laughter of cuckolds hides contempt for men, beauty, and humanity

This, my praise for her, and the praise of humanity,
to you, cuckold, are drops of sperm on your head. [1]

The Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim}, a work of Arabic literature from early eleventh-century Baghdad, is highly learned and deeply cultured. Its author explained:

The kind of literature I am inclined to select are the speeches of the Bedouins and old Arabic poetry, followed by the fantastic and flowery imaginings of well-read scholars, as well as the marvelous innovations born of the genius of the prominent modern poets. These are the sources I have drawn from in my book, adorning myself with their work and often passing it off as my own. I have heard with my own ears the witticisms they have discussed at length and competed over. I have also included excerpts of my own poetry, letters that I have circulated, and records of literary gatherings that I have attended. [2]

The author described his work as an imitation of a man of Baghdad and also an imitation of all of Baghdad:

This is an imitation of a Baghdadi man whom I knew well for a time. He was always blurting pronouncements, sometimes pleasant and sometimes rude, as well as local sayings from his city, sometimes high-brow and sometimes shocking. I have preserved them in my mind to serve as a token of the manners of all the people of Baghdad, of all different social classes, and as a sample of their local customs.

His work frequency uses an Arabic iterative tense that describes typically repeated actions. It depicts events of a single, day-long elite banquet. Yet the author also adds with respect to his literary work itself:

One can just get through it and absorb it in that same span of time {a day}.

Al-Qāsim, the representative, eleventh-century Baghdadi man that Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim imitates, was an old man, an alcoholic, a holy man, and, like the author, “a voluble loudmouth.” He was a man who had keen appreciation, both culturally and lustfully, for beautiful, singing slave girls.

Take, good sir, my hand — the one I used to wipe my ass!
I made a movement strange to see, a chessman standing fast,
like an egg that stands on edge inside a boiling pan.
Ibn Hārūn would be amazed, al-Bustī would have laughed,
so come enjoy this oddity on which I’ve plied my hand! [3]

Al-Qāsim was difficult to understand. He nonetheless resented others misunderstanding him. Recognizing al-Qāsim high level of Arabic cultural achievement, status-seeking young men would ask him: “What should we say? What should we do?” Al-Qāsim would say, “Be men! Good, honorable men! Don’t be beastly!” They would ask, “What should we do to be good men?” He would say, “Live the life of the wise, live by my code.” Then they would ask him to explain his code. He would say:

There is no point in telling signs and warnings to a people with no faith. You can’t make a dead man hear you. The deaf won’t answer your call if they have their backs turned. Were there life in you to hear me, you would hear me, but there’s not. I’m selling pearls in the brick maker’s market. It’s like a pack of skittish donkeys, fleeing from a lion — deaf, dumb, blind, and no brain either.

What God gave me of intellect
is lost on donkeys, sheep, and cows.
They cannot hear me call, nor would
they understand me anyhow.
They gather up and croak like frogs
between the pond and willow boughs. [4]

Then someone would ask him to get to the point and would promise to follow his advice. Al-Qāsim advised that if they were rich, not to save; if they were poor, to borrow. He also advised:

become connoisseurs of fine food, and drink liquor, and listen to beautiful singing-girls, and fuck the dancers and the singers as well. Fuck standing and pray sitting. Fuck the free-born, and don’t forget the slaves. Fuck in secret and in full view. Fuck the owned and the free, and the whores and the chaste. Fuck as long as your cocks are standing, because they won’t stand forever. Fuck the young and the old, fuck vaginas, and assholes, fuck blossoming young girls, and decrepit old women, and beautiful young lads, and ugly old men.

True studs, they say, do not demur,
so climb on filth, and fuck a cur!

… All of this advice, by God, comes from a man who wants the best for you.

If you all agree, advance for your advisor, who is working hard on your behind
to march you to the King of Hell tomorrow, line by line. [5]

Not appreciating al-Qāsim subtlety and profundity, someone would laugh. That would provoke a furious response from al-Qāsim:

Slaughtering of a sacrificial animal, extraction of a barbed spear, a citron thorn! It’s a flirting fever, gall and vitriol, sawing through hard teak, an Ethiopian bubonic throat-plague! Did I say that God was Two? Or Three? Did I refute the Qur’an with poetry? Did I break the tooth of the prophet of God? Did I ransack his family’s tomb? Did I fire a catapult at the Ka’ba, or pelt it with menstrual rags? Did I defecate in the well of Zamzam? Did I hock the holy camel of Sāliḥ? Did I speak of God as the Jews or Christians do? Did I fornicate in the mosque of the Prophet, between his tomb and the pulpit? Did I shit on the Black Stone? Did I chop off the head of Husayn, son of ʻAli? Did I cut off the hand of Jaʻfar ibn Abi Tālib? Did I eat Hamza’s liver? Did I rend the flesh of one blessed by God? So then, loser, what are you laughing at? [6]

Al-Qāsim implied that the man who laughed at him would be morally corrupt enough to laugh at horrible blasphemies against Islam. That’s equivalent to laughing at fundamental truth in the Islamic world. Al-Qāsim thus would attack the man who laughed at his advice with the strongest verbal attack possible in the Islamic world. His advice was meant seriously. Yet to understand that, one must take seriously his urging party-goers, “Be men! Good, honorable men! Don’t be beastly!”

Al-Qāsim appreciated human bodily pleasures, yet maintained a critical perspective on worldly activity. After al-Qāsim would lavishly praise the “licentious women of Baghdad, in whom were gathered the beauty of form and disposition,”[7] his fellow banqueters would beg him for stories about them. Al-Qāsim respected those women. He resented what seemed to be a request for him to tell Milesian tales as if he were a money-grubbing mass entertainer:

Gentleman, are you looking for a clown? Do you want somebody to laugh at? Your friend the fool? No, sir, find someone else to laugh at! [8]

The requester would then piously and humbly repeat his request in the manner of one seeking vital truth:

O God, God, O Abū al-Qāsim, if you would be gracious, we would thank you and you would be our honored master, not someone we could order about. And if you refuse, we will not ask anything resembling this of you, and you will still be a great, respected man among us.

Al-Qāsim would acquiesce to that humble petition. He would tell stories highlighting vitally important truths about women and men in intimate relations.

Al-Qāsim would harshly disparage those who sought to trivialize and delegitimize men being attracted to beautiful, young women. At a banquet, al-Qāsim would see a beautiful, young, singing girl. He would approach her and gaze upon her face. Then he would recite a poem of appreciation for God’s work:

A creator strewed beauty across her face
who made sway her branch under the full moon. [9]

And another poem:

She is tender, her saliva is
musk, honey, and nectar.

And another poem:

There was created for me, just as I wish her to be,
a singing girl who shames the gazelle fawn.

Her beauty dazzles the old man
and it suits me to be dazzled.

The girl would have with her guardians — men working as bodyguards ready to sacrifice themselves to protect her. Al-Qāsim would pour out lengthy disparagement of a guardian’s face and soul. He would start out with poetic couplets of negative amplification:

Neither pleurisy nor gout
creeping from one joint to another,
nor the hurt of a molar after sleep,
nor the sting of a boil in a vulnerable spot,

Is more oppressive than his face in appearance.

You don’t have it in you to enjoy listening to joking
nor to take the truth seriously.

Then he would shift to a long series of poetic “O” laments:

O lack of water on the night of a conflagration,
O load of debt on someone in financial straits,
O capsizing of a rowboat in December,

O silent farting of the elephant when it has indigestion,

O grief of poor men on holidays,

O lack of ink for the copyist,

O embarrassment of the one distressed in his business,
O increasing prices for a bread-winner with a large family,

O wit, O backbiter in whose mouth is putridity,
O attack of fever and O age of senility,
always may you remain in the worst position,
having, in your hatred, no successor when you die.

Then he would move to prose “O” laments:

O beginning of the night of the stranger, when he is far from the beloved; O guise of the guardian; … O more detestable than a cup of thick laxative in the hand of a sick person, and more reprehensible than the appearance of a bankrupt person before the loathed creditor; … O dirtier than the couch of a mangy dog with indigestion; O dirtier than a fly on wet shit;, and more contemptible than the flea in a dog’s ear … O dirtier than the mud of fish-sellers stalls; O more brutal than a tyrant in the eyes of the tyrannized, and more hated than the owl’s cry when it strikes the fevered man’s ear; … O more hateful than separation from a friend, than looking at a stepfather on an empty stomach, and the rough spots in the road, or indeed than the evil of the outcome, the strain of misfortune, the spite of enemies, the envy of relatives, the tenaciousness of strangers, the faithlessness of partners, and observing bores, hanging around with fools, petitioning misers, and antagonizing poets.

Al-Qāsim would go on to further invective in poetic meter. Long into his long, elaborate verbal abuse of the young, beautiful, singing girl’s guardians, someone would laugh.

Al-Qāsim would respond quickly to quell the laughter. He would turn to the laughing man and say:

Are you laughing at me, you son of a farting humbug, who farts wet sharts and sells them for the cost of an acorn, may God blacken your face, you son of a farty filly in heat, shouting, blind, torn, foaming, asking to be fucked, the {one word, probably obscene, of unknown meaning}, bursting, braying, wood-pecking, wet, may God make my ass a flint bucket and your beard tinder! A small-pocked monkey-mongerer in Baghdad by the low wall of al-Khuld is hooded with the thighs of your wife, and his cock is in her belly to the farthest limit of its core, you son of a woman plowed and driven through like a ship through the waves! If your mother’s labia were Hāshimī forelock, I would have plucked its mustache in Medina mosque, inside the holy Maqṣūra. By the life of her mottled ass and the wet hair of her pussy, the stork-like kernel of her clit and the black-and-white magpie hair of her ass, I will pluck your tattered mustache!

O son of a big-clitted woman whose ass has turned aged and silly.
The cocks play in her hole and her shit, shuffleboard, willy-nilly. [10]

In the U.S. today, an old man who recited love poetry to a beautiful, young woman would be shunned as creepy, and perhaps incarcerated for failing to secure affirmative consent before gazing upon a woman. If any man said all that al-Qāsim said, he probably would be arrested and incarcerated for months, if not years, for racism, sexism, and hate speech. That’s not how it was in the high culture of eleventh-century Baghdad.

Men being cuckolded, like men being kicked in the groin, has commonly stirred laughter. That’s the laughter of those lacking intellectual and cultural sophistication. Al-Qāsim appreciated the functioning of a man’s penis and endless learning. Only a fully human person could encompass the contradictions of abundant life as al-Qāsim did. Al-Qāsim would advise men, “Be men! Good, honorable men! Don’t be beastly!” They don’t understand. They don’t take him seriously. They deserve the full brunt of al-Qāsim’s invective.

Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258

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Read more:


[1] al-Azdī, Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim}, from Arabic, my adaptation based on the translations of St. Germain and Selove. The Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim was written early in the eleventh century, probably near Baghdad. Selove describes St. Germain’s translation as “rendered in literal, non-literary, academic language.” Selove (2016) p. 6. In St. Germain’s translation, the couplet is the first half of the poem:

This is my praise and the praise of mankind (for you)
Are, O drop of sperm, two horn on you(r head)
And if I have made it too short,
Consider it a (brief) stroll in a garden

St. Germain (2006) p. 381. Selove translated this poem as:

This is my praise for you and for mankind
You drip of a cuckold’s wet dick
And if you feel that I’ve cut it too short
Just think this a garden pic-nic

Selove (2016) p. 180, n. 4. Selove’s translation is much more lively, but seems to me to have some weaknesses. St. Germain’s phrase “my praise” makes sense as al-Qāsim’s praise for the singing girl. That’s important in context. The specificity of sperm seems to me important in bringing out the biology of men’s sexuality. My adaptation attempts to encompass both these points while shifting toward the accessibility and liveliness of Selove’s translation.

[2] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 32. The subsequent two quotes are from id. pp. 32-3.

[3] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) pp. 33-4. With impressive and insightful erudite, Selove noted:

Movement here {in the second line above} means both of the bowels and on the chess board, and is a translation of dast, which signifies both ‘stool/evacuation’ in Persian, and ‘game/place/trick’ in Arabic.

Id. p. 63, n. 6.

[4] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 38. Id. p. 64, nn. 30-1, notes that the first sentences refer to the Qur’an (10:101, 80:27, 52:30). Those sentences also echo Christian scripture, e.g. John 4:48, Acts 14:3 (signs and wonders); Matthew 11:5, 13:15 (deafness).

[5] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) pp. 38-9. For the final couplet above, Selove wrote:

This advice comes straight from one who’s coming up behind
to march you to the King of Hell tomorrow, line by line.

Id. p. 39. St. Germain has:

If you all agree, you will advance toward it
For your advisor is a hard worker from behind

St. Germain (2006) p. 192. Particularly in its context, this couplet seems to me to allude to homosexual intercourse. I’ve tried to preserve a sense of that allusion in my version of the couplet above.

[6] Ḥikāyat, mainly trans. Selove (2016) pp. 39-40. Selove’s translation begins:

‘A cutting knife!” Abū al-Qāsim would exclaim, ‘A slaughtering throat-plague, a shot, a stab, a citron thorn! …

For this text St. Germain has:

Abū al-Qāsim says, “He is a slaughtering of a sacrificial animal; an extraction of a (barbed) spear; citron thorns, …

St. Germain (2006) p. 193. In the context of concern with blasphemy, St. Germain’s translation of this introductory text seems to me better. I have incorporated it above.

[7] Ḥikāyat, trans. St. Germain (2006) p. 285.

[8] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 171. The subsequent quote is from id.

[9] Ḥikāyat, trans. St. Germain (2006) p. 373-9, provides this and the subsequent five quotes. Abū al-Qāsim’s initial invective continues to p.381 in St. Germain’s translation.

[10] Ḥikāyat, trans. Selove (2016) p. 60. Selove states:

Although readers have found the Ḥikāyat and its protagonist both shocking and entertaining, it is difficult to deny that Abū al-Qāsim talks too much and can consequently grow tedious. … If the Ḥikāyat was intended to be read out loud at one sitting to an audience, we should certainly hope that this audience would be intoxicated, for their sake.

Id. p. 91. Certain truths are both difficult and painful to convey.

[image] Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258. Illumination c. c.1430-1434 from manuscript Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Division orientale, Supplément persan 1113. Via Wikimedia Commons. Here are other illuminations from Supplément persan 1113.


Selove, Emily. 2012. The Hikaya of Abu al-Qasim al-Baghdadi: The Comic Banquet in Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Ph.D. Thesis. University of California, Los Angeles.

Selove, Emily. 2016. Ḥikāyat Abī al Qāsim: A Literary Banquet. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

St. Germain, Mary S. 2006. Al-Azdī’s Ḥikāyat Abī al Qāsim al-Baghdādī: placing an anomalous text within the literary developments of its time. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Washington.

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