Mysterious Star-crossed Lovers Dealing Blow to Homophobic Historians
… The metaphor of the lance, often used as a euphemism to refer to the act of sexual penetration, is already documented for the 8th century, such as in some of Abu Nawas’ poems which specifically describe the speaker having penetrative sex with another man.
What makes these newly discovered poems so fascinating, however, is not only that the author talks about being penetrated by the lance himself, thus positioning himself in the passive role. Perhaps even more interesting is that for this unknown poet, the metaphor takes on a double meaning: the lance impaling him is not only what brings him pleasure … but also what brings about his death, which we are here not meant to understand as literal death, but rather as the end of a doomed but passionate love affair.
Thus, what was doubtlessly a devastating personal tragedy for the poet compelled to put these words on parchment is an exciting discovery for those interested in the topic of same-sex love in the Middle Ages. …
“Interesting,” Nicky says thoughtfully, awkwardly twisting his thumb to scroll further down his Iphone screen. It would be easier to use both hands, but the left one is currently buried in Joe’s curls, whose head is resting on Nicky’s chest, and barring a surprise visit from a SWAT team barging in through the window, he has no intention of moving his fingers anytime soon.
“Hm?” Joe’s voice is sleepy, and he rubs his cheek against Nicky’s t-shirt like a cat asking to be petted before he blinks up at Nicky’s chin. Nicky feels the momentary embarrassing impulse to wrap him in cotton wool and store him somewhere safe, but for now contents himself with gently stroking his hair.
“Here,” he says, holding the phone at a different angle so Joe doesn’t need to lift his head to see the screen. Joe squints, scrunching up his forehead, and Nicky fully expects him to smile and ask Nicky to read the article to him.
Instead, to his surprise, he feels Joe’s body tense up against his, which gives him about two seconds of a warning before Joe abruptly sits up on the couch, Nicky’s fingers slipping from his hair.
“Not this again,” he says, sounding genuinely annoyed, and stands up before Nicky can even think to reach out for him.
“Sorry, what?” Nicky asks, confused.
“It’s always the same,” Joe says agitatedly. “Someone is going to use it to write about the shocking revelation that Arabic people in the Middle Ages were capable of having relationships that weren’t something straight out of One Thousand and One Nights.”
He throws his hands up in obvious frustration while Nicky stares up at him, wide-eyed. “And then someone else is going to come in and say that no, no, they were really just platonic friends, and they’ll go round in circles, and ultimately neither of them has a fucking clue about what things were really like.”
“Eh … okay?” Nicky says carefully. He rubs his chest, which feels a little cold without the comforting weight of Joe’s body pressing down against his.
“Do you want to sit down and talk about it?”
“I really don’t,” Joe says, staring out of the window over Nicky’s head. “I am going to start dinner,” he announces, and just like that, he has disappeared from the room.
“It’s not even four,” Nicky whines, but Joe can’t hear him anymore. Five minutes later, kitchen cabinets are being opened and closed, and soon enough, the smell of sautéed garlic is wafting into the room, an unmistakable sign that Joe is pissed about something, just in case Nicky has not already caught on.
Nicky spends the next hour rereading the article, trying in vain to figure out what could have possibly bothered Joe. By the time Joe calls everyone to the dining room for dinner, he’s practically got the whole thing memorized, but he is still not any closer to figuring out what it is that might have set Joe off.
Reading history books is a strange experience when you are centuries-old and have seen far too many of the events in question with your very own eyes.
That’s not to say that Nicky doesn’t respect the work of historians, or that he thinks they are all doing shoddy work. But he has long realized that even with the most meticulously researched, carefully nuanced takes, there comes inevitably a point at which he finds himself telling the book in his lap “That’s not how this happened,” or “Easy to say for you, cretino, you didn’t have to live through it.”
Up into the middle of the 20th century, he continued to read up on ancient history, in an attempt to understand some things about Andy that still puzzled him. But whenever he would ask her questions about it, she would get that particular look in her eyes, and even though she never outright asked him to stop, eventually he decided that it might be best not to bring certain things up again.
All that is to say that he has pretty much given up on the genre, and for the most part doesn’t consider it a great loss: After all, what is “news” to the historical discipline is rarely ever anything but old news to them.
There are a few exceptions, however, for reasons he finds a little awkward to explain. He still occasionally visits “MEM Discussions,” a Facebook group for Middle-East Medievalists, which he sometimes comments on in the disguise of a grad student from Bologna, for the primary reason of trolling scholars he doesn’t like.
Another exception is the professional blog of Gabriel Bernasconi, a Swiss medievalist working at the University of Milan. In fact, he has followed Bernasconi’s work with interest ever since the publication of his monograph Beards and Butts: Same-age Same-sex Relationships in the Classical Arabic Period, which Nicky read – contrary to his general stance on historical literature – within 48 hours from front to back.
“He has a crush on him,” Joe says around a mouthful of carrots and points his fork at him for emphasis. To someone who once has had Joe’s scimitar rammed through his chest, it’s not exactly a terrifying gesture, but it still feels a tad more aggressive than Nicky thinks the situation warrants.
“I do not have a crush on him,” he protests, and hacks at a stubborn piece of eggplant with his knife.
Nile raises her eyebrows at him, and he firmly shakes his head. “Yusuf is being ridiculous, I’ve never even met the man. I simply appreciate the fact that he doesn’t pretend people like us didn’t exist.” He stares down at the eggplant, now successfully drawn and quartered. “His work has been groundbreaking in pushing back against the common perception that same-sex love in Antiquity and the Middle Ages was all about pederasty.”
Nile folds her hands underneath her chin. Booker leans back in his chair. Andy pours herself another glass of wine – though whether it’s because she is reminiscing about all the virgins she deflowered in her time as a goddess, or whether she’s merely annoyed that she has to listen to this argument again is impossible to tell.
“So what’s going on with these poems?” Nile asks, looking genuinely intrigued, and Nicky ignores Joe’s grimace and chooses to direct his attention at her.
“They are from a bundle of parchments that were found a few years ago in Wadi Rum, when they were shooting the … you know, the Star Wars movie.”
“Oh, John Boyega,” Nile grins. “Rise of Skywalker. It was good.”
“Yes,” Nicky nods hastily, because the Star Wars sequels are another point of contention between Joe and him, and he doesn’t want to pour more oil on the flames. “That one. A couple of stunt people stumbled across the site, a team of French archaeologists swooped in to retrieve them, and they spent the last few years restoring them in collaboration with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. Then Bernasconi and his team got a prestigious Swiss research grant to study the texts, and he’s been blogging about their findings ever since.”
“It’s completely overblown,” Joe grouches. He pushes his chair back and picks up his empty plate. “Just one historical document out of thousands that only by sheer luck have survived the centuries. The only reason it didn’t get burned in one war or another is probably because the writer didn’t consider it important enough to keep it on him when he finally went home.”
“Yeah, well,” Nicky shouts after him as he carries his plate into the kitchen. “Bernasconi says that for texts from the mid-14th century, they are radically redefining the contemporaneous understanding of male/male love.”
Joe makes a rude hand gesture that says clearly what he thinks of Bernasconi’s opinion, which Nicky gracefully pretends not to see.
He does try to help the others with the dishes, but they take mercy on him (or perhaps on themselves) and send him away. It’s clear that Joe is both hiding from him and making it very easy for him to be found: he has retreated no further than their room, where he is sitting on the edge of the bed with his back to the door, drawing angry lines into his sketchbook with a ballpoint pen.
Nicky tries to get close enough to peek over his shoulder, and to his surprise sees what looks like a sketch of the desert, the sun setting on the horizon behind a lone figure walking through the sand.
“Are you mad at me?” he asks hesitantly, directing his question at the back of Joe’s neck. Joe’s movements still, but he doesn’t answer, and Nicky takes a breath and barges ahead.
“Look, I don’t know how to disabuse you of the ludicrous notion that I am madly in love with a random medievalist scholar just because he wrote a good book about butt-sex poems, but if I’ve done something to hurt you …” He pauses. “Or is this about the Oscar Isaac thing again?”
Joe turns around then, looking up at him from stormy eyes, and for a moment Nicky braces himself for an actual fight, but –
“No,” Joe says quietly, his shoulders slumping, “I’m not mad, just …. ”
He trails off helplessly, shrugs, and Nicky takes that as his cue to climb onto the bed and wrap his arms around him.
They make love that night, slowly and sweetly, and if Joe looks at him a little less than usual, but clings to him a little more tightly, Nicky is not going to call him out on it.
The next day, it is pouring rain, and Nile announces over breakfast that since this is her first time in Moscow, she is going to spend all day at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.
“I’ll join you,” Joe says, looking up from the Russian newspaper he’s been reading. “If you don’t mind.”
Nile looks excited for a moment, then she glances at Nicky, a little uncertainly.
Nicky shrugs. “Have fun,” he says lightly, swallowing his disappointment, and reaches for the coffee pot again.
Admittedly, when he had woken up and saw that it was raining, he had been looking forward to a cozy day in bed. Especially since, after the strange tension between him and Joe the day before, he figured that perhaps what they needed was simply some time to reconnect.
But clearly Joe has other ideas, and there is nothing wrong with that: The are both grown men, Joe is his own person, and Nicky isn’t going to stand in the way of him spending some quality bonding time with Nile.
Besides, he does have some research to catch up on, and that is easier for him to do on his own.
By the time he sits down in the living room with another cup of coffee and his laptop, the MEM Facebook group is blowing up in response to Bernasconi’s most recent blog post about the mysterious poetry.
“This is just like Rumi all over again,” writes the Emeritus from Harvard, typical White Old Man™. “A medieval Arabic poet writes adoring verses about his intellectual mentor, a common poetic theme at the time … and then the Social Justice Warrior Brigade waltzes in and reads homoerotic subtext into everything! When do we finally start to push back against the increasing tumblrization of scholarship?!”
“Thank you, I couldn’t have said it better,” the next commenter writes, this one an older British-Pakistani Cambridge scholar, who never agrees with White Old Man™ on anything except when it comes to the topic of homosexuality. “It’s an embarrassment to the field. Western scholars really need to stop applying modern Western concepts to the history of Arabic culture and literature.”
“Oh come on, man,” Hot Gay Palestinian™ UCLA Lecturer chimes in after him. “I’m all for calling out cultural appropriation when I see it, but white Christians did not invent ass-fucking, let’s be clear.”
“I appreciate the lively discussion, but please mind your language, folks!” the admin tone-polices cheerfully, and then she closes the comments on the post.
Nicky logs out of Facebook soon after, a little annoyed that the conversation is so predictably following the exact pattern Joe had complained about the day before. He does briefly check Tumblr to see if White Old Man™ is onto something, but quickly decides that it was a mistake. The relevant Twitter hashtag also turns out to be only minimally more informative … or so he thinks, until he comes across a tweet by the pretentious-but-brilliant young scholar at University of Vienna, whose name he only remembers because he and Joe fished his great-great-grandfather out of the trenches during World War I back in 1917.
“I still think it’s a fake,” the guy writes, with all the self-confidence of a man who has too often been told they are smart. “I know the French have supposedly confirmed the authenticity of the materials, but unfortunately B. and his team are very secretive about sharing images of the original documents, [1/2] and from the sparse quotes B. has provided on his blog, that’s clearly a North-African Arabic dialect. [2/2]”
“Dude, people were traveling in the 14th century,” says a retweet from a woman whose name Nicky doesn’t recognize but who, based on a two-minute Google search, may actually be his wife.
“Oh sure,” he tweets back, and Nicky wonders idly which one of them will be sleeping on the couch tonight. “But a poet from the Maghreb area hiding in a cave in the Jordan desert, writing sad poetry about the guy who ditched him for someone else? Just seems a little far-fetched of a story, if you ask me.”
Nicky moves to close the window so hastily that he actually hits the power button instead. He stares at his dark screen for a good five minutes, then heads to the kitchen where Booker and Andy are doing crossword puzzles and drinking tea.
“Andy?” he says, and anxiously waits for her to look up at him. “Uhm, so – what do you remember of where we went exactly in the mid-14th century?”
Half an hour later, he finds himself typing a very complimentary email in Italian to Professor Bernasconi from a fake unibo.it email account that Booker has kindly set up for him.
And it must be a very slow weekend in Milan, because not even fifteen minutes later, the entirely fictitious Niccolò Morelli, Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Bologna, receives a friendly reply that includes Bernasconi’s Skype username. Nicky manages to set up a fake Skype account all by himself without having to interrupt Booker and Andy’s crossword marathon again, and then goes to check his hair in the bathroom mirror before he starts the video call.
“It’s very impressive for a grad student to keep up so closely with recent developments in the field,” Bernasconi praises him, once they have gone through the introductions, and Nicky tilts his head as if embarrassed and smiles shyly at the screen.
“Oh, I’ve been a fan of your work for years,” he says, “It’s really what convinced me to go into history.” He bats his eyes and feels only a tiny bit guilty when Bernasconi visibly melts at the exaggerated flattery.
“You said you had some questions about the documents,” he says when he’s pulled himself together again, and Nicky inwardly sighs in relief and outwardly nods eagerly.
“Well, yes,” he says, “from what I have read, it seems that there have been a number of unexpected discoveries.”
“Indeed,” Bernasconi agrees, clearly thrilled to have such an attentive audience. “You may have seen some people cast doubts on the poetry’s authenticity because of the dialect, but both the parchment and the ink have been very clearly identified as mid-14th century, and there are a number of ways to account for this linguistic-geographic discrepancy. The verses themselves …”
He takes a breath, as if he needs a moment to compose himself. “They are really something else. Beautiful language, very timeless, and the poet’s pain is tangible in every word. When he talks about having to face the rest of his life without his lover by his side …” He clears his throat, looking a little misty-eyed. “Well. It’s very powerful.”
Nicky swallows around the lump in his throat and tries to muster a charming smile.
“And what about the subject of his poems,” he asks, “is there anything that would tell us something about him?”
“Oh yes,” Bernasconi continues excitedly, “It’s very, very interesting. You know, at first we thought it was a typical relationship with a much younger lover, because the man is described as fair and beardless several times, and …” He shrugs. “Well, you probably know what that usually means. But then in other places, the poet talks about the years they spent travelling together, and that really points towards a man of his own age. Plenty of vivid, explicit descriptions of his body that … “ He coughs. “… might actually be a little inappropriate to go into here, but once you get a chance to read the poems, you’ll see that there is no doubt that this was not a platonic mentorship, but a highly sensual relationship.”
“This sounds all extremely fascinating,” Nicky says smoothly, all the while his heart is hamming wildly in his chest. “I really cannot wait to read your comprehensive analysis of the findings. But in the meantime,” he asks, leaning forward just a little, “is there any chance at all I could see images of the original documents?”
“Uhm,” Bernasconi says, a little regretfully. “I would love to award this kind of interest, but unfortunately the conditions of the research grant stipulate …”
“I fully understand,” Nicky nods reassuringly, and hates himself a tiny bit for what he’s about to do. He curls the fingers of his left hand around his chin and slides the pad of his thumb between his teeth, opening his lips just far enough that it looks like he may or may not be flicking his tongue against his fingertip. He lowers his lashes halfway for good measure, but it’s probably not even necessary. It’s a subtle pose that has been carefully perfected and practiced over centuries and has only ever failed to work with a handful of very principled lesbians.
It certainly doesn’t fail him now.
Bernasconi looks highly uncomfortable, though whether it’s because he already realizes that he’s about to violate the confidentiality conditions of his research grant or whether he is more embarrassed about his inappropriate boner is hard to say.
Five minutes later, Bernasconi sends him the link to a shared OneDrive folder, and Nicky anxiously opens the first tiff file on his screen.
Twenty minutes later, two tears are hitting his keyboard, and he scrambles for a tissue to wipe them up before they can leak in around the “P” key and fry the circuitry.
Joe and Nile finally return from their day at the museum after five, their umbrellas dripping rainwater onto the doormat as they take off their boots in the hallway before stepping inside.
Nicky waits just long enough for Joe to slide out of his wet jacket, then he grabs his sleeve unceremoniously and wordlessly drags him to their room.
“Huh?” he hears Nile say somewhere behind him, followed by Booker offering her tea, then he carelessly closes the door behind them and gestures emphatically at his laptop screen.
Joe looks at him in confusion, then his eyes follow the direction of Nicky’s hand. He takes one look at the high-res scan of his own calligraphy and immediately turns pale.
“Where did you get that?” he asks, his voice flat, an undercurrent of panic vibrating underneath.
“Never mind that,” Nicky shakes his head, then looks at Joe imploringly. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?” Joe snaps, defensively. “I had no idea that they found these until yesterday afternoon when you showed me the blog. I buried those in a hole in a cave in the freaking desert – if I had known someone was going to dig them up almost 700 years later and put them under a microscope, I wouldn’t have left them there to begin with.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Nicky says impatiently, “although come to think of it – yes, you could have told me yesterday, you know, and saved me from acting like a complete idiot all day. But – “
He swallows heavily. “Why on Earth didn’t you tell me that’s how you felt?”
Joe glowers as if he can’t believe his own ears. “Really?” he says, “really, you want to …” His voice increases a little in volume. “You know, I did try to tell you, and you told me you didn’t care.”
“I didn’t care?” Nicky stares at him incredulously. “In all this time, when did I ever, ever tell you that I don’t care how you feel?”
“Uhm,” Booker says awkwardly, knocking on the door from the outside. “Guys, you do know we can hear you in there?”
Undeterred, Joe throws his hands up in frustration. “Well, what was I supposed to think? You told me you couldn’t imagine spending eternity with me.”
“What?” Nicky blinks, his mouth agape. “That’s not … I said that because I literally couldn’t imagine it! We’d lived for 250 years already and even that seemed like a strange dream. It’s been 900 years now and I still have no clue what eternity is supposed to look like. It was a purely philosophical argument! That had nothing to do with how I felt about you!”
“We are going out for dinner!” Andy shouts from the hallway. “We are going to spend a lot of money on caviar and champagne and come back extremely late!” She pauses. “And no fucking on the kitchen table – I swear, if you mess with our crosswords, I am going to kill you very painfully!”
Nicky hears the faint thud of the front door falling shut, and suddenly the apartment feels very, very quiet.
They stare at each other, both shaking with emotions, then Joe deflates, looking exhausted and far too sad.
“It didn’t sound philosophical when you said it,” he says quietly. “It sounded like you were getting tired of us.”
Nicky shakes his head in disbelief. “How could I have been tired of us?” he asks. “We had sex three times a day! We’d just barely realized that rimming didn’t deserve the bad reputation it got. We had plans to go to Greece! And then suddenly we were fighting, and you ran off into the desert, and we couldn’t find you anywhere.”
He sinks down onto the bed, dragging a hand through his hair. “Andy and Quynh helped me search for a week, and then they spent another week dressed up as men getting drunk in Adhri'at while I was still riding that fucking camel all across Wadi Rum looking for you.” He shivers slightly at the memory. “When I finally found you, you had almost died from dehydration.”
“Oh, I did die from dehydration at least once,” Joe says moodily, arms wrapped around his chest. “Maybe two days before you found me? Things got a little blurry towards the end.” He sniffs. “I’m pretty sure the last few poems didn’t come out quite right.”
Nicky takes a deep breath. “You know, I really thought I’d lost you back then,” he says shakily.
Joe nods and looks at him from damp eyes. “Yes,” he says softly, “so did I.”
Nicky exhales. “Okay, so,” he says firmly, “just in case it hasn’t sunk in: I loved you back then. I love you now.” He swallows. “Will always love you, all the way to eternity and back, whatever that may look like, because I still don’t have the faintest idea.”
Joe smiles then, faintly and a little self-deprecatingly, although there is some genuine amusement shining through.
“So you are not leaving me for Professor Bernasconi?” he asks dryly.
Nicky laughs, despite himself. “That’s a definite no,” he says, then blushes. “But I did have to do the thumb thing to get my fingers on the scans.”
“I figured,” Joe says, and doesn’t sound terribly upset. “It’s okay. I hope he had a good time jerking off afterwards. Since that’s all he’ll ever be getting from you.”
“Well,” Nicky smirks. “That, and a couple hundred verses dedicated to my beautiful nipples in medieval Arabic.”
“Tease,” Joe says accusingly, and in retaliation shoves him until he’s flat on his back before climbing on top of him. Nicky can’t say that he has any major issues with that particular kind of punishment.
“I’m afraid it’s time to burn the Bologna grad student identity,” he says sadly, while pulling Joe down to him.
“Maybe now you can finally stop trolling historians on the internet,” Joe responds and kisses his nose tenderly.
“Uh, I don’t know,” Nicky says thoughtfully, “it is kind of fun … but I could be persuaded if I had the right kind of incentive, I guess.”
“Let me see what I can do," Joe grins, and then he does precisely that.
Hours later, the apartment is still blissfully silent, and they are stretched out on top of the covers, naked and sweaty, their limbs entwined.
“The poems are breathtaking,” Nicky says, his head resting on Joe’s chest. “I cried ugly tears when I read them. I’m afraid they are going to be quite famous, unless you want to ask Copley to take care of it.”
“I don’t know,” Joe shrugs, “they are already out there. People have read them. Although they were never meant for anyone but you.”
“Are you going to recite them for me?” Nicky asks, glancing up at him.
Joe brushes a strand of hair away from his forehead affectionately.
“Are you going to cry again?” he smiles, and Nicky buries his face in Joe's chest hair and sighs.
“Yes, probably,” he admits readily.
“But I want to hear you read them anyway.”