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three pairs of lovers with space



A story from the mediaeval Arabic Thousand Nights and One Night. There are striking similarities between the debate described in this tale and The Debate of Ganymede and Helen composed in twelfth-century Christendom.

The text presented here is from Powys Mathers’ celebrated translation (reprinted London, 1947), volume II pp. 569-577 of Mardrus’s translation into French, where it is recounted on the 390th to 393rd nights. Though in the finest language, it is not the most accurate, so the most significant discrepancies with more accurate translations have been noted, and two omitted poems have been added in blue from other sources.


The Thousand Nights and One Night

On the three-hundred-and-ninetieth night:

Finally Shahrazād told this tale[1]:

The sage Umar al-Humsī relates:

There came to Hamāh, in the five hundred and sixty-third year of the Flight [AD 1167/8],[2] the most eloquent and learned woman in all Baghdad, she whom the wise men of Irāk called the Mistress of the Masters[3]; and there flocked to the same place the most diversely erudite men of that time, for the pleasure of hearing her and asking her questions. For I must tell you that this most marvellous of all women used to journey from country to country with her young brother, for the purpose of holding public argument on the most difficult subjects and of asking and answering questions on science and law, theology and literature.

Wishing to hear her, I asked my learned old friend, al-Salihānī, to come with me to the place of that day's argument. We both entered the hall where the lady Dahīa, for that was her name, sat behind a silk curtain so as not to offend the custom of religion, and placed ourselves upon benches, where her brother served us with fruit and other refreshment.

I had my name and titles taken to Dahīa with the suggestion that we should hold an argument in divine jurisprudence and the interpretation of religious law. While we were waiting for an answer, my friend, the venerable al-Salihānī, fell in love with Dahīa's young brother, a lad of most extraordinary beauty, and could not keep his eyes off him. Dahīa noticed my companion's distraction and, looking at him closely, understood what was engaging his attention. She suddenly called his name, saying: “It seems to me, old man, that you belong to the number of those who prefer boys to girls.”

At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.



She said:

“Certainly,” answered my friend with a smile. “And why?” she asked. Then said he: “Because Allāh modelled the bodies of boys into admirable perfection, making them unlike those of women, and my tastes have always led me to prefer the perfect to the imperfect.” She laughed behind her curtain, saying: “Very well, if you are ready to defend your opinion, I am equally ready to attack it.” Then, when he had accepted the challenge, she continued: “Attempt to prove that men and boys are preferable to women and girls.” Thereupon my friend said:

“For half of my proof I shall rely on logic, and for the other half on the authority of the Book and the Sunnah.

“The Koran says: ‘Men surpass women because Allāh has given them superiority.' It also says: ‘A man’s share in an inheritance shall be twice that of a woman; the brother shall have double the portion of the sister. ’These holy words prove once and for all that a woman is only worth half a man.

“The Sunnah teaches us that the Prophet (upon whom be prayer and peace!) assessed the value of a man’s sacrifice at double that of a woman’s sacrifice.

“From the point of view of pure logic, reason confirms this tradition. Let us ask ourselves simply which takes the first place, activity or passivity? Without a doubt the answer will be in favour of activity. Now man is the active principle in life and woman the passive; therefore, past peradventure, woman is below man and a boy preferable to a girl.”

Dahīa answered:

“Your quotations are correct. I agree that Allāh in His Book preferred men to women in a general sense. But He did not speak specifically. If you seek for perfection, why do you only go to young boys for it? Surely you ought to prefer bearded men, venerable ancients, with wrinkled brows. For such have journeyed much farther along the way of perfection.”

He answered:

"I certainly would prefer them to old women, but that is not the question; for the matter under discussion is the seduction of boys. Surely you will admit that a woman has nothing which can be compared with the beauty of a youth, his supple waist, his fine drawn limbs, the tender mingling of colour in his cheeks, his gentle smile, the charm of his voice? The Prophet himself, in putting us on our guard against so evident a danger, said: 'Do not look long upon beardless boys, for their eyes hold more of temptation than the eyes of hūrīs.' Remember, too, that the greatest praise that a man can find for the beauty of a girl is to compare it with the beauty of a boy. The poet Abū Nuwās expressed that and more, when he wrote:

Boys are best
     When passion's regnant;
They don't have periods
     Nor get pregnant.[4]

Another poet said:

There is a saying of the imam Abu Nuwas,
An authority on the laws of debauchery and madness:
“You who love downy cheeks, enjoy
A pleasure not to be found in Paradise.”[5]

[And another said:]

Allah save her
In our joy!
Shout it forth:
She has thighs
Like a boy
And so can waver
As the palm of the banana
In the North.[6]

“If the beauty of boys was not noticeably superior to that of girls, why should poets make use of the comparison?

“Also a youth is not content only with his beauty; he can ravish our hearts with his language and the perfection of his manners. And how delicious a thing it is to see young down beginning to shade his lips and cheeks, those marriage-beds of roses! Is anything in the world comparable with that charming period of transition? Abū Nuwās said excellently again:

'Over-red with the outcome of hairs.
O what a fault is theirs!
For now the face shows up
Like pearls in a bright green cup;
And as the hairs grow longer
It's a sign his thighs are stronger.
Roses swear faith to his cheek,
His eyelids speak.
His brows reply.
Also the down hides from your foolish eye
That face which gives a poppy to the wine
And has green shade to make the silver shine.

 Another poet said:

They say I am blind to the hairs on that dear face,
Loving it still;
But I could not bear the white of it otherwise.
I loved the barren garden place;
How should I take it ill
When wet Spring paints my garden with surprise?

And another said:

I loved him when he had but roses;
Only a fool supposes
I could forget
Now he has added myrtle, violet . . . .

And another, one out of a thousand, said:

His cheeks and eyes compare
The numbers of their slain,
His sword is of narcissus,
Its handle is of myrtle.
Nay, beauty would dismiss us
And loose her final kirtle
If she could swear
She had got back again
The beauty of her world
This child-hair curled.

“Surely I have given you enough proofs that a lad’s beauty is greater than female beauty at any age.”

At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.


she said:

Dahīa answered: “May Allāh pardon you your fallacious arguments, unless, perhaps, you advance them merely as a joke. Be that as it may, the time has come for truth to triumph; therefore do not harden your heart but prepare to admit the verity of what I say.

“Tell me, in Allāh’s name, where we may find a youth whose beauty is comparable with that of a young girl? A girl’s skin has not only the light and whiteness of silver but the softness of silk. Her waist is a branch of myrtle, her mouth a flowering camomile, her lips two moist anemones. Her cheeks are apples and her breasts are little ivory gourds. Light shines from her forehead and her brows ceaselessly hesitate as to whether they should meet or part. When she speaks, there is a flash as of fine pearls; when she smiles, a river of sunlight flows out of lips sweeter than honey and softer than butter. The seal of beauty has made the dimple of her chin, and her belly is beautiful. The lines of her thighs are excellent, folding one over the other. Her flanks are fashioned all of one ivory and her feet are moulded of almond paste. Her bottom is full and not depressed, the waves of a crystal sea or mountains of the moon. Old man of weak understanding, do you not know that kings, khalīfāhs, and all the great of the annals, have bowed themselves to the yoke of women, considering it a glory? Mighty men have knelt before them, leaving riches, land, father and mother, and even kingdoms for their sake. On their account palaces rise to heaven, silks are woven and stuffs brocaded. Because of them amber and musk, which have a sweet smell, are sought over the whole earth. Their beauty has damned the dwellers in Paradise, has overset the earth, and made rivers of blood to spring forth among all nations.

"You have quoted from the Book, but it is more favourable to my contention than to yours. The Book says: 'Do not look long upon beardless boys, for their eyes hold more of temptation than the eyes of hurīs.’ Now that is direct praise of the hurīs, who are women and not boys. I have always noticed, too, that you, who love boys and wish to describe them, compare their caresses with those of girls. You are not ashamed of your corrupt tastes; you parade them, you satisfy them in public. You forget the words of the Book: 'Why do you seek out male love? Has not Allāh created women for the satisfaction of your desires, that you may enjoy them as you will? But you were ever a stiff-necked people.' When you compare girls with boys, you simply flatter your corrupt desire. We know your boy-loving poets well! The greatest of them all, Abū Nuwās, the king of pederasts, spoke thus of a young girl:

You have no hips
And you have cut your hair,
Also there lies a light shade even
Upon your lips.
Dear child, by these exceptions and this dearth
You'll have two kinds of lovers upon earth
And more in heaven."[7]

At this point Shahrazād saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent.


she said:

“As for the pretended attraction of a beard in young men, a poet has answered that excellently:

Wise lovers fled at the first ugly hair
Which charcoal-smutched that chin beyond compare,
When the white page is covered with black prose
Who but a fool would write his lyrics there?

“Give thanks to Allāh for uniting in women every joy of life, and promising to prophets, saints and all believers, marvellous girls for their reward in Paradise. If the All-Good had thought that there could be any pleasant lusts apart from women, He would have reserved them for and promised them to His faithful servants after their death. But Allah only mentions young boys as being servants of the elect in Heaven; He does not speak of them as having any other function. The Prophet himself (upon whom be prayer and peace!) had no sort of leaning in your direction. In fact he used to say: 'Three things have made me love your earth: woman, perfume, and the beauty of a soul in prayer.’ I cannot recapitulate my argument better than by quoting this verse of the poet:

Between the bottoms of the young
(Now I give freedom to my tongue)
A gulf is fixed.
To approach some is suave incense.
But others, a deep brown offence
Within your garment mixed.
Who dare
A girl and boy -
What hardihood! -
For nard he would
An old sow’s dung. . . .
Between the bottoms of the young
A gulf is fixed.

“But I see that this discussion has excited me too much and made me pass those bounds of modesty which no woman should cross in the presence of sages and old men. Therefore I beg pardon of any who have found such criticism to make in what I have said, and I rely on them to use discretion in telling others of this argument. The proverb says: 'The hearts of well-born men are tombs.’ "

When Shahrazād had made an end of this tale, she said: “That, O auspicious King, is all I can remember of the Flowering Terrace of Wit and the Garden of Gallantry[8].”


[1] In his version, Sir Richard Burton calls this story “The Man’s Dispute with the Learned Woman Concerning the Relative Excellence of Male and Female”, and it is related in his 419th to 423rd nights.

[2] More precisely, between 23 October 1167 and 11 October 1168. However, Burton dates it to AH 561=AD 1165-6, as does Malcolm Lyons in their most accurate translation (2008).

[3] Burton calls her “Sitt al-Mashá’ikh, defined in a footnote as “Lady of Shaykhs, elders in the faith and men of learning.” He does not mention the name Dahīa.

[4] This poem was omitted by Mathers and is taken from Anthony Reid’s The Eternal Flame I (Elmhust, New York, 1992) 296. Though Reid is often an unreliable translator, here he is simple expressing in better verse what was said in other words in the classic translation by Sir Richard Burton, and the most authoritative one by Malcolm Lyons. It is Lyons who confirms that this poem is by Abu Nuwas rather than Mathers’s one further down, beginning “Allāh save her …”

[5] This poem was omitted by Mathers and is taken from Malcolm Lyons, The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights (3 volumes, London, 2008), 420th night.

[6] Malcolm Lyons (The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights (3 volumes, London, 2008), 421st night) render this poem very differently and presumably more accurately as:
     Her buttocks are those of a boy, swaying in love,
     As a branch sways in the north wind.
Sir Richard Burton’s version is similar to this.

[7] Malcolm Lyons (The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights (3 volumes, London, 2008), 422nd night) render this poem very differently and presumably more accurately as:
     A slim-waisted gamine, suited to sodomites and fornicators.
Again, Sir Richard Burton’s version is similar to this.

[8] Girls or Boys? being the 21st and last of the tales recounted under this heading.




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