Medieval Arab Sex Work in Al-Tifashi’s Writings
By: Kareem ElQueer
“أدخلت امرأة من قحاب هذا العصر رجلا إلى بيتها، فبينما هي معه قرع زوجها الباب فأدخلته -عشيقها- خزانة… وخشيت أن يدخلها زوجها فاستدعت جارتها وطلبت ملحفة… وأقامتها في وجه الزوج، ثم أشارت إلى الرجل بالخروج، فخرج ومضى والزوج لم يشعر”
The above quote is from a story mentioned by Al-Tifashi in his book Nazhat Alalbab Fema La Yogad Fe Ketab. He is Ahmed bin Yusuf Al-Tifashi, who was born in a small village in the Almohad state (currently Algeria) in 1184 AD and died in 1253 AD in Cairo after moving during his life between the Arab countries from West to East. He was known for his contributions to mineralogy and wrote a book on it entitled Azhar Al Afkar Fe Jawaher Al-Ahjar. Additionally, he wrote books on sex and sociology, including but not limited to Resala Fema Yahtag Elayh Al Rejal Wa Al Nesaa Fe Istaamal Al Bah Mema Yador Wa Yanfaa. However, the book which we will tackle in this essay is Nazhat Alalbab Fema La Yogad Fe Ketab. in which he dealt with several social issues in a funny way through the recording of facts, monitoring and analyzing them and transmitting news and poems that he heard during his many trips in the Arab and Islamic countries. Therefore, this book is a rare social history of the public’s sexual life, especially in the second and thirteenth centuries (or the sixth and seventh Hijri centuries). It is referred to in English as “people’s history” during the eras of the Almohad state in the West along with the Ayyubids and the Abbasid state in the East.
In his book, Al-Tifashi records 22 different types of pimps  in that era, which suggests that sex work was not criminalized. It also indicates that such practice was normalized in the sense that he could mention it without feeling embarrassed or ashamed. Al-Tifashi mentions the job of each one of the pimps in detail along with how their wages were determined. For example:
1- Al Hawash who does not have a fee and whose duty is to deliver the worker to the customer’s house and carry her luggage. He depends on tipping (whatever the customer gives him).
2- Hawash Al Hawash is the person who gets one-sixth of the sex worker’s fare in exchange for organizing the night and guaranteeing that the fare is correct.
3- Al Maaras, a term used today in colloquial Egyptian dialect which indicates that its origin might stem from this era. The job of Al Maaras is to host the sex worker and the customer. His fee is a quarter or half of the fare.
4- Al Symsar (the broker) his task revolves around highlighting the virtues and the pros of the sex worker—whether they were truths or lies. He gets half of the fare.
5- Al-Qarnan, or what is described today as “Al-Qorani,” which refers to the pimp whose family works as sex workers. One of those Qarnan was mentioned in a poem and was called Ibn Hamdoun:
إن ابن حمدون ذو قرون… شمخن في رأسه، طوال
لو أنها في زمان موسى… أغنت عن الصرح ذي المحال
وكان فرعون قد تدلى… منها إلى الله بالحبال
6- Al Mosken, which lies on the top of the pimping hierarchy and earns the most money. He has a house full of sex workers both males and females. He targets merchants and charges them extensive amounts of money in exchange for his services.
Pimping, however, was not exclusive to men. Al-Tifashi mentions 10 types of female pimps. Most of the female pimps are elderly women which explains the Arab imagination’s assumption on evil old women who corrupt other women as it is easier for them to enter strangers’ houses without suspicion or worry. Other types of female pimps are Al Dalalah, Al Mashtah, Al Qabelah and Al Hegamah, they are the ones who try to seduce women. Lastly, the third type of female pimps is the servants and the “effeminate.” They are the ones who are not considered by Al-Tifashi to be men or women, meaning that they are eunuchs. They were also considered as a third gender in the Arab collective consciousness and as such were assumed to have feelings of jealousy and hatred towards those who were not deprived of their sexual pleasures.
Al-Tifashi differentiates between the work of each pimp from the ones who sit among the people mentioning the pros and virtues of the sex workers, the ones who integrate between the merchants and deceive them to the ones who take advantage of situations and quarrels. Moreover, he mentions the prevalence of sex work amongst both males and females, not just females, contrary to the common belief that assumes that homosexuality and queerness were not prevalent throughout Arab history. Furthermore, he mentions popular proverbs and Hadiths that tackled pimping in the Arab states at that time. They describe the collective consciousness of the public in his era, for example, the Aqwad men Zolmah, who was one of the greatest female pimps in Arab history. In his book, Al-Tifashi explains that pimping and sex work were part of the Arab culture, so they were included in Arab poetry and imaginative consciousness:
قوادة فارهة، كثيرة التوصل
لو شهدت صفين أو وقعة يوم الجمل
توصلت بالصلح بين ابن هند وعلي
As for the types of female pimps, or what was referred to in this era as “qahab,” there are seven types that differ in their methods, among them are the following:
1- The Jealous One (Al Ghayrana): She is the one who claims that she has a husband who cheats on her and that she would like to cheat on him to take revenge, so the man follows her.
2- The Drunken (Al Sakrana): She walks on the streets drunk until she finds what she needs depending on how men would think that she is an easy target while she is in that state.
3- The Confused (Al-Hirana): She is the one who enters homes and claims that she is lost.
He also mentions two types of male pimps who had male sex workers, or in the language of the era, “al-alouq”: the first type is called the “mustashqoud” who has sex with the sex worker whom he is pimping. The second type is called the “sandal” who are young boys who work as pimps to other young boys. Arabs, similar to Romans and Greeks, were known for their love of young boys. Nevertheless, it was not the only manifestation of homosexuality. The love for young boys arose primarily in masculine societies as a kind of circumvention of masculinity through the removal of the masculine characteristic from young boys, and therefore having sex with young boys will not, for them, defy masculinity (however this phenomenon exceeds the purposes of this article).
Al-Tifashi determines that one of the characteristics of the male sex worker is shaving the hair off of both his feet and face. This is because the Arabs considered shaving facial hair a trick to appear younger. The masters were the pimps of the young slave boys. Those young boys didn’t have a fixed wage. It was rather set upon mutual agreement and consent between the two parties. Setting the wage was also dependent on several factors for instance: the content of the agreement and the status of its parties. For example, it ranged from a dirham and two dirhams as a minimum, to 10 dirhams or a dinar, and it may increase to 100 dirhams. However, it was more common to be between two and ten dirhams . The wage was determined based on what was required from the sex worker, his beauty, the specified time and how rich and affluent the customer was. On the one hand, the more sexual services provided, the greater the wage. It is important to highlight that the wage was not only manifested in money, it could also be clothes, utensils, or other things of value. One of the anecdotes mentioned is that Abu Nawas used to pay the boy two dirhams and the eunuch one dirham, because the first is capable of more than the second. On the other hand, the growth of the beard reduced the given wage. Furthermore, sex work between two males was punishable through two forms: flagellation and execution. However, the death penalty was applied only if the relationship was between two men, not between a man and a boy.
Unfortunately, we do not have a specific estimate of the value of money in Al-Tifashi’s book because he did not specify a date and he lived in an economically turbulent time in which the dinar may have been equal to 40 dirhams. Nonetheless, we can provide an estimate from the Cairo Geniza—which is a group of texts that were recorded by Jewish people who lived in Cairo during the ninth century AD . These texts state that, during Al-Tifashi’s time, the daily wages for an unskilled sex worker such as a boy were two dirhams per day while the wage for a skilled worker was five dirhams per day. We have to take into account that the sex worker can earn such wage daily from any other job. It is also important to highlight that 10 dirhams are more than a reasonable wage as a minimum rate for those who engage in sex work professionally and do not just treat the profession as whims. Ten dirhams is enough where the cost of lunch for an individual is a dirham and a quarter while the cost of living for a family is at least two dinars per month (or 80 Dirhams). We can, then, deduce that two dirhams were the wage given to those who engage in non-professional sex work. We can also understand why young boys—who practiced sex work—got angry when given only one dirham, as this is not even enough for their day’s lunch. On the other hand, 10 dirhams (or more) is the most appropriate wage for professional sex work. If we wanted to compare it with the current currency, perhaps the dirham is almost equivalent to 50 pounds which equals the price of one meal today. The 5 dirhams are equivalent to 250 pounds—which is the daily wage of one worker in Egypt nowadays. Subsequently, the 10 dirhams are equivalent to 500 pounds—which is closer to the logical minimum wage of those who engage in sex work professionally. Lastly, 100 dirhams—which was explicitly said to be the wage of a young boy whose demand is high—represent the highest wage earned for a sex worker in that era.
According to Al-Tifashi’s anecdotes and stories which he collected from his travels, Al Qahab pranked people. Additionally, he provides a picture of a society in which consensual sex work took place in secrecy, but it was a secret that everyone knew about. For instance, some practiced sex work under that tree, others inside the mosque—and if someone found them, he would rebuke them and wait till they finished so he could pray. In another anecdote, a woman cheats on her husband and when he comes, she hides her lover in the closet. Moreover, he tells the stories of all segments of our society—the old and the young, the man and the woman, the homosexual and the heterosexual, the judge and the Sufi, the prince and the commoner—and how they are all involved in different forms of sexual relationships. Contrary to the common belief that such relationships are foreign to our societies, sex— and talking about it—was part of everyday lives. Although Al-Tifashi’s book was written with a mixture of humor and seriousness, as it was not a history book, its importance lies in its incorporation of the cultural history of the people who lived during that era in our society: their social history, what occupied their daily lives and how they behaved. We, then, find ourselves in front of a community where sex work was an integral part of the lives of the individuals of that community where sex work had its own known secret rules, culture and its famous people who everyone knows about their behaviors. These are all set as a large painting from a past that we did not live in.
 نزهة الألباب فيما لا يوجد في كتاب، الباب الثاني
 المرجع نفسه، الباب الثالث والرابع
 المرجع نفسه، الباب السادس والسابع والثامن
A Mediterranean Society, Volume I
The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Economic Foundations p95-110