HOME About Barnaby Books        Reviews     Articles    Recommendations Links      Contact Info

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.

Back to Reviews page

Recent Books
by Barnaby Rogerson

The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad: And the Roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism

Book of Numbers

The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography