Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Barmecide feasts

At the TLS, Robert Irwin has a great piece about a cluster of books relating to food and Islam:

“On days when my lord growth listless, what does he need? Rahadlakum.” When, in the 1955 film version of Kismet, Dolores Gray, as Lalume, the wife of the wicked vizier, sings about her power to soothe her frustrated and restless husband by offering him rahadlakum (“His handmaiden hath what he lacketh”), many in the audience must have understood her to be singing in scarcely veiled terms about sex. So it is a bit of a comedown when one realizes that rahahdlakum (or, more correctly, rahat lokum) is merely the Turkish for Turkish delight, for this is the kind of exotic confection that drives her husband “out of his Mesopotamian mind”.

The novelist C. S. Lewis (who went on to pillory Islam in The Horse and His Boy) had already conferred notoriety on Turkish delight, in the first of the Narnia novels, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950): “The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now”. For the promise of a room full of this alien fare, Edmund betrays the Faun, his sisters and his brother to the White Witch who calls herself the Queen of Narnia. Since sweet rationing in Britain was only to be abolished in February 1953, the novel’s first readers must have found the seductions of Turkish delight all the stronger and Edmund’s fall into temptation the more comprehensible. Subsequently the confection gained yet more réclame thanks to a series of television advertisements for Fry’s Turkish Delight in the 1980s. The slow and sensuous awakening of a beautiful, diaphanously clad young woman was followed by the entry of a handsome Bedouin into the tent. A scimitar flashed down, but the lady’s head stayed on her shoulders, as it was the chocolate-coated bar of Turkish delight that was the scimitar’s target. “Full of Eastern Promise” was the slogan of this orientalist cameo.