I would not willingly stir up, and a low door you should not urge me to stoop through.’
‘Do not wither the king flower of my garden,’ the delight made answer. ‘Break not a delicate girl with words, O unblown rose of mine! Have you bound yourself with black hair, have you grown weary? ’ And then she protested her love for me, saying: ‘By the joy of eyes, the wine of looks, and the night of my salvation, by the holy hour and fibre of my heart, by this sweat and by these mirrors, I would to God that I had never felt such pain! For very pity do not delay this poem, this meat of my desire! If you wish to part, needs it a week to say so? Oh, be propitious, moon who drags my sea!’
But I answered: ‘Do not ask me to show you the wickedness of the world, heart’s resting-place, for I will not dive into that sea. Surely the tricks of the midwife and of the bawd are sacrosanct? The pear is unripe which I refuse you, so do not overwhelm my wiser head.’
‘I would have you ask yourself of every kind, and speak of all,’ she murmured with an angry eye, and the purple rage of the rose was born in her cheek. ‘I will banish you for ever, though not without tears,’ she cried. ‘I swear by the sword of God and by my glances that I will never give you joy, but rather forget the aspects of your face and see no difference in it, and be without hearing until the end. You shall recall the honour done to your house this day and the scent of the roses you have cast aside.’
Then I resolved to follow the good road, and showed myself submissive. The night is big with the morrow, and in this hope the lover should obey.
Begin your babble, pen, go out once more upon the track of rhyme, the cat’s-eye stone of rhyme. Already I have written in praise of youth; I have scattered the dew of my verses for them. But now I will borrow from all wells and tear the hidden thought from the husband’s breast ; my ideas on the subject of women have never been published.
Here, in the shape to which it seduced my dark pen, now lies my poem in its integrity. No older master has dreamed of such a subject.
My two books are as it were the halves of one whole. This may be considered as the pendant, as the legitimate brother of Khoban-Nameh, or as a son born of the same substance.
If you follow my counsel, you may aspire to all the women of the world, and love the pleasant liberties of each in turn; yet do not altogether forget your young friends, for there also is drunkenness.
But in the trouble of my heart my words have wandered; I must return, as she commanded, and speak to you of women.
[...] but now, alas, your women have fallen from favour, O land of singing, and you sit and think of none but your young friends. Therefore these women of authentic paradisal beauty weep because of the young friends, and sigh in their broken hearts that they cannot draw their masters to tender caressing. They live together as if they were strangers, or in two far countries; the people of Persia had already vanished, were it not for the poor.
When Hulagu-KhanKhan reached to Bagdad, he ruined her utterly and put her people to the sword; then came the Arabs out of the desert, and pillaged all. Where are they now? Let this example be a lesson for the Arabs of today; let them realise that their dwelling is the cave of the past, that pleasures with women or young friends are not for them.
The boys and girls are equally ugly in Damascus.
The Islands of the Archipelago
The girls of Cyprus are an exception, but the pretty boys cannot be numbered there. […]
As for the other islands, each has a special and enticing dress, a ravishing distinction; each is a separate heaven of houris, with boys like angels.
GLORY and hail, O cradle of manners, O Constantinople scarfed with graces, O male youth of the land, O female youth !
[…;] for if the Grecian woman is beautiful, the youthful Greek by far surpasses her; and, oh, he burns when he is overcome, his mouth is the breast of a rose fulfilled with dew. It is a sunbeam, cries out one; but another cries: It is the torch of hope.
Interlude on Wantons, on Justice, and the Neighbours
And escape [from condemnation by a tribunal for illicit sex] is even more certain for those who reject women, and cultivate the society of youth. The Imam will still contrive excuse for you, even if you are caught in delight. It is enough to cover your sin with a pious appearance. I, personally, judge pastry by taste, and not by what it seems. ‘This child,’ you should say, ‘is the son of my aunt; I am bringing him up to be the prop of my old age.’
Of most complacent sweetness girls may he,
And boys of a most sweet complacency.
YOU sing the praises of lust in the public square, dark wanderers, then practice it beneath a tent. If a single pretty boy be born into your tribe, you take him willy-nilly.
YOU walk haughtily with an eye to abash misfortune, you women of Albania, but you are ugly. I have seen nothing attractive in your face or body. Yet it might be possible to find one pleasing among you, except in manners.
Yet the sons of these women are cypress-like; their coquetry would ravish a hermit.
Along the Danube
Look not upon a Croatian woman, either, even if her body and her way of life seem pure; she differs in all things from the youth her brother. He is made of rose leaves that a morning air might bruise; he is a place of waters, a love star, a cup to taste upon the couch, with sighs and simpering; he is a light palm tree to be made to waver.
Your boys are as graceless as your girls; they are both like Jews. We would not stay with you for the love of fifty.
 Introduction to “The Book of Women” in Eastern Love vol. III p. xiv.
 E. J. W. Gibb, A History of Ottoman Poetry IV (London, 1905) pp. 233-4.
 Anthony Reid, The Eternal Flame, volume I (Elmshurst, New York, 1992) pp. 362 & 376.
 Arabic-Turkish-Persian letter of the alphabet, having a final scimitar-like curve. [Translator’s note]
 a kind of three-stringed guitar. [Translator’s note]
 The Mongol conqueror Hulagu Khan destroyed Baghdad, formerly the world's most populous city, in 1258.
 Reid has “Greek boys” instead of “the youthful Greek.”
 Reid has “take boys for love-making” instead of “cultivate the society of youth”.
 Instead of “you take him willy-nilly”, Reid has “you are after his body like a wolf.”
 Instead of “cypress-like; their coquetry would ravish a hermit”, Reid has “slim beauties. The love-making of these boys would seduce a Saint.”
 Reid translates this last sentence much more beautifully (and, typically, more explicitly): “His body is soft as rose-leaves. He is an oasis, a love-potion, a delight to lay naked on the bed and to enjoy with pants and heavy breathing. He is like a slender tree, bending to accommodate your need.”
If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org, mentioning either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it.