The Perfumed Bed

There are three delights in digital reading: ease, impulse, and access.

In about a year, I’ve built up a substantial library, all allergy-free, at a fraction of the analog cost. I speak only of the direct cost, because if I were to include time spent hunting for the volumes I buy, my productivity would plummet.

I know there’s a downside, including the personal relation with booksellers, the joy of browsing through Foyle’s or Daunt in London, or Powells in Portland (Or). And there are job losses—lots of them: paper pulp processors, printers, binders, distributors, bookshelf makers…

Impulse and access are intimately connected by a simple equation:

Desire – Fulfillment = Disappointment

But in digital, it’s the hard-to-come-by books that are cheapest, even free. At present, Amazon is the only player, but this monopoly will change. That may well shift the business model to an ad-based one, and that’ll be a damn shame.

Some of the digital offerings available are community projects, and these are all at zero cost. Thus I happened upon Karl May, a German author rarely heard of in the Anglo-Saxon world. I read Karl May in Portuguese when I was ten or eleven—his books were all about the Mid-East.

In particular, I remember wonderful tales of Turkey and northern Iraq, and the Scheytan-worshipping Kurds. Karl May for the US market is all about the Indian wars.

In Winnetou the Apache knight, the hero is admonished to be true to Clod and man—which shows that even God may be lost in translation.

If you want something a little more well-rounded, it’s easy to find good texts in the one to three dollar range—after all, plenty of new books cost that, including my latest, Atmos Fear.

Shortly after I went digital, I bought just such a copy of the Kama Sutra, to replace my abridged analog one, purchased in England when I was fifteen—funnily enough it wasn’t available in Portugal before the 1974 revolution, along with Beatles records and bell-bottom trousers.

To level the playing field, a few days ago I spent about a dollar on the Perfumed Garden, which I felt was appropriate reading for the Easter weekend.

It strikes me as odd that there’s no Christian equivalent of these Hindu and Arab masterpieces—perhaps it’s the Judaico-Christian culture, the wrecker ball of Lutherans and Catholics combined.

The compilation of Kama Sutra texts dates from the second century AD, and preceded the Perfumed Garden by thirteen centuries,  much like the transfer of astronomical knowledge described in The India Road.

In my book I explain, through the eyes of the spy Pêro da Covilhã, how the Siddhanta, or Knowledge of the Sun, written by the Brahmins of Pataliputra in the sixth century, became the Sindhind of the Arabs three centuries later, as the knowledge travelled west, eventually reaching the Iberian Peninsula during the latter centuries of the Caliphate.

For some reason, I was always convinced the Perfumed Garden was Persian, so my first surprise was to find it is Tunisian, written by Muhammad ibn Muhammad al Nafzawi—his patronymic comes from the Berber Nefzawa tribe in southern Tunisia.

The Kama Sutra reads more like an instruction manual, and as I recall, betel nuts feature heavily in the whole lovemaking preparation—much like the more esoteric Mughlai cuisine recipes, you get the feeling you may be missing a key ingredient for satisfactory confection.

The following, for instance, is a quasi-clinical (and rather bizarre) instruction on seducing the wives of other men.

When they do meet, the man should be careful to look at her in such a way as to cause the state of his mind to be made known to her; he should pull about his moustache, make a sound with his nails, cause his own ornaments to tinkle, bite his lower lip, and make various other signs of that description.

The Perfumed Garden doesn’t linger on the tinkling of one’s ornaments—which in these days of enthusiastic piercings takes on a whole new meaning. Instead, various parts (excuse the pun) reminded me of the Arabian Nights, which was available (abridged) in pre-revolutionary Portugal, and illustrated, at that.

Sketch of erotic exploration by Thomas Rowlandson, an eighteenth century English artist.

Sketch of erotic exploration by Thomas Rowlandson, an eighteenth century English artist.

The Perfumed Garden illustrates concepts by means of stories, and these are very much PG, i.e. Parental Guidance. In that sense, and in others, it’s a much more entertaining read than its Indian predecessor.

When I was at school I learned about Sir Richard Burton, who together with John Speke, discovered Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile. I wasn’t told at the time of the hardships both suffered: in a prior campaign in Somalia, Speke was captured and lanced repeatedly with spears before making his escape, and Burton had a javelin hurled through both cheeks.

In the Nile expedition, Speke went deaf after using a knife to remove a beetle that crawled into his ear, and subsequently went blind temporarily—I’m not sure how.

Burton then came to my attention when I was researching The India Road, because he is considered the first Westerner to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, disguised as a Muslim—that feat, however, belongs to his predecessor Pêro da Covilhã, three and three score centuries before.

And now Burton returns, as the translator of both the Kama Sutra and the Perfumed Garden, although apparently his translation of the latter is from the French.

There’s a fair amount of sexism in the Perfumed Garden, and some interesting contradictions. For instance there are discussions on clitoral ablation in parallel with detailed descriptions of the female orgasm.

You have to like this one. Taken from a candid and poignant discussion of the female orgasm after hysterectomy.

You have to like this one. Taken from a candid and poignant discussion of the female orgasm after hysterectomy.

The general discussion around the effects of excising parts of the female anatomy is clearly still an open issue.

The ‘Garden’ does stray into the esoteric, with a lengthy discussion about sex between hunchbacks, centered in part on the best positions to allow coitus (or coition, as Burton puts it) unimpeded by the hump—the quest for the humpless hump, so to speak.

There is substantial discussion on the willy, as would be expected. A scale of fingers is derived for the length required for female satisfaction. The ‘virile member’, in the words of Burton, must measure at least one and a half hands (six fingers) to please a woman, and twelve at most. The thumb seems to be reserved for other pleasures.

By far the section that amused me most was the detailed listing of names for the protuberance, collected in a special chapter entitled The sundry names given to the sexual parts of men.

The Arab terminology puts Western terms to shame, partly because of its range, but mainly because the words are a classification system. Sheik Nefzawi provides an abundance of candid descriptions.

The willy can thus be the pigeon El dommar, the impudent one El zeub, the flabby one El douame, or even El dekhal, the housebreaker—how many names in the total? Er… thirty-five.

But fear not, ladies, you too are contemplated, and bountifully. The subsequent chapter lists thirty-eight words for your objet d’art. My personal favorites? the glutton El keuss, the duellist El deukkak, and El ladid, the delicious one.

Life? You gotta love it.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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