Readers familiar with Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih’s works in English translation may be surprised by his latest book: a collection of erotica entitled Lady Hayatt’s Husbands and other erotic tales. The slender 127-page volume contains seven stories by Fagih and a story from The Thousand and One Nights.
The collection is published by London-based Quartet Books. Fagih has enjoyed a long association with Quartet. It published his Gardens of the Night: A Trilogy in 1995 and the novel Homeless Rats in 2011.
In terms of length, there could hardly be a greater contrast between the new book and Fagih's previous most recent work in English translation, the mammoth 656-page trilogy Maps of the Soul produced by London-based Darf Publishers in 2012. The trilogy comprises the first three books of Fagih’s monumental Maps of the Soul sequence of 12 historical novels set in Libya and Abyssinia.
In terms of design, Quartet has done Fagih proud. The inviting red cover of Lady Hayatt's Husbands carries an illustration by the famous English illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98). Beardsley was a member of the decadent Aesthetic Movement. His distinctive erotic illustrations and decorative elements, influenced by Japanese woodcuts, appear throughout the book.
Fagih was born in the Libyan village of Mizda in 1942 and in a literary career of more than 50 years has produced numerous novels, short stories, plays, articles and columns. His fiction frequently includes love affairs, sexual fantasies and fairly explicit erotic scenes. However, a work falling specifically within the erotic genre faces particular challenges. On the one hand there is a large appetite for such works, as shown by the continuing publication of the Erotic Review magazine, the extraordinary success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy - which has earned author E L James a fortune - and the great interest in the recent publication of a new collection of lost stories, Auletris: Erotica, by that legend of erotic literature Anaïs Nin.
On the other hand the field of erotica is riven by controversy, and the question of what distinguishes the erotic from the pornographic is still very much alive. In the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement the prizewinning novelist Eimear McBride, in a lengthy article entitled "The problems with erotica", rails against the new anthology Desire: 100 of Literature's Sexiest Stories chosen by Mariella Frostrup and the Erotic Review. McBride does however admit that some of the 100 stories "raise a smile and offer a reminder that one of the distinctions between erotica and pornography is probably the former's ability to laugh at its indecorous self." Fagih's stories could be seen as sharing this quality, for one of the things for which his writing is most known is its strong sense of comedy alongside the tragedies of life.
During his writing career Fagih has often drawn on the classic text One Thousand and One Nights for inspiration. We first meet the protagonist of Gardens of the Night while he is at Edinburgh University writing a thesis on sex and violence in One Thousand and One Nights, and that text's influence runs through the trilogy.
Fagih has chosen the story "The Tale of Ghanem bin Ayyb, the Distraught, the Thrall o' Love" from One Thousand and One Nights for inclusion in Lady Hayatt's Husbands. In an introduction to the tale he explains that he selected a story "from the heritage of our ancient Arabic erotic literature, One Thousand and One Nights, to add an authentic touch, combining both modern and traditional erotica."
Fagih writes that while many people give credit to the West for pioneering sexual and erotic literature, "the dawn of Arabic literature since pre-Islamic times witnessed all kind of eroticism in a way which intrigued and fascinated the rest of the world. Evidence even indicate that the West may have derived many erotic practices and knowledge from ancient civilizations emerged from the Arab lands."
He adds: "Back then, prostitution was an ever-present part of Arabic social life ... it often assumed different shapes and forms, the most prominent of which include those which were practiced with slaves, maids and serfs, and played a prominent role in a way that could be clearly seen in the stories of the time." It must be said that the stories in Lady Hayatt's Husbands do mainly involve women who are being paid or otherwise rewarded for sex.
Fagih's imaginative powers and his talents for storytelling and description are in evidence in the stories. They are replete with lush descriptions of women, lovemaking and scenery, although some words are overused, for example "beautiful". The majority of the stories are written in the first person, often in the present tense, and the narrator tends to be a somewhat naïve and romantic man, wide-eyed about his experiences.
The narrator of “An Encounter on the Island of Mykonos”, is the author of three published story collections. He has travelled from London for a literature course on the Greek island of Mykonos and is startled to find that his roommate is a woman "unlike anything I have ever seen...She has beautiful blond hair and a golden complexion that makes her look like one of those ancient Greek beauties, perhaps Helen of Troy."
In assessing the situation he muses: “Yet, after all, I am only a modest boy from the Libyan countryside, with an ideology that hasn't surpassed that of the Bedouin society which lived at the dawn of the Islamic era.” He is overcome by an "uncontrollable fever of lust" but she tells him "Well, you have seen the commodity, and we can set the price." The starting point is a thousand dollars. Following this transaction, the narrator, who "didn't know that the Island is famous for public nudity" is astounded to see "crowds of naked bodies furnishing the beach like royal carpets."
The larger-than-life Lady Hayatt of the collection's title story is an Iraqi former singing star of nearly 50 who entertains and shocks the narrator and a crowd of men in a lobby of a Baghdad hotel as she tells them of the 79 men she has married and the marriage contracts that she keeps locked in a box in her house. Much of the conversation revolves around her claim to have had a short marriage to the highly popular Iraqi singer Nazem al-Ghazali, who was famously married to the Jewish singer Selima Murad.
The narrator, a Libyan journalist, encounters Lady Hayatt during one of numerous visits he made to Iraq in the early 1970s. He is introduced to her by Fagih's real life friend Khalid Kishtainy, the renowned Iraqi satirist, author and columnist. "The presence of a writer like Kishtainy was essential in such a sitting: a writer who would pay tribute to her beauty using a verse of fine poetry". (It so happens that in 2011 Quartet published a book of spicy stories by Kishtainy, Arabian Tales: Baghdad-on-Thames ).
In the collection's opening story,“Doctor Sharma’s Health Farm”. the narrator checks into a centre of alternative therapies in the Kent countryside for his annual check-ups. After a swim in a sulphurous pool, a vigorous massage and a herbal lunch "when I return to the ward at the end of my first relaxing day I find a woman sharing the ward with me." An inevitable night of passion ensues, which "boosts my libido in a way I've never experienced before, forcing every cell of my body to savour and enjoy this overwhelming amount of pleasure".
But the dark spectre of HIV/AIDS hangs over the story, which appears to be set in the early days of the epidemic when HIV infection was virtually tantamount to a death sentence. "'This is not a health farm' I scream and break down. 'There is nothing healthy about this place. This is a "death farm"! '"
"One Night in Bangkok" finds the narrator in a luxury hotel on the outskirts of the Thai capital en route to China where he is to represent a Libyan association for Arab and Chinese businessmen at a conference. He revels in the sensuality of the landscape and food and succumbs to the attentions of a masseuse on a vibrating bed covered with rose petals.He compares the allure of the masseuse's skin to "the dazzling light recalled by the Al-Mutanabi in his poems when describing beautiful women." The masseuse takes the narrator through various Buddhist and Zen sexual rituals, and he decides to cancel his forward booking to China and to blow his Libyan credit card on a week of further sexual exploration. "One week then turns into an annual habit."
“Thirty Naked Women in One Room” is a tale of sexual and other excess narrated by a cultural attaché at an embassy in London. His hugely rich friend Noman Al-Zahaby, head of a Libyan and international business empire, is a major gambler in London casinos. Despite his wealth, Al-Zahaby is a character who retains “a kind of rural simplicity that sometimes borders on foolishness.” After being stuck in Tripoli for a year, deprived of his passport while his financial affairs are investigated by the regime Al-Zahaby returns to London determined to make up for lost time. He books into a royal suite in a hotel and asks the narrator to buy him a bottle of whisky for every week he has been away and to order as many female escorts as possible to spend the night with him. A doctor is summoned to inject him with "some kind of sexual booster." There is a full description of the orgy that ensues in which several friends, including the narrator, are invited to participate. The orgy was a last dissolute splurge by Al-Zahaby whose business empire has been nationalised and who is forced to take a modest job as an employee of one of his now nationalised companies. .
The nostalgic story “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” tells of is a brief encounter in Cairo between the narrator and a man in a café in Mohandeseen. When the eponymous Beatles song plays on the café's TV the narrator recalls his student days in London, but the other man bursts into tears. He tells the narrator how the song brings back his first love Lucy, a Jewish prostitute with whom he had spent five years from the age of 17.
Although Quartet has presented the stories in a physically beautiful edition, the same cannot be said of the quality of editing. Unusually for a book in translation, the translator's name is not revealed. Some of the sentences read awkwardly, even ungrammatically, and basic errors go uncorrected. For example Kishtainy's name is first spelt as al-Kashtainy and then two pages later as Al-Kasheity. The use of apostrophes is careless. Such details do matter to the reader!
by Susannah Tarbush, London