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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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The erotic masterpiece from the East are the tales of Thousand and One Nights. Nowhere in antiquity does one find lyrical passages on bulging breasts and swelling pudenda such as these :

"She hath breasts like two globes of ivory, like golden pomegranates ― beautifully upright, arched and rounded, firm as stone to the touch ― with nipples erect and outward jutting."


"She hath thighs as unto pillars of alabaster, and between them there vaunts a secret place, a sachet of musk, that swells, that throbs, that is moist and avid."

Eroticism is the raison d'être of the The Nights, up to the point of life and death. The Nights is a frame story. The premise of the frame story is sexually in itself and concerns a love affair between King Shahryar and the young virgin Scheherazade, a love story with a rather unusual beginning. One day the king discovers that his wife is unfaithful. He has her executed, declares all women adulterous and in an act of revenge decides to 'marry' a virgin every night and coldly execute her the next morning. His Grand Vizier is ordered to provide him with a constant supply of maidens, but after a while the supply is depleted. Scheherazade, the virgin daughter of the Vizier, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly accepts the offer. In order to escape execution Scheherazade tells the king a story on their 'wedding night', after he has had his 'carnal will' with her. But clever Scheherazade stops abruptly, just before the denouement. She promises him to tell the end of the story the following night. The curious king has no alternative but postpone her execution and save her life for the time being. The following night Scheherazade tells him the end of the story, and again tells him the beginnings of the next story, and again stops with a cliffhanger. The king grants her one more night. Scheherazade keeps this routine up for thousand and one nights, ending each night with a prelude of a new story. Meanwhile, she bears him three sons. When the stories finally come to an end, the king has sincerely come to love Scheherazade, he pardons her and she becomes his wife.

There is no better story to illustrate the vital importance -- and I mean this literally -- of fiction and the art of storytelling. If Scheherazade's storytelling skills would not have been up to par, she would have lost her life after the first night. But the opposite happens, night after night the king is fascinated by her every word. Her sweet voice and exciting stories transform the embittered and vengeful king to a loving husband.

The erotic tales of Thousand and One Nights conquered the entire Mediterranean, the cradle of Western civilization. They later appear in Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The archetype of the older, dim-witted and often impotent husband and his young, attractive, smart and manipulative wife, which are a staple in medieval literature, surfaces here for the first time. Exemplary is the story of the Simpleton Husband, a story of exactly one such woman and her schlemiel of a husband who is openly unfaithful to him and makes the poor fellow believe he is seeing ghosts:

"There once was a silly and ignorant man very rich, and whose wife was in love with a handsome young man. Every time the husband was absent, the lover came to her and so it was quite some time.

[Insert story of Simpleton Husband here]

In another striking passage of the nights is the moment when Shah Zaman, Sultan of Samarkand and brother of King Shahryar inadvertently witnesses the aforementioned infidelity of his sister-in-law and her attendants, described in this orgy scene:

"Shah Zaman drew back from the window, but he kept the bevy in sight espying them from a place whence he could not be espied. His brother's wife and twenty slave-girls walked under the very lattice and advanced a little way into the garden till they came to a jetting fountain amiddlemost a great basin of water; then they stripped off their clothes and behold, ten of them were women, concubines of the King, and the other ten were white slaves. Then they all paired off, each with each: but the Queen, who was left alone, presently cried out in a loud voice, "Here to me, O my lord Saeed!" and then sprang with a drop-leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly; then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her. On like wise did the other slaves with the girls till all had satisfied their passions, and they ceased not from kissing and clipping, coupling and carousing till day began to wane; when the Mamelukes rose from the damsels' bosoms and the blackamoor slave dismounted from the Queen's breast."

Especially amusing is a footnote to this passage, written by 19th century English orientalist and translator of the Thousand and One Nights Richard Francis Burton,

"Debauched women prefer negroes on account of the size of their parts. I measured one man in Somali-land who, when quiescent, numbered nearly six inches. This is a characteristic of the negro race and of African animals; e.g. the horse; whereas the pure Arab, man and beast, is below the average of Europe; one of the best proofs by the by, that the Egyptian is not an Asiatic, but a negro partially white-washed. Moreover, these imposing parts do not increase proportionally during erection; consequently, the "deed of kind" takes a much longer time and adds greatly to the woman's enjoyment. In my time no honest Hindi Moslem would take his women-folk to Zanzibar on account of the huge attractions and enormous temptations there and thereby offered to them. Upon the subject of Imsák = retention of semen and "prolongation of pleasure," I shall find it necessary to say more.

The male member, the "Long John", I mean the penis, occupies a prominent place in The Nights. "Ali with the Large Member" is a story about a boy who is constantly humiliated by his mistress. When one day his friend calls out to him with the words 'Ali with the large member', within earshot of his mistress, she suddenly looks at her servant in a different light. But even at the time of The Nights people realized that the benefits of a large penis are but relative. "If the length of the penis were a sign of honor, then the mule would belong to the (honorable tribe of) Quraysh," remarked the ninth-century Afro-Arab philosopher al-Jahiz.

Some of the stories in A Thousand and One Nights are older than the Christian era, others are more recent, as far as one can state this with any certainty. Their influence is felt in the popular Medieval chivalric romance Floris and Blancheflour, a story featuring sultans and white slaves in which bizarre plot twists, the idea of liebestod and virginity tests directly refer to the stories from The Nights, although they might as well have been lifted from a contemporary South American telenovela of questionable merit.

Blancheflour ("white flower"), a white and deeply devout Christian girl, is kidnapped while on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. She is raised as a lady-in-waiting to a Muslim king in Spain. There she develops a close friendship with the son of the king, Floris ("belonging to the flower"). When the king and queen discover that this friendship has turned into love, they decide to intervene, for fear that their beloved son Floris would marry this "pagan' girl. They devise a ruse to thwart the forbidden love between the Muslim Floris and the Christian Blancheflour. He is sent by his parents to study abroad. While he is away, Blancheflour is sold to white slave traders. A fake grave must convince Floris of Blancheflour's death.

When Floris returns and finds out that his beloved Blancheflour has died, he wants to commit suicide, so great is his grief. Then his parents decide to tell him the truth and the boy goes in search of his beloved. During his search he discovers that Blancheflour, along with 140 other women, is held in the "tower of maidens" of an emir in faraway Babylon.

Each year the Emir chooses one of the women to be his new wife and he has his previous wife killed. Floris learns that his Blancheflour has been chosen to be the future wife of the emir. The 'tower of maidens' where Blancheflour is kept is heavily guarded, but the inn-keeper where Floris staying, tells him about the weak spot of the tower guard: he is obsessed with chess and money. Floris challenges the tower guard to a few games of chess, all of which he purposely loses, so he owes the man a lot of money. But Floris wins the last game. In return the tower guarded promises Floris eternal fidelity of which Floris makes crafty use immediately. The guard smuggles Floris inside the tower in a basket of flowers.

The two lovers are once again united, but when the Emir catches them in bed together, he wants to pierce them with his sword. During the trial that follows the emir and his advisers are so impressed at the willingness of the young lovers to die for one another that they persuade the emir to spare their lives. They marry and on their wedding Floris learns that his parents are deceased. The lovers return to Spain together, where Floris succeeds his father as king, and he and his subjects are baptised to become devout Christian people. Blancheflour gives him a daughter with a deformed foot. Bertha with the Big Foot will later be the mother of the legendary Charlemagne.

This page Jahsonic/AHE/The East/When fiction is a matter of life and death, part of the AHE project is copyright Jan Willem Geerinck and may only be cited as per the fair use doctrine. The images mentioned in the text can be found here and the translation notes here.

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