Sexuality in T-S NS 289.91

By Mohamed A. H. Ahmed

The Cairo Genizah preserves many interesting poems in various themes – not only poems with themes of a religious nature, relating to prayer or submission to God, but also there are a considerable number of fragments that hold secular themes. Among the latter are magical charms, astrology, grammar, and, of course, love poetry.  

A good number of fragments hold songs in the Egyptian Arabic dialect. The number does not exceed the dozens, but they constitute a good opportunity to experience one of the most important facets of Egyptian and Jewish culture at the time, such as the shared music history or to study the musical inter-communal exchange and communication. 

Among the fragments that hold songs in Egyptian Arabic, I have chosen a very exciting and sexy one for this blog. It is actually a long song with a repetitive refrain that gives a dancing rhythm to the song, which reads أي أي, ay ay, in Arabic. The repetition of something like the English ah or oh might give a comparable effect, at least colloquially. Usually, this Egyptian-Arabic term is used to express a feeling of pain; for instance, it is commonly uttered when someone knocks his head or receives an injury. Also, it could be used by women when they behave in an amorous or sexually enticing manner.  

The whole song found in this fragment displays some clearly sexual motifs. It features a straightforward call to someone, asking them to take the singer back to their house where they will get drunk together: 

Translation Arabic Hebrew Line 
You made me weak ضنيتني צְֹנַיתַנִי  1
O Master, let’s go يا سيدي امشي יֵא סִידִי אִמְשִי  2
home and get drunk لبيتنا نسكر לְבַיתְנֵא נִסְכַר  3
only two of us in the place  في القاعه اتنينا פִי אִלקַאעַה אִתְנַינְאֵ  4
wela ! the two of us! ay ay ويلا اتنينا اي اي וַילֵא אִתְנַינְאֵ אַי אַי  5
the two of us ∵اتنينا  ∵אִתְנַינְאֵ   6
I am your slave انني عبدك         אִנְנִי עַבְדַךְ  7

Generally speaking, there is a difference between the poet’s voice and the narrator’s voice—the first-person perspective of the flirtatious lurer. This could have been written by a man, for instance, but the first-person perspective voice in the song might be a woman. Although it is difficult to grammatically confirm that the poet’s voice in this fragment belongs to a female singer, the dancing rhythm and the refrain in the song, ay ay, might indicate an imaginary wine party “majlis – مجلس” as the setting of the piece. In medieval periods, such majlis were events where slave maids used to play music, dance, and offer wine to amuse attendees. Further evidence can be found in the following quote, where the speaker invites an intimate exchange with their companion. In this regard, the speaker’s self-proclaimed status as a slave, and the context in which such songs would have been performed, lends to the idea that we are reading a rare perspective of women’s sexual subjectivity: 

  Translation Arabic Hebrew Line 
For me, put down your forearm  وسد لي زندك  וַסִד לִי זִנְדַךְ  1
and wrist as a pillow, and put ومعصمك واجعل וַמַעְצַמַךְ וְאִגְעַל  2
my lips on yours  فمي على فمك פַמִי עְלֵי פְמַךְ  3
wela, on your lips, ay ay  ويلا على فمك اي  וַילֵא עַלֵי פַמַךְ  4
on your lips اي على فمك   אַי אַי עַלֵי פַמַךְ  5
I am              انني                אִנְנִי  6
your slave and will serve you عبدك واخدمك עַבְדַךְ וְאַכְדמַך  7

In general, pre-Modern Cairene songs of a sexual nature found in the Cairo Genizah so far, such as this one, are typically written from the male gaze. In this piece, however, we find evidence of the contrary, making it a rare find in the Cairo Genizah. In Genizah Studies, relationships between men and women have been explored through personal writing such as letters, and the witness statements in legal documents. In such sources, however, the expression of feeling hits certain constraints. For example, in letters, at least in the early medieval period, even the mention of a wife’s name would be considered unacceptable due to the norms and cultural constraints of modesty. Indeed, feelings are normally only expressed between male friends, to express friendship, brotherhood and mutual respect, but never in relation to romantic relationships. Poetry, on the other hand, opens another avenue of access as it reveals hidden affection, desires, and passions.  

When it comes to men’s voices expressing sexual themes, we can find considerably more poems in comparison to female voices. For instance, the following example, again in Egyptian-Arabic, demonstrates qualities of such pieces written from the male gaze, an element that we don’t find in the above:  

Translation Arabic Hebrew Line 
[…] from her cheeks (come / grow) beautiful pomegranates like her breasts  […] من خديها رمان حلو حكا نهديها […] מן כדיהא רמאן חלו חכא נהדיהא  1

The fragment ‘T-S NS 289.91’ allows us to shed some light on sexuality outside the male gaze, femininity, gender boundaries, and the female voice in pre-modern Egypt. It shows us a rare voice full of passion and expressing love that can’t be found in many other contemporary sources. In its performative form, as a song to be recited in colloquial Arabic, it potentially raises many other related questions about gender and interpersonal relationships in pre-modern Egypt: What was the context in which it was recited – a mixed audience? A male-only event? How does the Arabic poetry of the Genizah differ from the Hebrew tradition in the way it reflects masculinity, femininity and gender boundaries? What can colloquial poetry, cited and written by Jews, tell us about relations between the genders, such as the different status of men and women, or attitudes towards sexuality in the Jewish community at the time? Considering that there is a large corpus of love poetry within the Genizah fragments, can we read these fragments to help us understand relationships in Egypt versus idealised conceptions of love at the time? The answer to these questions is part of the work that the ambitious APCG team is carrying out over the next few years, so stay tuned for more in the near future. 

Photo credit: Cambridge Library