Recovering the Bawdy Humor of Classical Arabic Literature

Before a modern prudishness took hold, authors displayed an unfamiliar liberality and linguistic playfulness around profanity

Recovering the Bawdy Humor of Classical Arabic Literature
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

In my teenage years, I found classical Arabic literature to be quite dull. I habitually chose the back seat in language classes, watching the faces of my friends, whose expressions mirrored my own boredom and restlessness. Ironically, we studied humor and sarcasm in medieval Arabic fiction, in which I found neither amusement nor wit. The texts were lengthy and tedious. Our teachers would recite passages from classics like the medieval Arabic poet Badi al-Zaman al-Hamadani’s “Maqamat” or anecdotes from al-Jahiz’s “Book of Misers,” a masterpiece of Abbasid-era literature by the ninth-century Arab polymath, which we would then parrot without real comprehension or engagement. Our task was to dissect these texts based on a chosen criterion, identifying commands and prohibitions or attempting to find elements of humor. I exerted much effort trying to pinpoint humor in texts that had never made me laugh.

Initially, I thought the antiquity of the language might be blocking my appreciation of this ancient literature. Yet when I recalled childhood anecdotes and stories that used to make me laugh uncontrollably, even when some words or meanings eluded me, I began to see things differently. This led me to recognize the gap between classical Arabic literature and the version presented in Arabic-language curricula in North Africa. Comparing my personal reading experiences with formal lessons, I realized that the study of Arabic literature in school often doesn’t seek humor for its own sake. Instead, any humor is expected to further pedagogical aims, to cultivate high morals and grammatical correctness in future generations.

I was at an age when youthful energy was effervescent and words flowed freely. I had a penchant for unfiltered anecdotes and jokes, unconcerned with lofty expression or etiquette. I did, however, believe this disregard for propriety was reckless and morally questionable, echoing the admonitions of our teachers who emphasized that good morals begin with pure language. This meant avoiding obscenity or “excessive speech,” as we say in Tunisia.

One day when I was on YouTube, I stumbled upon a poem by the Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nawab that used the word “qahba,” an old Arabic word meaning “whore.” I was so shocked that I initially refused to believe what I had heard. I dismissed the entire poem as if it were nothing but that single offensive word. As I rushed to share this with my friends, their eyes widened and their mouths gaped, and we all burst into laughter. We began to recite the lines where the poet exclaims, “Sons of whores, could a raped woman remain silent? Jerusalem is the bride of your Arabness. Why did you bring all the adulterers of the night into her room?” We reveled in the powerful impact and the rhythmic beauty of these words.

Afterward, we presented the poem with the obscene word to our Arabic teacher. “This is Muzaffar al-Nawab, whom you praised for his noble poems about the Palestinian cause, and about struggle and revolution,” we said, adopting an artificially chaste tone. “Yet, he uses words that stray from the lofty language of writers and poets. Here is one such word we cannot even utter.” Our teacher smiled at our insinuation and said, “It is an Arabic word, and I am surprised that it’s the only thing you took away from the poem. There is nothing wrong with using it when necessary. You often use similar and even more shocking obscenities.”

This encounter with a contemporary Iraqi poet opened up new worlds to me. It prompted a newfound enthusiasm for ancient Arabic literature, uninhibited by the rules or mandates of the Ministry of Education. I delved into the works of the ancients who, in their anecdotes, used language that was even more obscene than al-Nawab’s. I was stunned by how these revered writers seemed to disregard the values and morals of Arabs and Muslims. Judging their words by today’s standards, they would be considered exceedingly vulgar.

That said, I had a personal dilemma. I found myself scrutinizing literature, both ancient and modern, through an exceedingly pious lens. I was torn between being a reader and a moral judge. Eventually, I grew weary of this role and decided to unlearn all these constraints. I started questioning the very notion of morality in Arabic literature, exploring how it related to the words and phrases commonly used in our speech.

I find it fascinating that classical Arabic literature often mirrors the informal and humorous ways we speak among ourselves today. This is not just limited to the content of jokes and anecdotes but also extends to linguistic form, which often eschews loftiness and even indulges in what is denigrated as excessive speech. This was commonplace in social gatherings centuries ago. Stories were told in the same candid manner they were composed, without any hesitation or disgust. One notable example is by al-Jahiz. In his work “The Book of Young Boys,” he discusses how some people express disgust at terms related to sexual intercourse or reproductive organs, like “vagina” and “penis.” “These terms exist for linguistic usage,” he explains. “If it had been deemed inappropriate to use them, they would not have meaning or even exist in the language.”

Al-Jahiz contends that the nature of the content dictates the appropriateness of speech; thus, if a conversation revolves around jokes and jest, it should be free from pretense and modesty. He argues that the concept of excessive speech is meaningless, as certain expressions are essential for certain contexts. If they were genuinely excessive or harmful, they would be prohibited and eliminated from dictionaries. Moreover, he asserts that these words would not be used by those whom we look up to, such as the first and second generations of Muslims. For instance, in his book “Boasts of Servants and Young Boys” al-Jahiz refers to an incident involving the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib. During a gathering with speakers in Basra, Iraq, Ali stated, “He who reaches the height of his father’s penis will wear it as a belt.” This is understood to mean that someone with many brothers will find strong support from them when needed. Similarly, Abu Bakr’s response to a man who threatened Muhammad illustrates this point further. When the man mocked the prophet’s followers, predicting they would flee in battle upon seeing Quraysh’s army, Abu Bakr retorted, “Bite al-Lat’s snatch! You think we’ll let him down?” The jab was directed at al-Lat, a goddess worshipped in the north of the Arabian Peninsula and Hejaz, as a counter to the man’s disrespect.

Al-Jahiz’s discussion of what might be considered obscene was not an outlier. In fact, this perspective was widespread among both his predecessors and contemporaries. For instance, Ibn Qutaybah, a ninth-century hadith scholar and jurist, addressed this topic in “Choice Narratives.” “If you happen to overhear a conversation that explicitly mentions nudity and private parts, or describes indecent acts, do not scornfully dismiss it under the pretense of reverence for God or false piety,” he admonishes an unsuspecting reader. “For the mere mention of body parts is not sinful. True sinfulness lies in dishonoring others, speaking falsehoods, lying, and gossiping about people in their absence.” Contrary to popular belief, Ibn Qutaybah argued that morals and good breeding are not compromised by blunt expressions or by the use of obscene words. Instead, such language is simply one way to discuss certain topics, and it is unreasonable to condemn the speaker for sinfulness or moral degradation based on their words alone.

If we merely browse the titles of books by classical Arab authors, we will find content that would be considered utterly objectionable today. Take, for example, the works of the jurist, scholar and Quranic exegete Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, who lived in the late 15th century and authored books such as “The Scarf on the Merits of Wedlock” and “The Thicket’s Blooms on Knowledge of Intercourse.” Similarly, Abu al-Anbas al-Saymari, a late-ninth-century Abbasid litterateur and poet, wrote numerous treatises such as “Of Lesbians and Prostitutes” and “On Masturbation.”

It would be unsurprising if modern individuals, including those championing chastity and modesty, were to criticize historical figures like Ibn Qutaybah and al-Suyuti for their references to private parts and their alleged breaches of good morals. For it seems less shameful nowadays to insult people’s honor or assault their rights. Indeed, the cornerstone of our morality seems to be avoiding obscene words and little more. In this context, I have come across numerous book rating websites where readers lambast authors simply because they found an offensive word in their writing. These same readers would not hesitate to use a barrage of obscenities to condemn what they perceive as a threat to decent society.

The conventional wisdom taught in North African schools links humor with depth and seriousness. However, revisiting the texts and anecdotes of classical Arab authors reveals that humor wasn’t always intended to convey deeper meanings. Sometimes, it was simply meant for entertainment or relief. For example, in “The Book of Enjoyment and Bonhomie” by Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, who lived in the 11th century in the Shiite Buyid state that ruled lands in Persia and Iraq, the state minister requests an evening dedicated not to discussions of literature and philosophy, but to lighthearted jests. “Let us make this night cheerful and indulge in comedy,” he proposes, “for the burden of seriousness has overwhelmed us, drained our energy, and filled us with distress and anguish.” That night, the conversation is stripped of any pretense of formality, and the anecdotes are straightforward and uncomplicated, freely touching upon all aspects of life.

Among them is a story about Jahdha, a jokester linked to several promiscuous women. One woman’s ring bears the inscription: “For my wedding night trick, they penetrated me with a dick.” Another inscription declares: “Scissoring is precious, but fucking is delicious.” Al-Tawhidi relays these stories without reserve, maintaining the original language without trying to soften it. The comedic effect of these tales depends on such forthrightness in both content and expression. These ring inscriptions, notable for their inherent wit, are presented in rhyming prose where any alteration would diminish the intended effect and dilute the humor completely.

As such, in ancient Arabic storytelling we rarely see the kind of censorship or alteration of words and expressions that is common today. Our ancestors had a more open and intelligent approach, tailoring the language to suit the context of each discourse. For instance, al-Jahiz’s “Boasts of Servants and Young Boys” recounts an anecdote in which Amr ibn al-As, a companion of the prophet, is asked about the meaning of pleasure. “It means shedding seriousness,” he responds, suggesting that seriousness can be oppressive and ought to be set aside occasionally. This sentiment resonates with the Tunisian proverb: “The cure for depression is indulgence” — the soul sometimes requires a break from reality.

In al-Tawhidi’s anecdotes, we find a colorful array of characters — old men, promiscuous women and young boys — often featured in the vibrant humor of today’s soirees and cafes. Most anecdotes highlight mischievous and unruly elders, to the extent that their escapades become proverbial. For example, in Tunisia, the phrase “gray-haired and shameless” is used to describe the unexpected combination of old age with recklessness. Al-Tawhidi includes a humorous poem in which an elderly man “prays seated, but fucks 10 times when standing up.” This serves as a comical illustration of elderly individuals who feign weakness but reveal their true vitality in absurd ways.

Such anecdotes often challenge the conventional associations of old age with dignity and repentance. When elders deviate from expected behavior, it becomes a source of humor, typically more amusing than similar stories about younger people. After all, humor thrives on unexpected contrasts that mix the serious with the comical. This aligns with the linguistic root of the Arabic word “nadira” (anecdote), which signifies something rare, unusual or deviant from the norm. These anecdotes derive their humor from their deviation from expectations. Al-Jahiz, in his treatise “The Humorous and the Serious,” posits that narrating these unusual situations often proves funnier than witnessing them firsthand, as the storytelling style and wordplay introduce additional layers of humor.

One curious aspect of these anecdotes is their use of phrases from the Islamic religious lexicon, often in unexpected contexts. For instance, we find numerous anecdotes addressing topics of a sexual nature drawing on Quranic verses, sayings of the prophet and his companions, and other religious texts. Even supplications are creatively adapted, as al-Jahiz notes in his accounts of devout men praying for sexual potency in surprisingly direct terms. For example, one man’s prayer was, “O God, strengthen my penis so it can penetrate what you have made lawful for me.”

Another, loosely translated, implored, “O God, grant me a penis so long, firm as a stick, endlessly strong, never weary and never ill, fucking from thrill to thrill around the year.” Given the cultural importance of progeny and vitality, these prayers are made openly and without shame, reflecting a practical spirituality unburdened by modesty.

Piety is even woven into discussions of intimacy, as illustrated by al-Jahiz in an anecdote involving the imam and jurist Ibn Abi al-Zannad. Asked about making noises during intimacy, the imam responded, “My son, in private, do as you please. If you were to see your uncle [referring to himself] during intercourse, you would think he has forgotten that God exists.” In Arab culture, grunting and groaning are understood to enhance the sexual experience. The jurist Alaa al-Din al-Mardawi notes that Muhammad allowed vocal expressions during intimacy, although he discouraged them in other contexts.

People often employed Quranic language with wit to avoid accusations of indecency. A recent publication by Al Jamal Publishing, titled “Sex Among the Arabs,” includes a chapter on stories of men caught in homosexual acts who defensively cite Quranic verses. In one incident, a mosque custodian found in a compromising position with a Christian boy quipped to the onlookers, “Doesn’t God say, ‘Whenever they tread on a territory, unnerving the disbelievers — it is written to their credit as a good deed?’” The clever use of scripture extends to speech about sexual acts. For instance, in response to questions about lesbianism, a woman invoked a religious simile: “It is like ‘tayammum’ — permissible when there is no water,” likening the homosexual act between women to a last resort, similar to the dry ablution performed with sand or mud if no clean water is available.

This blending of a religious lexicon with tales of obscenity and indecency reflects how deeply religious language is intertwined with all aspects of culture, including knowledge, literature, prose, poetry, rhetoric and philosophy. In another anecdote from al-Jahiz’s “Boasts of Servants and Young Boys,” a jurist describes an inventive sexual position, advising his companion to “make his penis hard and have the maid sit on it, then to raise his legs and hold on to his toes ‘as a preacher does on the pulpit.’” When the maid asks who has taught him this, he replies, “a blind man,” prompting her to pray for God to restore the man’s sight.

Whenever I read stories from classical Arabic literature, I notice how similar they are to the jokes we tell today. We still poke fun at the same issues, using the same material and even the same words. In Tunisia, for example, jokes are particularly prevalent in certain regions, like al-Jarid in the south. The Tunisian writer and cartoonist Tawfiq Omran explored this in his book “Al-Jarid Through Jokes,” in which he compiled notable anecdotes from the region’s residents, well known for their raucous sense of humor. Unsurprisingly, the elderly and jurists were often the subjects of these stories, much like in ancient literature.

Among the stories Omran recounts is that of a young man who encountered an attractive German tourist. Tempted to sleep with her, he was troubled by the fact that it was Ramadan, during which sex in daylight hours is prohibited and invalidates the fast. Seeking guidance, he consulted the local imam. After some thought, the imam said, “Look, my son, Ramadan comes and goes. But the German, she may never come back.” The humor in this situation arises from the fact that the imam doesn’t commit the act himself, yet he seems to give the young man permission, as if indulging his own hidden desires.

In his book “How Tunisians Became Tunisians,” historian al-Hadi Taymoumi discusses the role of obscenity as a core but often embarrassing aspect of the Tunisian personality. He traces its roots to periods of decadence, sexual repression and the influence of the Berbers, who are noted for their sexual liberalism. Taymoumi argues that this trait is deeply embedded within Tunisian culture and not limited to society’s fringes. He cites the example of the 14th-century saint and scholar Ahmed bin Arous, who frequently engaged in jocular and obscene exchanges with women, unconcerned about being labeled a heretic. This leads Taymoumi to reflect on the potential behaviors of those considered less virtuous, suggesting a widespread cultural acceptance of such conduct.

In my observations, there is a notable parallel between the humor of the ancients and today’s reality. Religious terminology continues to be deeply embedded within narratives of obscenity and flirtation, a practice evident in Tunisia and known as “takhil” (from the word “kohl,” implying a man is enchanted by a woman’s allure). This usage often borders on reverence; for instance, a man captivated by a woman’s physical attributes might exclaim, “God is great!” while admiring her form. I recall an elderly man, well advanced in years, complimenting a woman as she passed by a cafe with the phrase, “So blessed is Allah, the best of creators,” which is also a verse from the Quran (23:14). A few years ago, a humorous video circulated of an Egyptian imam advising young men on how to behave at beaches where they might see topless women. He suggested they should counter any temptation or nudity by reciting the most beautiful names of God. In doing so, they could intertwine enjoyment with seeking forgiveness, thus achieving both pleasure and piety simultaneously.

This playfulness demonstrates the flexibility of Arabic, even when used in humor and humorous deception. This adaptability is still apparent in contemporary Arab societies. In Tunisia, a distinctive form of deceptive wordplay known as “ghisha” is derived from the Arabic word “ghish,” meaning “trickery.” This practice is characterized by altering common words to imply explicit meanings or using metaphors to subtly reference obscene actions or private parts.

Perhaps one of the most skilled practitioners of ghisha was the Abbasid poet Abu Nuwas, known for his love of young boys. According to “Sex Among the Arabs,” Abu Nuwas was once asked why he paid more for the company of boys than for eunuchs. His response: “Because with a young boy, you have two pawns with which you can move the king to the center of the board.” The suggestive nature of his reply needs no further explanation.

In Tunisia, ghisha is commonly employed in a humorous context, engaging people of all ages, from the young to the elderly. It features prominently in Tunisian comedy shows and is a significant element in television sitcoms. However, if ghisha crosses the line from playful insinuation to overt offense, it can trigger public outrage and spark debates over artistic standards and the promotion of good morals. In some cases, television shows may be banned from broadcasting if deemed to have used ghisha excessively.

Victims of ghisha, often characterized by their dignified demeanor and good intentions, include individuals who struggle with speech impediments, making them unwitting targets of these linguistic traps. I’ve observed traces of ghisha in ancient literature, long before it became a recognized element of Tunisian culture. For example, in “The Book of Eloquence and Demonstration,” al-Jahiz tells a story about a slave named Fil who had difficulty pronouncing certain letters. One day, he attempted to ask his master for a zebra, but said “hebra.” When he tried again, intending to ask for a donkey, he mispronounced the word “eer” (mount, or any animal), saying “ayr” instead, which closely resembles the word for penis. His amused master responded, “The first is easier to procure!” Typically, ghisha is not malicious; it often unfolds as a benign, irrepressible joke.

In addition to ghisha and its entrenched role in our language, some stories from the ancients have persisted in the Tunisian popular imagination with unchanged narrative structure, wording and clear meanings. One such tale involves a young man who had sex with a she-goat, but his penis became stuck and they could not be separated. They were admitted to a hospital. I was surprised to learn how widespread this tale is across Tunisia, to the extent that the protagonist is known by name. However, I found a similar story in “The Book of Eloquence and Demonstration,” written centuries earlier. In that version, it was said: “A man took a dog, and it clamped onto his organ, leaving him trapped and humiliated, running around with the dog wherever he went. Another man advised him, ‘Strike it by the sides.’ When he did, the dog released him. The man then exclaimed, ‘May God shame that expert dog-fucker.’” Substituting a dog with a goat does not fundamentally alter the narrative. Various classical Arabic treatises record such incidents involving humans and animals, with the identity of the human participant changing in each account.

Classical Arabic writers enjoyed a level of freedom that feels alien in today’s Arab world. We view Arabic literature through a Victorian lens, reminiscent of the censorship prevalent in Britain when much public discussion of sexuality was criminalized as obscenity. This foreign moral framework has led us to judge Arabic literature unfairly, prompting embarrassment, concealment and the erasure of elements deemed offensive to modesty and morals.

This ultraconservative stance is not confined to ancient texts but also impacts Arab writers and poets of the Arab Renaissance during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many have been criticized for producing literature that allegedly incites sexual desires and disturbs public sensibilities. A notable example is Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, whose film adaptations were criticized for their explicitly sexual dialogue. Furthermore, Mahfouz faced severe persecution for his novel “Children of Gebelawi,” which extremist religious groups condemned as a clear disavowal of God and a mockery of the prophets. This backlash culminated in a stabbing attack that nearly took his life.

Those who position themselves as guardians of morality argue that discussing sex and explicitly mentioning body parts is an alien Western influence that our societies must be shielded from. Ironically, this puritanical attitude was itself imported from the West. Historically, Arab societies hardly experienced this kind of suppression of sex, whereby expressions of sexuality are prohibited unless they pertain to procreation, and any deviation from this norm — whether in speech or action — is branded as immoral.

This restrictive attitude extends beyond writers and novelists to include translators. For example, in a review on Goodreads, the Jordanian writer Ayman al-Atoum criticized Palestinian translator Saleh Almani for his translation of “In Praise of the Stepmother,” by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Al-Atoum argued that this novel “is not ours, does not represent our values or customs, much less our religion and history.” One must wonder, What version of history al-Atoum is referring to? Pre-Islamic, Umayyad or Abbasid? It is likely an imagined history that never existed.

Al-Atoum argued that “In Praise of the Stepmother” and its translation into Arabic are intended to normalize sexual excess and homosexuality, thereby promoting a culture of depravity. He concluded his review by urging Almani to be more discerning about what he translates next. This repressive attitude is reminiscent of educational systems that aim to expose students only to content deemed morally acceptable.

In a similar vein, the novel “Umm Mimi” by Egyptian writer Bilal Fadl was met with angry reactions. “May God forgive you, Bilal Fadl, what is this obscenity?” one reader commented. The novel highlights the lives of “Indigenous Egyptians,” as Fadl calls them, focusing on the marginalized and impoverished. Fadl’s narrative style, a blend of classical and colloquial Egyptian Arabic infused with humor and ranging from religious terminology to street slang, echoes the storytelling techniques of ancient writers. However, this approach has not only led some readers to deem his language offensive but has also drawn criticism from those who accuse him of corrupting Egyptian morals and degrading the linguistic heritage of the youth. Furthermore, extremist religious groups have targeted him with accusations of apostasy and blasphemy.

In 2012, the Salafist leader and founder of the Salafist Vanguard Group, Ahmed Ashoush, authored “Bilal Fadl: Caller of the Devil.” The book’s title is a play on the name of the prophet’s companion Bilal bin Rabah, known as the “Caller of the Prophet.” Ashoush accused Fadl of promoting heresy and secularism through his books and films.

The scrutiny of morality in literature today goes beyond policing language and innuendo; it extends to discussions about sex, alcohol, drugs and politics. Censorship thus operates on two levels: the internal censorship of one’s conscience and external censorship through the deletion and confiscation of content deemed harmful to the moral and political fabric of these societies. There are numerous examples of this, including the ban on “An Apartment Called Freedom” by Saudi writer Ghazi al-Gosaibi. This novel was censored in his country because of its candid references to sex, alcohol and the political climate of the Arab world in the 1950s. Self-proclaimed moral authorities exhibit a profound fear of anything perceived as Western or culturally incongruous. However, the reality is that the themes explored in these works are not foreign imports but emanate from within the heart of Arab societies. These narratives reflect common concerns, joys and tragedies, employing language and expressions deeply rooted in Arab cultural heritage, passed down from generation to generation.

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