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Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh, Robert Irwin,
Dedalus, 140 pages, 6.99

Robert Irwin is a cult. This scholar, publisher, reviewer and writer can not put a foot wrong. He has produced half a dozen disturbing and beautifully crafted novels such as The Arabian Nightmare (1983) set in 15th-century Mameluke Cairo and the Mysteries of Algiers (1987) which takes place during the Algerian Revolution. Beside these works stand a steady stream of academic studies into the politics and culture of the medieval Near East.

Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh, a slim erotic novella, determinedly side steps these categories. For although it is seemingly set in 17th-century Istanbul, behind the high walls of the Topkapi Saray, it actually portrays a never-land of the collective imagination. Robert Irwin has stirred up a bizarre but potent brew. Fueled by the 1001 nights and by the techniques of traditional story tellers and flavoured by the most excessive Orientalist expectations Irwin has thrown a whiff of mother-goddess mysticism and an all but complete catalogue of late 20th-century deviant sexuality into the mix.

Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh is the story of Prince Orkhan, the lusty twenty-year-old son of a Sultan Selim, who is led from his lifelong imprisonment in the Cage and taken on a bewildering, bewitching and bruising erotic tour of his palace. Orkhan quickly discovers that far from becoming the new Sultan he has become the clownish play-thing of his ladies and a fool to his slaves and servants. As the sexual escapades accelerate into ever-more threatening and sinister role-play, Robert Irwin plucks a moral plum and a tale of love from the fast disintegrating morass of degraded sex.

It is a witty, playful, gloriously absurd and slim little book. It is not a historical novel, let alone a social history, but a complete flight of fantasy. It is however far too clever a work to be ignored. It should be banned, lest impressionable students of Ottoman history loose their tender grip on reality.

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