Friday, March 10, 2017

The Arabian Nights in the English Popular Press and the Heterogenization of Nationhood

Rasoul Aliakbari's new article "The Arabian Nights in the English Popular Press and the Heterogenization of Nationhood: A Print Cultural Approach to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities" explores nation-building via Anderson, Edward William Lane, the popular press and The 1001 Nights.

It's a great read and fills some much-needed gaps in terms of popular renditions of the Nights and their relationship with understandings of nation.

If you have academic access you can read it here at Canadian Review of Comparative Literature -

Rasoul Aliakbari is a graduate student at The University of Alberta in Comparative Literature.

I've pasted the abstract/overview below -

I. Aims and Scope

This article investigates the popular print culture of the Arabian Nights1 in nineteenth-century England in order to challenge Benedict Anderson’s standpoints on modern nation-building in his now-classic Imagined Communities. There is a growing body of research on the Nights, its sources, its literary character, its cultural significance, its translations, its adaptations, and its continuing popularity in contemporary cultures throughout the world. Ulrich Marzolph’s website provides an extensive list of representative scholarship on various aspects of the Nights in its various pre-modern, modern, and contemporary contexts (The Arabian Nights Bibliography). However, reviewing the literature of the Nights on his website and elsewhere, one notices a relative lack of scholarship on the uses of print editions of the Nights to converse with theories of print capitalism and modern nation-building. Responding to this lacuna, this article mainly aims to investigate publications of the Nights for lower-class readers in nineteenth-century England, in order to offer a heterogenized picture of the formation of modern English nationhood.2 In particular, I will explore the print circumstances of Edward Lane’s translation of the Nights as well as some reproductions of, and responses to, the Nights in nineteenth-century British cheap popular periodicals, to develop a critical dialogue with Anderson.3 This dialogue includes revisiting, challenging, and complicating some dimensions of Anderson’s discourses on print capitalism, the formation of the modern nation as an imagined community, and official nationalism. By examining the uses of the Nights for and among British lower classes and the expanding bourgeois readership of the time, I will demonstrate that, unlike Anderson’s conception of nationhood as homogeneous, steady, and solid, the formation of modern English nationhood is heterogeneous, porous, borderly, and conditioned at the intersection of social classes and the oriental literariness of the Nights. In other words, rather than arguing for the impact of the Nights on European literary modernity or nation-building, this essay seeks to demonstrate some of the uses of this tale collection in the English enterprise of nation-building, including the dissemination of ‘wholesome’ reading matter and the establishment of British sovereignty over lower-class and mass readership in England during the nineteenth century.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Thousand and One Nights: A History of the Text and its Reception by Dwight Reynolds

The West "discovers" the Nights

"A Thousand and One Nights: A History of the Text and its Reception" by Dwight Reynolds ( is, in my opinion, one of the most succinct – yet right on – histories of the Nights. It was only available before via academic libraries and is part of the volumes that make up Cambridge University Press' Arabic Literature series.

Professor Reynolds has uploaded a copy on academia for you to read/download here, however -

I like the way the chapter successfully defines the Nights in a very clear, non polemic, manner, especially in its conclusion:

The Nights was a relatively unknown collection of fabulous tales, one of many such collections that formed a part of late medieval popular Arabic literature, its unique embedding of tales and its compelling heroine notwithstanding.

By chance, this particular work was snatched from obscurity and given a new existence by Western scholars, translators, publishers and readers who acclaimed it both as a literary masterpiece and as a trustworthy guide to Middle Eastern cultures.”

And I love this too about the Nights, how random of a text from that time period it was to have been "chosen" and "discovered" by Western Orientalists like Galland and co. to become the penultimate representative of the Muslim and Arab world for the West. That's truth. And it's weird. And fascinating. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The enduring lure of The Arabian Nights - Muhsin Al Musawi

This is a recent interview by Gulf News of (here very defensive sounding) Colombia Professor Muhsin Al Musawi on the Nights.

What is most interesting to me is Al Musawi's critique of what he sees as Western interference into the legacy of the culture of the Nights.

Excerpts below, entire interview (unfortunately with pop up ads and the like) here:


“The Arabian Nights” was largely ignored simply because it was not an elite piece of literature, and it wasn’t until the French (1704-12) and English (1706) translations were published that it was taken seriously. To tell the Arab intelligentsia how it was received by eminent poets, writers and essayists was not an ordinary matter, especially as this intelligentsia suffers from a Western dependency complex.


You have a new project, almost ready: “The Arabian Nights: A Source Record”. The preliminary title suggests a lot but also seems to hide more.

I can quote from the introduction as it has not appeared yet, and I hope readers will use it with due acknowledgement to us as well as to the newspaper. This quote introduces the reader to early scholarly discussion of origins:

Aside from Edward William Lane’s (1801-76) enduring contribution to the sociological interest in the tales in its colonial dimension, his endeavour to establish a “sound” text, albeit with scriptural tone and style, still elicits scholarly interest. No less pertinent is the British periodical criticism of the years 1838-41, which, while highly informed by the British imperial quest, was mainly provoked by the latter’s significant achievement. It is only a sign of this encompassing imperial spirit that this criticism took into account German and French contributions to assimilate or debate within a broad colonial spectrum. While the evangelical spirit was bent on replacing Eastern cultures with that of the empire, the Orientalist was keen on preserving local traditions to ensure a better and solid acculturation beyond the vagaries of change.

Lane was no minor figure in this encounter, as his lexicon, studies of the “manners” of the Egyptians and translation of “The Thousand and One Nights” elicited further communications and interests. A case in point is the Athenaeum effort to elucidate the involved history of the “Nights”. Although taking into account contemporaneous views of de Sacy, von Hammer, Schlegel and Lane, the Athenaeum critic of the 1830s was fully aware of the pitfalls of basing final judgments regarding the date of composition on scattered references to historical events. No great value must be set on these allusions in a book that passed into many redactions and underwent a number of omissions, changes and interpolations. A “careful and critical examination of the tales,” he postulated, “would convince the reader that they were chiefly composed by illiterate persons, unacquainted with the history of their country; and it is unfair, therefore, to assume the accuracy of some particular date referred to, considering the numberless anachronisms contained in the work, and urge it as an argument either in favour or against opinions respecting the authorship, or age when written.”

Disapproving of Lane’s conclusion that the social and cultural setting points to an Egyptian origin, the reviewer observed that Islam regulates and models manners and customs in the whole Muslim East, establishing social conformity to which the “Nights” plainly attests. As for the very distinctive Egyptian traits, the reviewer urged that they be seen in the light of the tendency of copyists and compilers to impose their regional predilections on the text.

But what about the discussion of manuscripts, before Brill’s print of Galland’s Arabic manuscript?

Writing about manuscripts is a challenge, for no matter how authoritative and painstaking the search is, there are two sides to the question. One relates to availability of manuscripts, and the second to orality, transmission and storytelling. While Arabic scholarship was not enthusiastically drawn to popular culture, European scholarship was more interested in reading the tales as both manifestations of culture and life, as they deemed, and as indices of the spirit and language varieties of the region. Hence the interest in origin.

The Athenaeum reviewer was not alone; but his recapitulations were in response to an ongoing discussion that received further impetus after the publication of Lane’s annotated edition. Lane was keen on establishing that the work was by one single author who composed it between 1475 and 1525 (preface to “The Arabian Nights Entertainments”, London, 1839-41). Silvestre de Sacy had already dwelt on this issue (as documented by Chauvin and Littmann) in “Journal des savants”, 1817, 678; “Recherches sur l’Origine du Recueil des Contes Intitules les Mille et Une Nuits”, Paris, 1829; and in the “Memoires de l’Academie des Inscriptions & Belles-Lettres”, x, 1833, 30.

In these interventions de Sacy debated both single authorship and connectedness with Persian and Indian collections, dismissing the early reference by Al Masudi (336/947, re-edited in 346/957) as spurious. Just opposite to these views were Joseph von Hammer’s (“Wiener Jahrbücher”, 1819, 236; JA, 1e serie, x; 3e serie, viii; preface to his “Die noch Nicht übersetzten Erzaehlungen”) where he built his argument on Al Masudi, stressing therefore the genuineness of this as evidence of a collection of non-Arab origin.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bruce Fudge - "More Translators of The Thousand and One Nights"

 Borges (1968) -

Bruce Fudge on the continued legacy of Borges' judgements and predictions about the variety of translations of the Nights and the latest contemporary "Western" translations of the story collection.

" Obviously, much has changed since Borges’ day, not least the status of the Encyclopaedia  Britannica. We no longer want (consciously, anyway) to find Shakespeare or Flaubert in our translations from the Arabic. But in a sense, the twenty-first-century versions are heeding Borges’ critique. They, too, are only conceivable “in the wake of a literature.” The difference is that the new translations must be conceived in the wake of an Arabic literature.

It is true that the Penguin translation has a Spartan quality akin to the German of Littmann, as other reviewers have noted. But this quality is itself a result of a deep engagement with the Arabic text. One is never far from the original with Lyons, and as I have suggested, reading him is perhaps the closest to reading Calcutta II or Būlāq. The Pléiade edition is richer. This is most evident from the notes and critical apparatus that show both the translators’ deep command of the Arabic literary tradition and their evident passion for The Thousand and One Nights as a part of that tradition. None is particularly concerned with their readers’ own backgrounds: the assumption is that the reader, too, seeks authenticity. Perhaps in the next century scholars will look back and marvel at the priority of text over reader, but for the time being, both Penguin and Pléiade fit the current Zeitgeist."

His article - "More Translators of The Thousand and One Nights" from the Journal of the American Oriental Society can be read here: