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The Meadow of the Gazelles

Muhammad al-Nawaji bin Hasan bin Ali bin Othman (1383?-1455), the fourteenth century Egyptian poet and mystic, was also known as Shams al-Din, "Sun of Religion." His nickname, and all indications about him, suggest he was a pious and respected citizen of medieval Cairo. A native of the city, he studied law there under the master al-Damiri. In later years al-Nawaji taught the Hadith (1), at the Islamic colleges of al-Husayniyya and al-Jamaliyya, and led the mystic prayer sessions, which suggests he was a Sufi.

El-Hakim Mosque, Cairo
El-Hakim Mosque, Cairo
His devotional life, which included two pilgrimages to Mecca, did not prevent him from immersing himself in intellectual occupations. At that time Cairo, under Turkish rule, was experiencing a period of freedom as well as great opulence. As a Sunni of the Shafiite rite, al-Nawaji would have been tolerant and open to intellectual debate. This is borne out by his studies of natural history and his writings, a book of poems which opens a door onto his other interests, and reveals that to an educated man of his day the erotic was inseparable from the divine, as is evident in the following poem:

To a beautiful youth on pilgrimage to Mecca

You who have left to visit the ancient House,
And abandoned me here, hostage to sadness;
One last visit before departing,
Would not that have been better?

You go on pilgrimage to follow the precepts,
But that doesn't at all keep you
From putting a Moslem to death!
May I be your ransom! Rather than wander
The roads of the pilgrim,
Better you should spare Allah's creatures.

His tolerance and open-mindedness is also reflected in his lack of racial bigotry, a characteristic that mars many otherwise fine works of Arabic literature of the period, such as the Arabian Nights. Here's one example of Shams al-Din's appreciation of black men:

For a beautiful black boy

Aroused, he exhales
The intense perfume of his musk.
The sight of his face, lit by a ray of light
Imprints itself.

So arresting is his beauty,
So limitless its power,
That the gaze of those parched for love
Envelops him in tenderness,

And the caress of all those black eyes
Has daubed his body
With their magic color.

Love seems to have been the engine driving relations between men and beardless youths, giving rise to a social scene that brings to mind the Athens of Socrates and Alcibiades. In that economy of love, paying for one's pleasure in gold was not well regarded. Men instead rewarded their favorites with a well-turned verse, and books of such poems were worth their weight in gold. In this collection we discover verses for every occasion, even for diametrically opposed needs. For those whose lover has dark skin, he offers:

If the stars glitter white
In the dusk of night
Against the black body of a sky
Whose robe has slipped aside,

Their opposite is even more beautiful;
For here on earth are other orbs:
You, black men,
Shining stars of our days.

But, equally solicitous of those who favor light-skinned boys, he says:

Those who dare set
The swarthy man before white boys,
Marvels of grace, prove to me
They are weak and ill of eye.

What use is sight
To our brothers's eyes
If to them light and dark
Are one and the same?

Much medieval Arab poetry is marked by certain conventions: the gazelle-like youth with his crescent smile, the scorpion-like black curls. . . to a modern eye the cliches soon grow tiresome. In the ensuing selection, however, we have tried to minimize repetition, and to gather a varied a bouquet as possible.

For a Turk

I have chosen from among the sons of the Turks
A young male gazelle.
In my burning desire to possess him
I have consumed my life to no purpose.

I asked him one day
"What will put out the fire
That you have lit in me,
O, most fearsome of men?"
He answered, "My lips."

To a handsome boy with ink-stained lips

Before this mouth smeared with ink,
A precious box filled
With adorable pearls, I cry out,

"What is this strange sign?
A talisman to avert the evil eye
From him we cherish . . .
Or a seal for the mouth of the jar
Enclosing the wine of pleasure?"

For a milkman

Ever since I bound myself
In passion
To a milkman,
The very picture of seduction,
I tell him over and over,
"Be generous and grant me
A swallow of you,
O delectable milkman."

For a maker of arrows

Friend, our fletcher,
With the arrow of his glance,
Intentionally wounded onto death
This heart of mine, which went out to him.

Why does the censor blame me
When my soul, pierced by love
Is target for this whittler of arrows?

For a pretty seller of cucumbers

God! How beautiful, this young
Cucumber seller, and a face to make
The sun itself blush at noontime.

The day he agreed to a tender meeting
I was overwhelmed.
Ah, how I savored
That mouthful of cucumber.

  1. The Traditions, taught by the prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
  2. The poems cited here are the author's own adaptations, freely based on the quoted source.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Editorial Board, World History of Male Love, "Gay Poetry", The Meadow of the Gazelles, 2002 <>


Muhammad al-Nawaji, La Prairie des Gazelles, (tr. Rene R. Khawam), Phebus, Paris, 1989


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