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home : education : schools November 19, 2018

2/6/2018 2:05:00 PM
Sisters author up for book award
By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

To hear Gary Leiser tell it, he wrote his Oregon Book Award-nominated scholarly tome on prostitution in the eastern Mediterranean world of the Middle Ages "by accident."

Over a period of 20 years of study in various Middle Eastern topics, he kept coming across references to the oldest profession.

"On a whim, I started collecting these references," he said. "Twenty years later, I discovered I had 80 pages of notes."

Combining those notes with fresh research, Leiser produced "Prostitution in the Eastern Mediterranean World: The Economics of Sex in the Late Antique and Medieval Middle East." And that book is one of five finalists for the Oregon Book Awards Frances Fuller Victor Award for General Nonfiction

"Nobody's more surprised than I am," Leiser told The Nugget.

The subject matter - perhaps unexpectedly - casts an interesting light on actual life under both Christian and Muslim rule in a region that formed a frontier between Islam and the West for hundreds of years.

"This book describes how people really behaved," Leiser said.

Regardless of the moral teachings of the dominant faiths of the region, prositution was never illegal under either Christian or Muslim rule. In Egypt, Leiser points out, it actually became a state enterprise.

Everywhere, it was deeply entwined with the society and economy of the era.

"Prostitution had a symbiotic relationship with all kinds of trades and was integrated into the economy," Leiser said.

Property owners found bordellos to be lucrative rentals. Tradesmen made their livings providing jewelry and clothing for "public women."

"Public women were distinguished from other women above all by what they wore," Leiser said.

Clothing was often elegant, and the women were unveiled and painted their lips. Leiser notes that it seems that women "went in and out of the business depending on how the economy went."

Not all of the public women were native to the region. Leiser points out that there was a tremendous influx into the Middle East during the Crusades.

"We have accounts of shiploads of ladies coming in from Europe to serve the troops," he said.

Leiser points out that modern Islamic radicalism, which is profoundly puritanical, gives a false impression of what life was like in earlier times.

"Islam was tolerant of prostitution - as Christianity was," he said.

He noted that he has never found evidence of a woman being put to death for prostitution in the period.

That tolerance was, in large part, due to the understanding that the trade served as a kind of safety valve for male desire, and served a necessary function in the protection of "respectable" women.

And, then as now, "it was an almost guaranteed money-maker, no matter what the economy was."

Leiser acknowledges one unavoidable flaw in any accounting of prostitution in those early times. There is a virtually absolute absence of accounts from women.

"The women don't speak for themselves," Leiser said.

The historian is left to tease out information from a record that doesn't necessarily deal with the topic directly.

Born in 1946, Leiser grew up in Oregon.

He studied anthropology and Middle East Studies at Portland State University (BA, 1969) and attended the British Middle East Centre for Arab Studies at Shemlan, Lebanon. He completed a PhD in medieval Middle Eastern history at the University of Pennsylvania (1976).

Finding that academic jobs were scarce, he worked for the U.S Defense Department in various capacities until his retirement in 2008. He lived and worked in Turkey for a number of years and has published widely on the social history of the medieval Middle East. He has translated the most important historical works of M.F. Köprülü, a leading Turkish historian of the 20th century.

Leiser has been living in Sisters for about three years, having come here often as a boy to enjoy the playground of Central Oregon.

Order "Prostitution in the Eastern Mediterranean World: The Economics of Sex in the Late Antique and Medieval Middle East" through Paulina Springs Books in Sisters, 541-549-0866.

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