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Those Naughty

February 19, 2000

For the Muslim Arabs of the medieval Holy Land, it was bad enough to have those barbarous Franks descend upon them, slaughtering indiscriminately in the name of God. 

But then, once the crusaders settled in for a prolonged stay, the locals were exposed to the social customs and sexual mores of medieval Westerners ... 

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Blue Band Cultural stereotypes have an amazingly long life span.  To modern Muslims in the Middle East, Western attitudes toward sex and relations between the sexes are embarrassing at best and outrageous at worst.   This attitude is not confined to puritanical Islamists, or to men.  A good many young, educated Muslim women, including professional women, have returned to elements of traditional dress, at least to head-scarves, as a statement of cultural pride and personal dignity.

The stereotypes go both ways, of course.  The Western stereotype of Arabs and Muslims is oddly split: on the one hand the undraped fantasy odalisques who graced so much 19th century French art and returned (barely draped) in 20th century Hollywood movies; on the other hand the adultress-stoning fanatic.  Like most stereotypes, these are -- on both sides -- lurid fantasies, sometimes built on a grain of truth.  And, like most stereotypes, they say much more about the stereotyper than the stereotypee.

The Western and Muslim stereotypes are also remarkably old.  When the First Crusade descended upon the Holy Land in 1098, the first great shock for the Arabs -- among the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan people in the world -- must have been the sudden and incomprehensible appearance of a hundred thousand red-bearded fanatics, laying about them like Conan the Barbarian, and all in the name of God. 

But once the crusaders settled in for a prolonged stay, the second great shock for the Arabs was the relations between the sexes that prevailed among the Westerners, or "Franks."  (Franji is still the Arabic word for Westerners in general.)  Contemporary Arab historians, amid their accounts of battles, massacres, treachery, and general crudity, had a few revealing things to say about "Frankish" mores -- or at least their own impressions of Frankish mores. 

The source for the excerpts below is Francesco Gabrieli, tr. and ed., Arab Historians of the Crusades (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif, 1969). Our first commentaries come from the chronicle of one Usamah, passages 100-101 (pp. 77-78).   Incidentally, Gabrieli renders the name Usumah as "Usama" -- there is much inconsistency in renditions of Arabic names into English; e.g., Kadafi, Qaddafi, Khadafy, etc. 

Usamah begins with a general observation of peculiar Frankish customs:

The Franks are without any vestige of a sense of honour and jealousy. If one of them goes along the street with his wife and meets a friend, this man will take the woman's hand and lead her aside to talk, while the husband stands by waiting until she has finished her conversation. If she takes too long about it he leaves her with the other man and goes on his way.

Usamah goes on to offer an example of this social freedom between the sexes from his own personal observation -- though his story turns out to involve a good deal more than conversation.

While visiting the Christian-ruled city of Nablus, Usamah stayed with a gentleman named Mu'izz "whose house served as an inn for Muslim travellers." (Usamah was certainly polite; he evidently regarded himself as a houseguest of the innkeeper.) His room was across the street -- doubtless an alley just wide enough for two loaded camels -- from the home of a Frankish wine merchant. Looking innocently out his window, if we're to believe him, Usamah beheld the following:

Now this man returned home one day and found a man in bed with his wife. "What are you doing here with my wife?" he demanded. [not unreasonably!]

"I was tired," replied the man, "and so I came in to rest."

"And how do you come to be in my bed?"

"I found the bed made up, and lay down to sleep."

"And this woman slept with you, I suppose?"

"The bed," he replied, "is hers. How could I prevent her getting into her own bed?" [The logic, as Mr. Spock would say, is impeccable.]

"I swear if you do it again I shall take you to court!"

According to Usumah, "this was his only reaction, the height of his outburst of jealousy!"  It is hard not not to share Usumah's surprise.  Alas, it is even harder to believe he really saw this. It has all the ring of a standard story making the rounds of the coffeehouses, or wherever Arabs gathered before they had coffee. Yet if it really did happen, we can only imagine the tableau: The intruder, saying he just happened in off the street and found a handy bed; the husband, threatening to sue; the lady in question -- and Usamah, hearing and perhaps watching it all from his hotel room a scant few yards away.

Usamah tells another story, this one passed on to him by a bath attendant named Salim, who had once run a bathhouse in the town of Ma'arra. One fine day a Frankish knight came in to use the facilities. (Contrary to modern stereotype, medieval Westerners were not horrified by bathing; the crusaders took eagerly to local bathing customs.)

Salim was wearing a loincloth to serve as BVDs; the knight -- in keeping with a much later stereotype about the French -- wore nothing of the sort. Feeling perhaps that there should be no secrets in a bathhouse, the knight (quite rudely) pulled off Salim's loincloth, and discovered that his nether regions were shaved. I'll let Usamah tell the story from there:

"Salim!" he exclaimed. I came toward him and he pointed to that part of me. "Salim! It's magnificent! You shall certainly do the same for me!" And he lay down flat on his back. His hair there was as long as his beard. I shaved him, and when he had felt the place with his hand and found it agreeably smooth he said:

"Salim, you must certainly do the same for my Dama." In their language Dama means lady, or wife. He sent his valet to fetch his wife, and when they arrived and the valet had brought her in, she lay down on her back, and he said to me: "Do to her what you did to me." So I shaved her pubic hair, while her husband stood by watching me. Then he thanked me and paid me for my services.

Not for nothing does our word "frank" have the same origin as "French." 

It is easy to chuckle at old Usamah, passing on bathhouse stories or episodes overheard (or alleged to have been overheard) from a hotel-room window.  In fairness, these intimate observations are only a small part of his work; mostly he's full of the blood, thunder, and intrigue you expect from any self-respecting medieval chronicler. 

But Usamah did not simply report, or invent; he also analysed -- and his commentary is a genuinely revealing glimpse of what 12th century Syrian Muslims though of the people who had so forcefully and inexplicably descended upon them.  Nothing was more mysterious to Usamah than that these strange people, so casual about their wives, could go so ape the moment they got a broadsword in their hands:

You will observe a strange contradiction in their character: they are without jealousy or a sense of honour, and yet at the same time they have the courage that as a rule springs only from the sense of honour and a readiness to take offense.

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