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three pairs of lovers with space



Here are presented the accounts of three eminent Moslems, one each from Turkey, Egypt and Morocco, of their time in France, where they were sent on official business by their rulers over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century. The period is of special interest as one in which, on the one hand, circumstances were obliging Moslem countries to take some interest in European affairs, whilst, on the other hand, European influence on Moslem culture was still negligible. The travellers’ perspectives were somewhat different, and two at least of their reports, like so many travellers’ accounts, reveal as much about the writers’ cultural presumptions as they do about France.


Detail of Halet Efendi from The Coronation of Napoleon by J.-L. David, 1805

Halet Efendi 1803-6

Mehmet Sait Halet Efendi (1761–1822) was the Ottoman ambassador to Paris from 1803 to 1806, “a convinced reactionary …, contemptuous of the French and other Europeans.“[1]

His writings about what he witnessed of pederasty in Paris were published by Enver Ziya Karal in Halet Efendinin Paris Büyük Elçiliği: 1802-1806 (Kenan Basımevi, 1940) pp.33-34. The following translation of that is taken from Bernard Lewis’s The Muslim Discovery of Europe (London: Phoenix, 2000) pp. 290-1:

They say: know that as a general rule, however many Armenians and Greeks there may be in the world, the Muslims are homosexuals. This is a scandalous thing. In Frangistan, God forfend, such a thing cannot happen, and if it does happen they punish it severely and it makes a great scandal and so forth—so that, listening, one would think that all of us are of that persuasion, as if we had no other concern.

Seated Nude Boy by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

In Paris there is a kind of market place called Palais Royal, where there are shops for various kinds of goods on all four sides, and above them rooms containing 1500 women and 1500 boys exclusively occupied in sodomy. To go to that place by night is shameful, but since there is no harm in going there by day, I went to see this special spectacle. As soon as one enters, from all four sides males and females hand out printed cards to anyone who comes, inscribed: "I have so many women, my room is in such and such a place, the price is so much" or "I have so many boys, their ages are such and such, the official price is so much," all on specially printed cards. And if any boy or woman among them contracts syphilis, there are doctors appointed by the government to attend to them. The women and boys surround a man from every side, parade around and ask "which of us do you like?" What is more, the great people here ask proudly "Have you visited our Palais Royal? And did you like the women and the boys?"

Thank God, in the lands of Islam, there are not that many boys and catamites.

Rifāʿah al-Ṭahṭāwī 1826-31

The Egyptian scholar Sheikh Rifāʿah al-Ṭahṭāwī (1801-73) was in Paris from 1826 to 1831, being sent there by Muhammad Ali Pasha, the reformist ruler of Egypt, as preceptor to the first large Egyptian student mission to France. He mastered French, and seems to have accomplished far more than any of his wards. Through his books and teachings, he became a key figure in the new intellectual opening to Europe that began in the nineteenth century.[2]


His book about his travels in France, entitled Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Bariz has been printed a number of times. The following excerpt is from the translation by Khaled El-Rouayheb in his Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800  (Chicago, 2005) of the edition published in al-A‘māl alkāmilah li Rifāʿah Rāfiʿal-Tahtāwī, edited by M. ‘Ammārah (2 volumes, Beirut, 1973-81) p. 78.

Amongst the laudable traits of their character, similar really to those of the Bedouin[3] [ʿarab], is their not being inclined toward loving male youths and eulogizing them in poetry, for this is something unmentionable for them and contrary to their nature and morals. One of the positive aspects of their language and poetry is that it does not permit the saying of love poetry of someone of the same sex. Thus, in the French language a man cannot say: I loved a youth (ghulām), for that would be an unacceptable and awkward wording. Therefore if one of them translates one of our books he avoids this by saying in the translation: I loved a young female (ghulāmah) or a person (dhlātan).

They consider this [the love of boys] to be an example of moral corruption, and they are right. And this is because each gender inclines toward a distinct property possessed by the other gender, just as magnets have distinct properties that attract iron or electricity has distinct properties that attracts things, and so forth. Thus, when the genders are the same the distinct properties are absent, and [the attraction] becomes unnatural (kharaja ʿan al-hālah altabī ʿiyyah).

Muhammad as-Saffār, 1845-6

Disorienting Encounters

Muhammad as-Saffār (died 1881) was in Paris from 28 December 1845 to 16 February 1846 on a special diplomatic mission sent by the Sultan of Morocco. During his journey, he took careful notes about the French, which he wrote up  in the months following his return in the following spring as a manuscript entitled The Voyage of the Scholar Sid Muhammad b. ‘Abd Allāh as-Saffār to France as Secretary to the Ambassador al-Hājj ‘Abd al-Qādir Ash’āsh of Tetuan, apparently at the Sultan’s request.

The translation is by Susan Gilson Miller in Disorienting Encounters: Travels of a Moroccan Scholar in France in 1845-1846: The Voyage of Muhammad as-Saffar (Berkeley and Oxford, 1992) 161.

Flirtation, romance, and courtship for them take place only with women, for they are not inclined to boys or young men. Rather, that is extremely disgraceful to them.[4]


[1] Bernard Lewis,The Muslim Discovery of Europe (London, 2000) pp. 57, 199.

[2] Lewis, op. cit., pp. 133, 219.

[3] On the supposed absence of pederasty among the Bedouins, as opposed to the settled townspeople, see Burckhardt, Travels in Arabia, 1:364. [Translator’s note]

[4] Khaled El-Rouayheb, in the introduction to his Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800  (Chicago, 2005) cites both as-Saffar and al-Ṭahṭāwī to show that “Muslim travelers who ‘rediscovered Europe’ in the first half of the nineteenth century found it noteworthy that the men there did not court or eulogize male youths.” Their surprise “suggests that they came from societies in which ‘flirtation, romance, and courtship’ with boys was quite familiar, as was composing ‘amorous ditties’ for male youths.”

In his conclusion, discussing the decline in toleration of pederasty under European influence from the late 19th century onwards, he says:

The introduction of the new concept of shudhūdh jinsī [a term for sexual perversion that first came into common use in the 1940s and reflected changed attitudes under European influence] thus seems to have cemented the emerging view that all forms of passionate attraction to boys were equally signs of “sickness” and “depravity.” Writing in 1946,the Egyptian historian Tawfīq al-Tawīl thus denounced what he considered to be widespread shudhūdh jinsī in Ottoman Egypt, and expressed his own surprise at Tahtāwīʾs remarks concerning the unacceptability of pederasty in France, “as if its being widespread was the natural thing.” (Tawīl, al-Taṣawwuffī Miṣr, 157) …. In this respect, the cultural change has been quite dramatic. In less than a century, the unsympathetic attitude toward pederastic love that Ṭahṭāwī attributed to the French had been adopted by the articulate classes of Arab societies.




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