Poetry of Pleasure: Abu Nuwas
In these days, when religious fundamentalism is gaining power in various parts of the world, including in our own backyard, LGBTQ+ literature is often squarely in the fundamentalists’ crosshairs for banishment from libraries, academic curricula, and even bookstores. Whole generations of writers and their words are at risk of being lost. A history is in danger of being lost.
Among the poets whose voices were silenced by twenty-first century fundamentalist prudery is Abu Nuwas, master of classical Arabic poetry during the period of Baghdad’s Abbasid Caliphate. He was born in Ahvaz, Persia (now Iran) sometime between 756 and 760 (the precise year of his birth is unclear) to a Persian mother and a father who has been identified as Persian or more likely Syrian. His father, a military police officer, died when Abu Nuwas was 10 years old, whereupon his mother moved with her son to the city of Basra.
It was in Basra where the boy’s talent for poetry and literature was noticed and nurtured by noted poet Waliba ibn al-Hubab al-Asadi. Waliba made Abu Nuwas his apprentice, eventually taking him along to the city of Kufa. There is strong evidence that Walibi and the teenage Abu Nuwas formed a sexual relationship.
Through the years in Kufa, and his immersion into the high art of Arab language poetry, the young man started to feel that the elegant Arabic of the poetry was too elitist, too fancy to convey the truth of life. He eventually left Kufa and travelled through smaller cities, picking up the everyday language of everyday people. During these travels, he wrote poetry in a melodious Arabic rooted in the older forms but in a contemporary cadence. He was making a name for himself as an original voice.
In the year 786, Abu Nuwas ceased his traveling and moved to the city of Baghdad, considered the center of learning and sophistication in the Islamic world and beyond. It was in Baghdad that he earned his reputation as a free thinker, a man who merrily defied convention, glorified the pleasures of wine (a taboo in Islamic teaching), and engaged in assorted love affairs. His affairs were mostly (but not limited to) relationships with men, and though love affairs per se were tolerated in the Islamic society of the time, homosexual affairs, like wine, were forbidden.
Despite official religious strictures, Abu Nuwas’s poetry celebrates these pleasures. His Khamiryyat poetry, for example, is an entire cycle celebrating wine. But it was not only wine which Abu Nuwas believed opened the heart and mind to enlightenment. He saw philosophical truth in the beauty of the male body, and even found humor in the passions it aroused, as we see his poem “In the Bath-house”:
“In the bath-house, the mysteries hidden by trousers
Are revealed to you.
All becomes radiantly manifest.
Feast your eyes without restraint!
You see handsome buttocks, shapely trim torsos,
You hear the fellows whispering pious formulas
to one another
(“God is Great!” “Praise be to God!”)
Ah, what a palace of pleasure is the bath-house!
Even when the towel-bearers come in
And spoil the fun a bit.”
His poetry, though much admired in Baghdad’s more sophisticated circles, nonetheless attracted the scrutiny of the religious and state authorities. By all accounts, he did nothing to alter his poetry just to please officialdom. Protected somewhat by Baghdad’s social and intellectual elite, the latter admiring his breadth of knowledge, Abu Nuwas was able to continue writing his erotic poetry and escape the consequences—at least for a while.
The politics of the Abbasid Civil War during the years 814 to 816 could not tolerate what the Islamic clerics regarded as heresy, and Abu Nuwas was briefly imprisoned. He died at the age of 57 or 58 in the year 814, shortly after his release. His cause of death is still disputed.
Not only did Abu Nuwas’s art find a place in Arabic literature, so did his life. He is featured as a character in the grand epic of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights.
The poetry of Abu Nuwas is still admired in certain circles in the Arab world, and condemned as heresy in others. There are monuments to the poet in Baghdad, but in 2001 the Egyptian Ministry of Culture ordered the confiscation and burning of 6,000 copies of Abu Nuwas’s homoerotic poetry.
As we know, the censorial practices of religious fundamentalism are not limited to one part of the world or one era of history. Fundamentalism shows its fist right up to our own place and time. It’s part of the legacy of Abu Nuwas to laugh in its face. ▼
Ann Aptaker is the author of short stories and the Lambda & Goldie award winning Cantor Gold series. Her latest book, A Crime of Secrets, was released July 4, 2023.