By Lisa Perfetti
Chapter 6 from Women and Laughter in Medieval Comic Literature (University of Michigan Press, 2003)
Introduction: Then she washed herself under the belly, around the breasts, and between the thighs. Then she rushed out, threw herself in the porter’s lap, and asked, “My little lord, what is this?” “Your vulva,” said he, and she gave him a blow with which the hall resounded, saying, “Fie, you have no shame.” “Your womb,” said he, and her sister hit him, saying, “Fie, what an ugly word!” “Your clitoris,” said he, and the other sister boxed him, saying “Fie, fie, you are shameless.” They kept at it, this one slapping him, another hitting him, another jabbing him, repeating, “no, no,” while he kept shouting, “your womb, your cunt, your pussy.” Finally he cried, “The basil of the bridges,” and all three burst out laughing till they fell on their backs. But again all three slapped him on the neck and said, “No, this is not its name.”
In this scene from the Thousand and One Nights, an exchange between three sisters from Baghdad and the poet they have hired, laughter is literally focused on the woman’s body, but it is words to describe the female anatomy more than the body itself that take center stage. As in the Decameron, the scene interrogates the relationship between sexual language and humour, but more than feminine modesty, it is masculine knowledge, the porter’s inability to get the name right, that is at issue.
In the “Story of the Porter and the Three Ladies,” three wealthy sisters in Baghdad during the reign of the caliph Harun al-Rashid (reigned 786-809) invite the porter they have hired for the day to join them in merrymaking. After they have eaten many delicacies and drunk much wine, one by one, each sister removes her clothing, plunges into a pool, emerges, and sits on the porter’s lap. Each sister then points to her sexual parts and asks the porter, “What is this?” When the first sister asks him name her parts, she and her sister scold, slap, and hit him as each answer is given is judged incorrect: “your womb, “your vulva,” “your clitoris”. She reveals the correct name: “the basil of the bridges”. The second sister poses the same question, again punishing the porter for the anatomical terms he proposes. Finally he cries out, “The basil of the bridges,” using the term he had learned for the first sister’s anatomy. All three sisters laugh so hard they fall on their backs. He is slapped some more and informed that the correct name is “the husked sesame”. When the third sister asks the same question, he tries both “basil of the bridges” and “the husked sesame,” but after receiving numerous blows and pinches, he is finally told that the name is “the inn of Abu Marsur”. The porter then decides to play their game, and after he, too, has made them try to name his anatomy correctly, tells them the nickname he has invented, to which the sisters respond with gales of laughter.