- Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures
Sahar Amer’s long-awaited book, Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures, winner of the 2009 Scaglione Prize from the Modern Language Association, delivers a clear and original reading of queer cross-cultural motifs in medieval Arabic and French texts. Amer interprets and documents the existence of a cross-cultural Arabic and French lesbian tradition from the mid-twelfth to the early thirteenth century and beyond. With the exception of the introduction, the book is perhaps too slow moving. However, the importance of feminist work on classical Arabic sources cannot be overemphasized, nor can its difficulty and civic courage be overestimated.
Amer reads medieval French literature as a hybrid and cross-cultural practice in close dialogue with the Arab Islamicate traditions, contributing to a major shift in the field, initiated by Sharon Kinoshita and others. But, more important, Amer reads lesbian, queer, and woman-centered traditions as explicitly, inextricably part of the classical Arabic and, less explicitly, medieval French literary and cultural traditions.
Amer resists dichotomies, using instead terms such as hybridity, queer, and cross-cultural. She draws a distinction between the orientalist/voyeuristic and lesbian/appropriative readings of lesbians in classical Arabic sources (14–16), mentions fallacies of gay and lesbian scholarship (27), and engages post–Third World feminism (164–65). Amer’s book aims to “destabilize the long-cherished Western assumption that Muslim and Arab women are an always already constituted coherent, stable category of sexually oppressed, sociopolitically subordinated objects, regardless of class or of marginal and resistant modes of experiences” (164–65). She closes the book with a useful paragraph-manifesto, “The Ethics of Cross-Cultural Research” (165–66). [End Page 182]
Amer’s introduction, “A Cross-Cultural Approach to Same-Sex Love Between Women,” is authoritative and clearly written. It presents Arab Islamicate sources and their “fluid adaptations” in French (163) and defines intertextuality, orientalism, hybridity and cross-cultural approaches, queer studies, feminism, and lesbianism. Amer succinctly indexes the major scholars of premodern queer studies and postcolonial theory. This chapter would be particularly useful to assign to students; it judiciously provides the basic facts of source texts, secondary material, and main points of theory.
In chapter 1 Amer discusses medieval lesbianism, its silencing in the Western theological tradition, and its “ghostly” presence in vernacular European texts (mysticism, cross-dressing fictions, trobairitz lyric). In contrast, lesbianism is explicit in classical Arabic texts, for example, medical treatises, the literary genres of mujun and kutub al-bah (mujun, “profligacy,” or erotic literature, and kutub al-bah, “art of love,” from kutub, “book,” and al-bah, “intercourse”), adab (collections of poetry and anecdotes), and wasf (verse epigrams that often compare merits, for example, of boy and girl lovers or virgins and nonvirgins). Amer reminds us that the trade in commodities (textiles, metals, gems, spices, paper) from the Arab Islamicate to the Latin world was accompanied by a trade in letters. She points to three key zones of contact: the Latin Kingdoms of the East during the Crusades, Iberia (al-Andalus), and Sicily. The well-known influences of Arab literature on European vernacular traditions include the links of the courtly love tradition to the muwashshahat (strophe lyric genre in al-Andalus) and zajal (song-debate) and the similarities between Marie de France’s Esope and Kalila wa Dimna fables. The chapter closes with the image of a palimpsest, “a textual surface that both obscures and reveals” (27).
Chapter 2 discusses a seven-stanza fragment on lesbians in Étienne de Fougères’s Livre des manières (Book of Manners), in which lesbians are intriguingly positioned between “bad” and “good” women. Amer shows a plausible connection between the Livre dedicated to the Countess of Hereford and the Hereford cathedral as a node of “transmission of Arabic scientific (and literary) learning in the twelfth century” (30). The readings are illuminating, especially the discussion of the bellicose metaphor for sex, which, as Amer claims, was frequent in Arabic...