The Book of Exposition: A Collection of 15th-Century Erotica from the Middle East (1900)

A decade or so after the famed Orientalist Richard Burton translated Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi’s The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight (1886), an anonymous translator became the first to critically assess and introduce for Anglophone audiences another of the Middle East’s more controversial and enigmatic texts — Kitab al-Izah Fi'ilm al-Nikah b-it-Tamam w-al-Kamal, or The Book of Exposition — a collection of fifteenth-century erotica. Despite there being much dispute over the authorship of the work, from both Western and Middle Eastern scholars over the centuries, The Book of Exposition is nowadays credited to a fifteenth-century Egyptian polymath called Jalal ad’Din al-Suyuti (1445-1505). Although perhaps best known for his co-authorship of Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Tafsir of the Two Jalals), a classical Sunni exegesis of the Quran, al-Suyuti was also a prolific erotologist, writing at least twenty-three treatises on various aspects of the sexual arts.

The two dozen stories he presents in The Book of Exposition are an exploration of promiscuity and sexual taboos under the societal constraints of the Arab-Islamic world. In “The Strange Transformation that Befell a Certain Believer’s Prickle” a man is granted a “Night of Power” in which he is given three wishes to be fulfilled by Allah. Upon learning of the gift his wife insists that he asks for his “instrument” to be lengthened. The wish is granted but when faced with a penis now “as straight as a column which would neither display suppleness, nor show itself capable of the power of elasticity and movement, nor of rest”, his wife is not pleased and threatens divorce. The man uses his second wish to ask Allah to reverse his condition, a wish again granted in extremity — the man’s “prizzle” is now near completely effaced. The third and final wish is used to return him to normal. Other stories like “The Pious Woman and What Happened to Her From Behind” are rather unambiguous in their content. The offerings vary in length, from a few sentences to a few pages, but all clearly stem from a sexually liberated mind and one (be warned) not devoid of misogynistic tendencies.

Although first translated into English in 1886 by erotica enthusiast Charles Carrington, who rendered the title as Marriage-Love and Woman amongst the Arabs, it was the 1900 English edition published by Maison d’Editions Scientifiques, in a run of just three hundred copies, that first sought to critically assess and place the work in its historical and literary context. In addition to an extensive foreword by the translator — whose name is given only as “An English Bohemian” — the edition also includes an expansive section entitled “Excurses”, which offers up appendices of other short erotica, notes, and observations, including an essay by Richard Burton on pederasty (featured also in his 1885 translation of Arabian Nights).

In his opening essay and commentary, An English Bohemian sets out to dispel Victorian attitudes to sexuality through the idolisation of the Oriental — setting up “Oriental Sexuology” as a mystical alternative for aspiring libertines/hedonists. He doesn’t just limit himself to the Orient in his examination of sexuality. He offers an insight into the sexual customs of other lands he claims to have travelled and researched extensively as a former practitioner of medicine: from Loango to the Aztecs, Paraguay to Samoa, Europe to Arabia. Despite his intentions, we perhaps end up learning more about Western attitudes to sex than the those of the non-European cultures he examines. His assertions, in their elevation of Orient over the Occident, appear to be motivated more by a desire to rebel against the prevailing establishment of his own culture than offering a nuanced picture of a foreign culture's attitudes to sex.

(Many thanks to Sherif Dhaimish who brought our attention to the book and upon whose text the above is based).