The Perfumed Garden of the Shaykh Nefzawi

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Perfumed Garden of the Shaykh Nefzawi by Shaykh Nefzawi, translated by Sir Richard Francis Burton.

Nefzawi Burton Walton The Perfumed Garden

Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi’s 15th-century treatise Er Roud el Aater p’nezaha el Khater on the amatory arts is consciously written in the tradition of the Kama Sutra, and he refers respectfully to the existing Indian literature on his topic. I found it abundantly more entertaining than the Indian texts, though. For one thing, it is chock full of anecdotes and parables, and this narrative element gives it a richness that is lacking in the esteemed Indian classic. 

Nor is it short on technical detail. When the author provides instruction in the postures most suitable to coitus between short and tall, fat and thin, it seems helpful enough, but when he goes on to different sorts of hunchbacks I began to wonder if he was just trying to dazzle with his encyclopaedism. Modern readers will also be justly skeptical of the abundant apothecary recommendations. The medical lore of Nafzawi includes a pronounced fear that any fluid might ever enter the male urethra, with warnings of the dire consequences. In a related trope, he also often emphasizes the desirability of dryness of the vagina, even during the act of coition (viz. Chapter 13).

Chapter 11 “On the Deceits and Treacheries of Women” contains some of the most delightful stories. Whether their moralization (and similar remarks throughout the book) points to Nefzawi’s own misogyny or to the anticipated chauvanism of his readership is impossible to determine, but they can be read quite differently than to “Appreciate … the deceitfulness of women, and what they are capable of.” In his description of “Women who Deserve to be Praised,” Nefzawi emphasizes their deference and dependence, which is no mark in his favor, but also is at odds with some of the narrative elements. A feminist Straussian reading of this book would be incredibly tendentious, but great fun nevertheless!

My favorite part of the book was chapters 8 & 9 “On the Sundry Names Given to the Sexual Parts” of men and women, respectively. The various titles might be used as secretly auspicious nicknames for people, and Nefzawi goes a far sight beyond Aleister Crowley’s “Glossary of Synonyms and Phrases from ‘The Nameless Novel,'” in that the Arabic author provides specific characterizations expounding on the qualities indicated by each name. 

My copy is the Castle Books edition of the Burton translation, which provides no editorial framing whatsoever beyond the front flap of the dust jacket, with its three paragraphs of sales copy. [via]