I want to begin with a story. And, I have to admit, this is not my story. It was originally composed in the year 1627 by the Ottoman poet Nevizade ‘Atayi. Translated and partly retold in much more elaborate and eloquent form by Mehmet Kalpakli and Walter G. Andrews in The Age of Beloveds, it has also made a beautiful appearance in Joseph Allen Boone’s The Homoerotics Of Orientalism. The titles of these two publications may already provide you with a hint at the direction in which this story will go. There will, unsurprisingly, be some mention of beloveds and homoeroticism. And the reader will most likely expect that I will write on what is by now an almost clichéd narrative that the Muslim past was tolerant and diverse and embracing of many sexualities, unlike a large part of our post-colonial Muslim present. Much has indeed already been written and published on this narrative already. So much that even I – allegedly somewhat of a stakeholder in current Muslim Queer debates – am getting quite tired, not to say bored, of it. So, don’t worry dear reader: Homoerotics and tolerance will play a certain role in this essay. But I actually want to go somewhere else with all of this.
The story that I refer to proved to be a huge hit with the Ottoman readership of the seventeenth century. You could call it an early modern Ottoman bestseller. Atayi presented it in the form of a poem, as part of his ‘Heft han’ (Seven Stories). I shall give you a short prose retelling by heart:
Once upon a time in Istanbul there used to live two adventurous young friends. Their names were Tayyib and Tahir. Coming from well-to-do families, they did not have any existential worries to care about. All they needed to think about was how to best enjoy their time. By that, they wasted their youth with much pleasure and merrymaking. But, in the end, also quickly wasted a lot of their money while doing so. And one day they had to come to the sad realisation that they only had each other in this world. Because all other friends that had been with them in their best days had now left them in their worst days. Apparently, they had been more in love with Tayyib and Tahir’s money and the comfort that their company offered to them than with Tayyib and Tahir themselves.