First published in 1855, Leg over Leg recounts the life, from birth to middle age, of ‘the Fāriyāq,’ alter ego of Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, a pivotal figure in the intellectual and literary history of the modern Arab world. Volume Three, from which this excerpt is taken, finds the protagonist in Malta and introduces the Fāriyāqiyyah, the Fāriyāq’s wife, and gives prominence to a series of discussions between the two of gender relations, a format that allows for numerous digressions in such diverse topics as the manners and customs of different nations, the physical and moral significance of the buttocks, the unreliability of virginity tests, and the human capacity for self-delusion, as well as continuing the work’s celebration of the genius and beauty of the classical Arabic language. Akin to Sterne and Rabelais in his satirical outlook and technical inventiveness, al-Shidyāq produced in Leg over Leg a work that is unique and unclassifiable. It was initially widely condemned for its attacks on authority, its religious skepticism, and its ‘obscenity’, and later editions were often abridged. This is the first complete English translation of this groundbreaking work, rendered in four volumes. The Qāmūs to which the text makes reference is a renowned fifteenth-century dictionary.
A Banquet and Various Kinds of Hot Sauce
The Fāriyāq and his wife now set about exploring the streets of the city, dressed in the costume of the people of Egypt. He was wearing wide drawers, whose bottoms wrapped themselves around him in front and in back as he walked. She had enveloped herself in a white woollen hooded cloak so as to cover her sleeves, which otherwise would have swept the ground. The passersby and shopkeepers were amazed by them and didn’t know whether his wife was a woman or not, some asking, ‘Is it a man or a woman?’, some following along behind them, some touching their clothes and staring into their faces and saying, ‘We never saw the like of this day – something that’s neither a man nor a woman!’ One of the more intelligent English faqīhs, whose name was Steven, happened to run across them; having looked hard at their faces and worked out that the Fāriyāq was a man and the Fāriyāqiyyah a woman, he went up to them and said, ‘You, Man, and you, Woman, will you have lunch at my house next Sunday?’ ‘How very kind of you!’ they replied. ‘My house,’ he said, ‘is in Across the Sea, at such and such a place. Come in the morning before lunch.’
On Sunday, they took a skiff and set off for his house, where they found him about to go out, for it seems he wanted to bring a few of his acquaintances to gawp at his guests. Apparently he then got drunk on the road or at his friends’ house and he never came back. When he saw them, he told them, ‘I have to go and see to some business but here’s my wife and these are my daughters, so make yourselves at home with them till I come back and then we can all have lunch together.’ ‘By all means!’ they said. Then they sat down with his wife. In the sitting room was a young Englishman who was whispering sweet nothings into the ear of one of the daughters of the English faraḍī and holding her hand. Then he started kissing her in front of her mother and the visitors. The Fāriyāq’s face turned yellow, his wife’s turned red, and the mother beamed. ‘How,’ said the Fāriyāqiyyah to her husband, ‘can this young man kiss the girl and not be embarrassed by our presence?’ He replied, ‘Kissing isn’t considered shameful by the Franks. Among them, a visitor is obliged, when he enters the house of a friend, to kiss the man’s wife and all his daughters, especially if it’s a holiday; this is despite the fact that ‘to kiss’ is sometimes used by them to mean what follows. Such though is their custom.’ ‘But,’ she asked, ‘isn’t he embarrassed by us, given that we are strangers?’ ‘If a thing is permitted,’ he replied, ‘it is permitted before kinsman and stranger alike. Or it may be that the man thinks we are ignorant of this practice in our country.’
‘Who could be so ignorant as to believe that?’ she asked. ‘Kissing among us is always accompanied by panting, sighing, sucking, smelling, and closing of the eyes. But this fellow seems to me to be doing no more than delivering a light puff of breath, devoid of any feeling, as one might if one had no regard for the matter at hand.’ ‘I find in the Qāmūs that mukāfaḥah, mulāghafah, muthāghamah, lathm, fahgm, kaʿm, and taqbīl all mean a man’s kissing a woman on the mouth, or doing so while simultaneously chewing on it.’ She said, ‘It makes no difference! The Arabs have set the standard for both orientation and osculation, for to kiss the brow, as the Franks do, is meaningless. But why is the kissing of parts other than the mouth and the cheek devoid of the pleasure that the kisser experiences at those two spots?’ ‘Because,’ he replied, ‘one who is thirsty cannot quench his thirst by planting his mouth at the top of the water pitcher or on its side.’ ‘Speaking of thirst,’ she then said, ‘why do the poets describe saliva sometimes as sweet and sometimes as thirst-quenching, which is a contradiction?’ ‘Perhaps,’ he replied, ‘that should be considered one of the mysteries of poetry or one of the intricate issues involving women.’ ‘And speaking of mysteries and intricate issues,’ she said, ‘can the lover find pleasure in drinking salivary secretions from any part other than the mouth?’ ‘Quite possibly, where some of the Arabs are concerned,’ he answered, ‘but the Franks object to doing so even from the mouth. Indeed, the only name they know for such things is “spittle.”’
‘Speaking of the different names for things,’ she said, ‘what would one call this mother who is comfortable watching her daughter in such a state? Would one call her a procuress?’ ‘“Procuring” may be used properly only of a man, if he procures for his womenfolk,’ he replied. ‘In fact,’ she replied, ‘it happens more often with mothers than with fathers, for mothers fill with happiness when they watch a man pay suit to one of their girls, because when a mother sees a suitor paying court to her daughter she imagines that whatever beauty he finds in the girl he must find in the mother, seeing that she’s the original, and that he can hardly love the branch without feeling affection for its root.’
They continued their conversation at length until it was noon, when one of the faraḍī’s daughters came in, a piece of bread and a chunk of cheese in her hand, and started eating where she stood. Then she turned around and brought another and did the same. The aforementioned faqīh had seven daughters and a number of boys. When it was two o’clock, the mother said to the guests, ‘You must be feeling hungry, for it is past noon and my husband is late.’ ‘Let us wait,’ they said, ‘until he comes.’ At five, the dinner bell was rung to gather the scattered children of the house, as is the custom with English parents. An hour passed, the bell was rung again, and the hours continued to pass until it was eleven o’clock, during which time the mother would visit the kitchen and the girls whisper to one another in secret as though the same downfall had befallen them as befell the Barāmikah. The Fāriyāq told his wife, ‘If we don’t leave now, we won’t find a skiff or anywhere suitable to spend the night in this “Across.”’ So they got up, said good night to the mistress of the house, boarded a skiff, and at midnight re-entered the town, where they ate in a restaurant, having a dinner that was also a lunch.
A few days later, the Fāriyāq’s wife said to him, ‘I have seen strange things in this town.’ ‘What were they?’ he asked. ‘I see that no hair sprouts on the faces of the men here, and that they have no shame.’ ‘Explain!’ he said. She said, ‘I haven’t seen a beard or a moustache on the face of a single one. Are all of them then beardless?’ ‘What you do not know,’ he said, ‘is that they shave their faces every day with a razor.’ ‘Why?’ she asked. ‘To please their women,’ he replied, ‘for they like a smooth, clean cheek.’ ‘On the contrary,’ she said. ‘A woman derives her pleasure in a man from all the things that point to his manliness, and a profusion of hair on the face of a man is the equivalent of its absence on the face of a woman.’ ‘And what,’ he asked, ‘did you mean by saying that they have no shame? Did one of them ask something indecent of you?’ ‘That has yet to happen,’ she replied, ‘but I note that they wear their drawers so tight that their private parts are on display at the back.’ ‘And that,’ he responded, ‘is something that should please women, according to your statement.’ ‘Indeed,’ she replied, ‘such a costume is more pleasing to the eye that that worn by the Arabs. It shows off the thighs, the calves, the stomach, and the buttocks. However, going too far in such tightness is an offense to decency for those who are not accustomed to it, albeit at the same time handsomer and more captivating. But be that as it may, what is going on with those priests? I see that they go to even greater excess than the common people with those short breeches of theirs, which is inappropriate to their station. Even uglier is their shaving of their moustaches, though the moustache is an adornment to the face of a young man as the beard is to that of an older man. What has seduced them into adopting this custom, when they don’t marry and don’t have to please their womenfolk? I swear, were one of them to go to Egypt, the people would think he was one of those effeminates called khawals who pluck the hair from their faces and remove it from their bodies in imitation of women, and may God bring disgrace to any man who behaves effeminately!’ To which he added, ‘And every woman who behaves masculinely!’ ‘Indeed,’ said she, ‘and any person who practices evil customs! Observe how custom here has made the shaving of the hair a mark of bounty and perfection when, to us, it is a sign of deficiency and corruption.’
‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘but I’d like to ask you about something, now that the conversation has come around to what men want from women and women from men. Since you’ve started to develop an understanding of these differences, tell me by the roof (for it was his custom, whenever he asked her about something important, to make her swear by the roof to which she had climbed before they got married) and tell me true, is the pleasure a woman gets when she looks at a man’s body equal to a man’s when he looks at a woman’s?’ ‘They’re the same,’ she said, ‘or perhaps the former is the greater.’ The Fāriyāq went on, ‘Then I said, “How can that be when there is no softness or smoothness to a man’s body while a woman is distinguished by numerous charms that are absent in a man, such as softness of skin, fineness of digit, shapeliness of finger and fingertip (these being likened to the ʿiswaddah, to asārīʿ, to the ʿudhfūṭ, and to the ʿanam tree), the quality called dasʿ, softness of the kaʿs, the dakhīṣ, and the rawājib, and the way the flesh covers the rawāhish so that a dimple appears on each knuckle; or softness of hand, smallness and suppleness of foot, fullness of wrist and heel and flatness of instep, smoothness of ʿursh and of ʿasīb, strength of arm and comely largeness of calf, massiveness of calf muscle and roundedness of kneecap, hugeness of haunch, posterior, thigh, backside, and belly; or narrowness of waist, grace of shoulder, declivity of flank, and glossiness of clavicle, breast, and mafāhir; or length of neck, ʿaṭaf, broadness of brow and length of hair; or sweetness of voice and odor, absence of ḥārr, rayash, ghafar, and surbah and of hair on her mons veneris, her vagina, or her anus; or by her ears being small, or cutesy-comely and tiny, or ornamented, or well-defined and pointy and pricked (and what a feast for the eye they are when the upper parts are hung with earrings!)?”’
“‘Greater than all of this and more wonderful, however, is the protuberance of her two breasts and their perkiness, their prominence and their pertness, their bulginess and their curviness, their roundness and their compactness, their firmness and their constrictedness, their massiveness and their glossiness, their creaminess and their smoothness, their convexity and their poutiness, their gibbosity and their slipperiness, their incrassation and their turgidness, their slickness and their sturdiness, their rotundity and their ampleness, their orbicularity and their curvaceousness, their resplendence and their fairness, their luster and their silkiness, their curvature and their satininess, their bulbosity and their thrustingness, their tumescence and their sleekness, their heaviness and their bounciness, their globosity and their whiteness, their incandescence and their tremulousness, their fullness and their fatness, their solidity and their pearliness, their albescence and their sphericalness, their jerkiness and their crammed-togetherness, their curvity and their tightness, their suavity and their distendedness, their cleftness and their bustiness. They are known, among other things, as ‘the weights’ because they can be weighed, either in the hand or in the mind. They are likened to pomegranates and to euphorbia fruit and their nipples are likened to saʿdān prickles. Now, it is also the case that. . . .” “Stop now,” she said, “for you have gone to excessive lengths in your description while failing to mention the best part of what they signify.” “Pray tell!” said I. She continued, “If you had cited a word that referred to gobbling on them or rubbing up against them, it would have served better than many of those adjectives.” “That’s not my fault,” I said. “I failed to find any such pearl in the Qāmūs.”’
‘Then I went on, “That’s one thing, and another thing I’d like to ask you is why everyone finds it agreeable for a female to have a certain amount of soft hair or down on her face and particularly on her lip, while the hairless, the beardless, and the smooth-faced male are hated by God and man alike?” “As for the first,” she said, “it’s because the woman, knowing that nothing in the world can take the place of a man for her, is inspired with longing for one by the slightest thing. Even if, after uttering in front of a woman the words aʿūdhu bi-llāhi mina l-shayṭān (‘I seek refuge with God from the Devil’), for example, you start to say the letter r, she will immediately start fantasising about a man and straightaway blanch or blush, depending on the direction in which her thoughts have taken her. The same will happen if you begin to pronounce the r following the words bi-smi llāh (‘In the name of God’).” “God bless you for a refined and honest woman!” said I. “If such is your nature and its inborn disposition while still unformed, what will they be like when they mature?”’
‘Then she said, “Concerning the good attributes to be found in the woman and not the man (according to your statement and that of the poets who write amatory verses to, and the painters who revel in the depiction of, the former), their absence in the man is no obstacle to his being loved. A woman knows that nothing but a man can bring her joy, so his presence in any shape or form inspires longing in her, as you mentioned earlier. Do you not observe that the women of the lands of the blacks love their menfolk more than women do their husbands in our and other countries? It’s like the situation of a man who has lots of books containing different stories and anecdotes as compared to another who has only one to read. You will notice that the man with many books will move from one to another and reach the last without anything having stuck in his mind, and thereafter find the idea of rereading them distasteful. The man with only one book, on the other hand, knowing that he will find nothing else to read when he gets to the end of that, will not move on from a page he is reading until he has pondered it well, mulled over its meanings, committed it to memory, learned from it, scrutinised it, thought about it, absorbed it, weighed it, examined it, conned it, picked at it, finecombed it, and meditated upon it. I came up with this simile of the books because I’ve noticed how taken you are with reading, but I have lots of other examples too.
‘‘To proceed: a man has numerous charms that women do not. These include the breadth of his chest and of the pelt that’s upon it, the height of his shoulders and capacity of his breast, the straightness of his legs and the thickness of his arms and the number of muscles in them, the massiveness of his hands and the fact of his being strong and hard, energetic, vigorous, forceful, active, vital, lively, brisk, lusty, robust, robustious, robustuous, rumbustious, mettlesome, puissant, potent, stout, sturdy, stalwart, rugged, hale, hearty, husky, flush, able, able-bodied, active, athletic, energetic, muscular, stark, staunch, strapping, doughty, well built, ripped, buff, diesel, beast, built, cut, jacked, shredded, yoked out, fine looking, and loud-voiced. All these we women consider to be among men’s charms, and he has other, intangible good qualities too, such as when he climbs the pulpit, for example, to preach, or rides a fine horse, or bears arms – and how fine a figure a man cuts when he walks along with his sword grazing the ground!”’
‘Then she said, “If only I knew how to read and write, I’d write more books about men and women than did that sheikh, whose name you once mentioned but which I’ve forgotten because he’s dead, on all the sciences put together.” “That would be Imam al-Suyūṭī, God have mercy on his soul,” I said. “Right,” she said, “more than al-Suyūṭī and all the other suits too,” to which I responded, “And all the sots as well.” “However,” she continued, “it’s all the fault of those who left me without an education. The Arabs claim that a knowledge of reading will corrupt women and that as soon as a woman is able to stick one character next to another, she’ll spell out a letter to her lover. In fact, though, if left to her own devices, she will have in her shyness and sense of decency a minder stricter than any father or husband. If, on the other hand, she’s penned in and cooped up, she’ll keep trying to squirm out of and get away from the restrictions imposed upon her. It will be with her as it is with water, which becomes purer and more appetising the faster it gushes and runs, or with a fast-walking person, who feels the air to be colder the faster he walks.” “I swear they did the right thing!” I thought to myself. “If she’d learned how to read and write, not one line of my poetry would have been left without her splitting it into hemistiches and inserting between them others of her own or building new stanzas based on what I’ve already written, so as to twist it to her purposes. May God direct what she already knows to useful ends, and spare me the evil that any increase therein attends!’’’
That Stinging Sensation You Feel When You Get Hot Sauce up Your Nose
Our previous comments on the Fāriyāq, made at a time when he was single, were an impertinence; how much more so would they be now, when he’s a husband? I think it better, therefore, to leave him now, in his married state (for this conversation of theirs was at night, and there’s no call for us to spoil the rest of it for them), until they awake and he goes to his Oneiromancer’s Chamber, meaning the place appointed for him to interpret dreams. Your Eminence may likewise be ready, after suffering the stinging sensation induced by all that hot sauce, to go to bed. Rest a while, then, and if you dream tonight, tell your dream to the Fāriyāq, for he has now become one of the world’s great dream interpreters.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2014 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāqwas a Lebanese-born Ottoman writer, scholar and journalist. Considered one of the founding fathers of modern Arabic literature, al-Shidyāq was Maronite by birth, but converted to Protestantism and eventually Islam as he travelled throughout Africa and Europe, at last settling in Istanbul where he would publish the first widely circulated newspaper in Arabic.
Humphrey Davies is an award-winning translator of Arabic literature from the Ottoman period to the present. Writers he has translated include Yusuf al-Shirbini, Elias Khoury, Alaa Al Aswany, Bahaa Taher, Muhammad Mustagab, Gamal al-Ghitani, Hamdy el-Gazzar, Khaled Al-Berry, and Ahmed Alaidy. He lives in Cairo.