Sensuality and Sexual Topographies in the Middle East and North Africa

Two Lovers by Reza Abbasi, Persian miniaturist 16th century. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A rich intellectual engagement in matters related to sexuality occupies the histories of the Middle East and North Africa and mediates a worldly cultural legacy across the region in visual and literary arts. Of special significance are the bahnames that were written primarily in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish beginning in the ninth century. Circulated widely across the region, bahnames were texts that were written to teach, enlighten, and guide individuals about sexuality and its practices. The word derives from the words bah [‘sexual desire’ in Arabic] and name [‘booklet’ in Persian] to mean ‘book about sexuality’. Inscribing sexuality as an absolute necessity for health, bahnames disclosed detailed and lengthy accounts of sexual intimacy that epitomized thoughts and sensations associated with emotional and spiritual fulfillment. Much of these literary pieces not only revived and reworked underlying attitudes toward sexuality but also set the stage for unfolding a poetic expression for human sexual intimacy.

The bahname literature foregrounds the larger cultural context in the region in terms of mapping attitudes towards the sensuality and sexuality of the human body. Building on the notion of the human body as a site of desire, pleasure, and passion, written works such as Sheik Nefzawi’s ‘Perfumed Garden’ deliver narratives that move away from reproductive sexuality towards erotic desire and sexual diversity. Written in the 15th century, Nefzawi’s work attests to the ways in which the enjoyment of sensory experiences has been the locus of sexualities in the region. Privileging the self with agency to critically determine the means by which sexual pleasure can be sought, the ‘Perfumed Garden’ and other bahnames were in essence an extension of cultural and historical assumptions regarding bodily sensuality. In this worldview, sensuality aligned with bodily awareness cultivating engagement not merely in sexual practices but in personal hygiene, birth control methods, impotence solutions, and diet regimens for reaching fulfilling sexual lives. Bodily awareness, then, incorporated a self-conscious involvement in nurturing the body-soul relationship in order to achieve serenity and happiness. In particular, bathing practices exemplified these ideals as they directly related to mind-body awareness. A visit to the region or a look at its history reveals that throughout the centuries, bathing practices in the region have expanded to promote public health and personal hygiene. Influenced by ancient Roman baths, hammams [hamam in Turkish; hammām in Arabic; hamam ‘to be warm’ in Hebrew] proliferated throughout the Middle East and North Africa region. A unique feature of the bathing practices in the hammams was the principle of using flowing water instead of immersing oneself in standing water. This tradition which is rooted in core ideas about cleanliness continues today as a moral obligation. The movement of clean water from the head down towards the feet mediates the ideal of the healthy body and the cultivation of the senses. In the hammam, the body is unclothed and autonomous. It is free to experience sensual pleasure reverberating Sheik Nefzawi’s description of the ‘Perfumed Garden’ as a means to the soul’s recreation. Hence, the hammam is fundamentally where the contours of this inclusive and liberating worldview, which celebrates the sensuality of the human body, can be traced.

It is important to note that bahnames did not merely give accounts of sexual intimacy but embodied an engagement with the concept of sexuality as a transformative sensual practice. They contemplated an intrinsic affinity between sexuality and mental health which opened up spaces to depart from mandated normative gender and sexual categories. By granting sexual pleasure equally to all sexes, the bahnames socially and culturally transformed ideas regarding the human body, its sensuality, bathing practices, and good health. The cleanliness of the unclothed body brought into view the mind-body connection confirming pleasure and health as major nodes in the sexual, social, and cultural topographies of the Middle East and North Africa. These textured topographies unearthed fundamental conceptions and presuppositions regarding human sexuality and unfolded sexualities beyond gendered notions. 

 The cleanliness of the unclothed body brought into view the mind-body connection confirming pleasure and health as major nodes in the sexual, social, and cultural topographies of the Middle East and North Africa. These textured topographies unearthed fundamental conceptions and presuppositions regarding human sexuality and unfolded sexualities beyond gendered notions
. Hence, bahnames and bathing practices not only hint at the ways in which they were instrumental in making sexuality intelligible and pleasurable, but also provide insight into the scope of sexuality which was expanded to mean sensuality, empathy, respect, and desire for discovery.

Accepted and welcomed as the very condition of the human experience, sensual pleasure and sexuality continue to prove to be diverse and non-monologic in the Middle East and North Africa region. The profundity of notions associated with sexual, mental, and spiritual health capture a terrain of deep historical and philosophical engagement with human sensual pleasure. Given that representations of “Oriental” and/or “Eastern” sexualities have historically opened up tantalizing scenarios in the Western imagination, it is intellectually fascinating to engage in inquiry about the ways in which sexualities in these geographies have denoted difference and impropriety.

Today, we can align our scholarship with the newly emerging habits and thought systems in the region to explore the many newly emerging sexual subject positions especially in the context of ongoing political conflict, globalization, new technologies, and neoliberal ideologies. In this way, we can produce new conversations about sexualities in the Middle East and North Africa and collaborate on studying the nuanced complexities of its everyday.

Iklim Goksel is an ethnographer specializing in rhetorical theory/criticism, gender and sexuality studies, Turkey, and the Middle East and North Africa. She earned her Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Rhetoric from the U of Illinois at Chicago.

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