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The Tale of Abu Nuwas
and the Three Youths

One day Abu Nuwas shut himself up in his kitchen and cooked up a rich feast, with rare meats and the finest spices. Then he went out cruising down the alleyways, looking for a minion worthy of his efforts, praying to God: “Allah, my Lord and Master, I beg you to send me one who befits this banquet, and who deserves to romp and frolic with me this day!”

Hardly had he finished speaking when he came upon three young men, handsome and beardless as if they were of the boys of Paradise, all different from one another but alike in their beauty. Now Abu Nuwas, though he spent his life in Baghdad at the court of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the protector of the faith, was given to these joys and loved to make merry with fair boys, like the fabled sheikh who lived his life in holy Mosul, but dreamt all day long of the pleasure houses of Aleppo. So he greeted them with the customary greeting, and they politely answered, and would have gone on their way, but he stopped them saying, “Steer your steps to me, and pass the night in luxury, I have old wine from monasteries, tender meats on skewers, and bowls of cherries, let’s polish off the plates and leave no trace, and pass the night in sweet embrace.”

The youths did not need a lot of convincing. “We hear and we obey,” they said, and gladly followed him to his apartments. There they found all that had been promised, and more, and wasted no time in stuffing themselves to their hearts’ content. When they had eaten their fill, they turned to Abu Nuwas, and called upon him to decide which among them was the most beautiful. He kissed the first, and exclaimed, “Praise to Him who hairless made this cheek!” Then he kissed the second one twice over and said, “This lovely wears on his cheek a mole that’s perfect, Oh, bless the Prophet!” Then he pulled the third one to him, and after kissing him half a dozen times he exclaimed, “Melted gold in silver cups you’ve poured me, and stained your fingers with the wine, you slender fawn with baggy pants, but merely gazing at you would have made me just as drunk .”

And so he passed the night away, drinking and kissing and embracing the boys leg upon leg, lost in pleasure and in joy, with no sense of sin or shame, singing, “No one knows joy who knows not boys, come my pretty ones, lets sing our songs, Heaven bless you, what a wonderful harvest of pleasure I reap, let’s drink our wine, and fuck the first to fall asleep.”

While they were all rollicking drunk and entangled limb around limb, there came a knocking at the door, and as they bade him enter, in came none other than the ruler of the land, the Caliph Harun al-Rashid himself. When they saw who it was they all rose and kissed the ground before him; and Abu Nuwas threw off the fumes of the wine for awe of the Caliph, who said to him, “Greetings, Abu Nuwas.” He replied, “At your service, Commander of the Faithful, may Allah preserve you!” The Caliph asked, “What is going on here?” The poet answered, “Clearly, O Prince of True Believers, what is going on here is beyond questions and answers.”

Said the Caliph, “O, Abu Nuwas, I have sought the guidance of Allah almighty, and have decided to appoint you judge over pimps and whores.” Said Abu Nuwas, “Do you indeed invest me with that high office, your highness?” and the Caliph answered “Indeed I do.” Whereupon Abu Nuwas rejoined, “Then, your majesty, have you come to bring a lawsuit before me?” At that the Caliph was filled with fury, turned on his heels and stalked out, and passed the night seething with rage against Abu Nuwas, who with his new-found friends passed the rest of the night filled with joy and merriment.

When daybreak dawned Abu Nuwas sent his friends on their way, put on his court robes, and set out for the palace of the Caliph. Now it was the custom of the Commander of the Faithful, when the Divan (the daily hearing of petitions) broke up, to withdraw to his sitting room, and summon there his poets and cup-companions and musicians, where each had his assigned place by title and position. So that day also he retired to his sitting room, and all his friends took up their places by rank and degree.

Presently in walked Abu Nuwas, who was about to take his usual seat, when the Caliph shouted for Masrur the swordsman, and bade him strip the poet of his clothes, and bind an ass’s packsaddle to his back, and a halter about his neck, and lead him round on all fours to the lodgings of the slave girls and the chambers of the harem, that the women might laugh at him, and then to cut off his head and bring it in on a platter. “Hearing and obedience.” replied Masrur, and doing with Abu Nuwas as the Caliph had ordered took him round to the women’s quarters. But Abu Nuwas was a funny fellow, and made all the girls laugh with his clowning, and many felt sorry for him and threw down gold and jewels, so that when they returned into the Caliph’s presence he had a bag filled with treasure for his troubles.

At that moment, Ja’afar al-Barmaki, the most trusted vizier (counselor) to the Caliph, who had been gone on important state business, came in and, recognizing the poet under his beastly burden, greeted him, “Salaam alecum, Abu Nuwas.” He looked up and answered, “At your service, O my lord.” Ja’afar asked, “What offence have you committed, to bring such punishment upon you?” At which he answered, “None whatsoever, O my lord, except that I made our lord the Caliph a present of the best of my poetry, and he made me a present of the best of his garments.” When the Prince of Believers heard these words he laughed in spite of himself, and pardoned Abu Nuwas, and gave him another bag of money.

Retold after the translation of Richard F. Burton, Heritage Press, New York, 1934, who based his work on a collection of tales that are at least a thousand years old.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Editorial Board, World History of Male Love, "Arabian Folktales", The Tale of Abu Nuwas and the Three Youths, 2000 <>


The First Poem of Abu Nuwas
Arabian Folk Tales

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