The Arabian Nights [A Review]

Usually known in the West as The Arabian Nights, the One Thousand and One Nights are a collection of medieval folk stories whose origin ranges from Arabia and Persia to Central and Southern Asia within a frame story featuring the famous Shahrazad who is attempting to delay her execution at the hands of the barbarous King Shahryar with her intriguing and unending chain of stories. This edition contains the most famous stories such as Alaeddin; or, the Wonderful Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Sinbad the Seaman.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a great king. When he passed, his eldest son, Shahryar, inherited his kingdom while his younger son, Shah Zaman was given a smaller kingdom of his own with a capital in Samarkand.

As the years went by, the brothers missed each other terribly until Shahryar invited Shah Zaman to visit him in his capital. However, on departing, Shah Zaman discovered his wife in bed with another man and he slew them both.

On their reunion the brothers are very happy, but Shahryar can see something is bothering Shah Zaman. No matter what, he does not seem to be able to bring joy to his brother. One day, after declining to join his brother hunting, Shah Zaman spots his brother’s wife engaged in an even more brazen act of adultery. Somewhat relieved that such a shame is not unique to him, he reluctantly tells his brother all. After witnessing the adultery for himself, Shahryar too has his wife killed and the two kings leave the capital in disguise and in shame.

At an oasis, they come across a jinn [genie] who has taken a woman captive believing that he has her all to herself. But, as she explains, when the jinn is asleep, she takes other lovers. Realising that their shame is not unique to them, that no woman can be trusted to remain faithful, the brothers return to their respective kingdoms with stronger peace of mind.

Shahryar begins the practice of demanding a new virgin bride each evening. Each morning after, he has her executed before she can bring shame to him.

He also sware himself by a binding oath that whatever wife he married he would abate her maidenhead at night and slay her the next morning to make sure of his honour; “For,” said he, “there never was nor is there one chaste woman upon the face of the earth.”

Soon his capital grows depleted of suitable virgins and his citizens are increasingly enraged by his barbarism, yet he will not be appeased to change his demands. His Wazir [Vizier], who has the responsibility of finding virgin brides for his king (lest he be executed himself) is increasingly anxious as the country’s stock of eligible virgins is reaching exhaustion.

Now [the Wazir] had two daughters, Shahrazad and Dunyazad hight, of which the elder had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of by-gone men and things, indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.

The Wazir’s beautiful, intelligent and resourceful daughter, Shahrazad, asks her father to marry her to the king. The Wazir is very reluctant, he prizes his daughter greatly, but she succeeds in convincing him.

The King marries Shahrazad but after he has taken her virginity, he allows Shahrazad’s younger sister, Dunyazad, into his apartments to say goodbye and Shahrazad begins telling Dunyazad a story. The story intrigues the King but Shahrazad does not get to its ending. So the King delays her execution one night so that he may hear the rest the next night but, once Shahrazad ends the first story, she simply begins a new one, again withholding the ending till the next night. And so on, delaying her execution for 1001 nights, hoping to soften the King’s heart and save her own life.

This Modern Library Classics Edition of The Arabian Nights – Tales from A Thousand and One Nights, is not a complete collection of the stories. That would be require a multi-volume collection. It is not clear on what basis the stories in this collection have been chosen. Obviously, the essential frame story of King Shahryar and Shah Zaman, Shahrazad and Dunyazad, that open the epic is included. The most famous stories such as Alaeddin; or, the Wonderful Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, or Sinbad the Seaman and Sinbad the Landsman are included. But I am not sure on what basis the majority of stories have been selected for this collection from the large source material.

[It should also be noted that for some of the most famous stories, such as Alaeddin, there is no equivalent recorded Arabic version that predates the first European publication and all subsequent Arabic versions are translations from the European versions. As far as I am aware, it is unclear if they are wholly European inventions, or, since these stories were for a long time only transmitted orally, it is just that the original Arabic version was forgotten before it was transcribed in Arabic]

I wanted to start with some of the aspects I did like in The Arabian Nights but for the sake of context it might be better to begin with some of the things I did not like. It may sound bizarre to say that I did not like the amount of magic in the tales, a bit like reading a lot of science fiction and saying you didn’t like the abundance of aliens and technology! But in both cases, much depends on how such an element is used.

Many of the tales are short. So short that there really isn’t much to them. The characters are outlines and forgettable, the themes aren’t grand and the language, which translator Sir Richard F Burton has deliberately kept in a medieval style, is often difficult, simplistic, repetitive and with too little beauty in it to look past these shortcomings.

Everything, therefore, rests on the plot and when that plot in turn hinges on a magical intervention at a convenient moment, and this happens in a similar way story after story, then the magic trick has been overplayed.

I suppose something similar could be said for fairy tales, but fairy tales seem far more endearing. Maybe because we hear them as children, maybe because they aren’t all the same. The repetitiveness of the shorter stories was the other thing I disliked. There are only so many times you can hear a short story where someone discovers a hidden underground lair, which contains treasure, or a jinn, or an imprisoned princess.

The repetition in plot was matched by repetition in dialogue and narration. There are so many obeisances and lamentations made to God, so many tired descriptions of hoards of treasure and the beauty of maidens, so many beards torn out and tears flowing down. In this respect the Nights can be as frustrating as The Shahnameh which I read last year.

The stories I liked best were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the famous ones like Alaeddin; or, the Wonderful Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This may seem strange given what I’ve just said. After all, these stories also hinge on conveniently timed magic and the discovery of underground hoards. But, they are longer, more complex and characterisation becomes a feature. There is much else going on in these stories and magic is only one element.

I also could not help but notice that the tale of Ali Baba contains a rare feature in this book. Despite having the brilliant Shahrazad as storyteller, the Nights are mostly tales of male protagonists and female characters have little to say or do. However, in Ali Baba we find Morgiana – a servant of Ali Baba’s brother Kasim. Morgiana is clever, resourceful, brave and a breath of fresh air who twice saves Ali Baba’s life.

This pleasure for the more famous stories did not extend to Sinbad the Seaman. It’s telling was just too matter-of-fact, there was no real tension, character or plot development and the telling of each voyage was just too similar and repetitive. It was a poor man’s Odysseus and yet, despite all this, it was still better than many stories in the collection.

Some of the less famous stories I enjoyed include The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad, Judar and his Brethren, Julnar the Sea-Born and her son King Badr Basim of Persia, Abu Kir the Dyer and Abu Sir the Barber and The Sleeper and the Waker. These stories were mostly found in the second half of this edition and were among the lengthier stories with more original plots and better developed characters.

I am not one who believes in giving trigger warnings and I am not about to give one here. Nevertheless, in the interest of providing an honest review, there are a few things you ought to know about if you are not familiar with the Thousand and One Nights. The tales frequently include elements which, by today’s moral standards, are clearly sexist and misogynistic, racist and anti-Semitic.

The opening tale which provides the entire premise of the collection – of Kings Shahryar and Shah Zaman, their respective wives and Shahryar’s penchant for bedding virgins before having them executed – should give you enough of a clue of what you will be in for. In addition to what I have already shared, the men that the wives of Kings Shahryar and Shah Zaman committed adultery with were both black slaves. The implication being that black African men have superior sexual endowments and endurance and that women, in the absence of a controlling man, are incapable of resisting their own sexual desires.

This is just the beginning. The Arabian Nights contains much that a modern reader would find difficult to stomach. Again, I say this not to condemn but to say that if, like me, you are committed to completing version that is faithful to the original, you will need a strong constitution.

This edition of The Arabian Nights includes the preface by Burton in which he addresses this issue, though, in his time, the concern was for the sexual explicitness of the Nights rather than racism or sexism:

For instance the European novelist marries off his hero and heroine and leaves them to consummate marriage in privacy; even Tom Jones has the decency to bolt the door. But the Eastern storyteller, especially this unknown “prose Shakespeare,” must usher you, with a flourish, into the bridal chamber and narrate to you, with infinite gusto, everything he sees and hears. Again, we must remember that grossness and indecency, in fact les turpitudes, are matters of time and place; what is offensive in England is not so in Egypt; what scandalises us now would have been a tame joke tempore Elisæ.

By the way, it must be said that Burton led an enviably extraordinary life of adventure! One that makes a pitiful comparison of any explorer from the past century or more and could never be repeated. Even to try and summarise his exploits will be a disservice by omission. I think I would like to get my hands on a good biography and some of his other writing. His collection and translation of the Nights has become a standard version owing to the quality of his translation including correcting the errors of earlier translations and especially to his extensive knowledgeable notes.

This edition also contains an Introduction by AS Byatt, author of the Booker Prize winning novel Possession. Though it was not written as an introduction to this edition but as a stand-alone essay for the New York Times Magazine, it contains several thought-provoking points. Byatt begins with the titular ‘1001’ as a symbol of the collection’s references to the infinite as well as to parallel reflection represented by, for example, its length, continuation and nesting of stories within stories. It made me wonder if the inspirational origin of the Nights can be traced further East since India is the source of Arabic numerals, the invention of zero and the infinite is an important element of Hindu and Buddhist theology. Byatt compares this to storytelling in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition which is linear with beginnings, middles and ends.

Byatt also emphasises the Night’s message of a life that is prolonged and saved by the humanising activity of storytelling. Byatt shares her thoughts on the influence the Nights has had on Western and later writers, from Dickens to Proust and Rushdie. Perhaps the biggest treat I got from reading her Introduction was of other examples of interlinked stories. Some I have already read, like The Canterbury Tales. Some I have not yet read but am aware of, like Metamorphoses and The Decameron. Some were new to me, like The Saragossa Manuscript.

I can’t say I enjoyed The Arabian Nights. It is just too boring, too simple, too repetitive, too morally backward. I can appreciate and respect its place in the history of literature and the influence it has had. For the modern reader, it is not a book I would recommend reading for the pleasure of it but rather for an appreciation of it and to say that you have read it. Even then you have to be stubborn.

To give you an idea of just how stubborn a reader I am; it was ten years ago that I first attempted this book. In fact, I got 580 pages into it before I had to leave for a holiday and decided it was not a book to take with me and when I got back I found I could not get back into it. It has been nagging me for these past ten years to read it and now I finally have, from the beginning, with full knowledge of how little I would enjoy it, just so that I can say I have read it and have never left a book unfinished. That is how stubborn I am, but not stubborn enough to dare tackle the entire One Thousand and One Nights!

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