Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review of new Lyons edition of the Nights

From Times Online:

From The TimesNovember 21, 2008

The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights translated by Malcom C. Lyons with Ursula Lyons

The Times review by Ahdaf Soueif
Once there lived a young king of Sasan. A knight and a gentleman, Shahreyar ruled wisely and well for 20 years and was much loved by his subjects. Then, one calamitous day, he sees his beautiful wife, the queen, leading a servant into the palace gardens and lying with him by the fountain. Shahreyar kills his wife and, maddened by rage and disillusionment, he swears a terrible oath: each night henceforth he will wed a virgin, and each morning he will have her beheaded. His project is nothing less than the destruction of the human race.

Many young women are put to death, everyone who can flees, and the country is close to ruin when the chief minister's daughter, Shahrezad, over-ruling her anguished father, decides to marry the king. But Shahrezad is a wise and imaginative young woman; she has read through a library of 1,000 books from all corners of the earth - and she has a plan.

After the wedding and the consummation, Shahrezad's young sister, Dunyazad, pops up - as Shahrezad had instructed - and tearfully begs her sister for a last story before they part for ever. The king permits it, and Shahrezad begins: “I have been told, O fortunate king, of judicious judgment, that once there lived ...” The stage is set for storytellers and compilers to throw into the pot tales from India and Iran, from Egypt and Iraq, from wherever stories lived and breathed. And Shahrezad, her execution daily delayed by the king's desire to hear “the rest” of the story, is able to unfold before him an entire world.

The stories that held Shahreyar's attention for 1,001 nights have gripped the world's imagination now for more than 1,000 years. From at least the 9th century they were part of the repertoire of storytellers in India, China, Iran, Turkey and the Arab world. Then at the beginning of the 18th century Antoine Galland published a version of the Nights in French and since then translations have abounded. It was translated into English (published in three volumes in 1838-41) by Edward Lane, who deleted the naughty bits, and by Richard Burton (published in 16 volumes in 1885-87), who reinstated them, embroidered them, explained them and generally got off on them. The most recent is the translation by Malcolm C. Lyons, published by Penguin in a three-volume boxed set.

In one of my earliest memories I am five years old and sitting on the floor in our living room. It's dark, but a light shines on the page of the opulent red-leather-bound book I'm trying to read. Above my head I hear my father ask: “Do you think it's suitable?” And my mother's reply: “It's the Lane edition.” It was years before that exchange made any sense to me. And more years before I realised that the stories that my nanny told me (and which I read) in Arabic and which were so fast-paced and immediate and contemporary sounding were the same long-winded, archaic, convoluted stories I'd read in Burton and Lane's Nights. What was yet more surprising were the “Notes” both men attached to the text; Notes describing a society that I - born and bred in Cairo - could not recognise. But what took my breath away was the assumption (spelt out in Burton's case) that Nights and Notes would be useful to the British in governing our (Arab and Indian) lands. That, I guess, was my first encounter with culture in the service of imperialism.

This edition tries hard to avoid charges of exoticism or “orientalism” - you can feel the effort. It's a workable and honest translation, but not a sparkling one. And it makes me wish that the reader could access the original material. The Nights is only one of several long folk narratives that were for centuries used as public entertainments in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The stories of Sayf ibn thi-l-Yazan, the Princess that-al-Himma, 'Antara and Abu-Zaid al-Hilali are others. As the storyteller was edged out of public space, first by the radio, then by television, Arab artists and academics worked to save these stories.

Publishing them in written form was, however, secondary to their real concern: to sound-record as many versions as possible as told by traditional storytellers. There is a central, telling difference between the approaches of Arab scholars and Western ones to these repositories of “oriental” folk tradition. Western scholarship has on the whole been keen on nailing down these protean narratives: when was the Nights composed? Where? By whom? Did it have one author or several? Are the stories Indian, Persian, Arab? As Saheer al-Qalamawi commented in her seminal (1941) study, the Nights was “a turbulent sea, bounded only by the story of King Shahreyar and his wife, Shahrezad. Narratives were thrown into it and others were thrown out and it lived freely within its accommodating boundaries until ... Westerners came to bind its freedom and move its text from the mouths and ears of the public to manuscripts and publications in libraries.” It's interesting that there has been no complete Arabic critical edition of the Nights till now. Arab authors have spring-boarded off the stories, producing offshoots, sequels and prequels. Arab scholarship has focused on the place of the Nights in the folk tradition and on thematic analysis.

The Nights, finally, is whatever you want it to be. Puritans have found it a sink of iniquity because of its frank dealings with sexual matters; and yet the stories prize chastity and place loyalty and fidelity above all other values. Some are stories of high romance with characters constantly swooning from excess of sorrow or joy. The mercantile mind is often on display and the avoidance of taxes a motivational tool for the plots. But the plots also feature fantastical creatures and mythical locations. Some stories are, as they've been called by the veteran Egyptian journalist Anis Mansour, “daydreams of the bourgeousie in Egypt, India, Iran and Iraq”; their long shopping lists and itemised jewellery prefigure Hello magazine, their nubile, friendly, permanently desirous beauties would be comfortable in Playboy. And yet there are strong moral and feminist streaks running through the Nights - and they're often combined. In The Story of King Umar al-Nu'man and his Sons, Sharkan and Daw' al-Makan, the merchant who buys the beautiful Nuzhat al-Zaman plans to give her to the king and ask in return for an exemption from customs duty on his goods. He asks if she can recite the Koran and she replies: “Yes, and I know philosophy and medicine and the Preface to Science and Galen's Commentary on Hippocrates - on which I, too, have commented. I have read the Tadhkirat (ibn Daoud) and commented on the Burhan and studied Ibn al-Baytar's Elements. I have lectured on Ibn Sina's Qanun and solved problems and set others. I have lectured in Geometry and Architecture and have mastered Anatomy. I have read the books of the Shaf'i theologians and the Traditions of the Prophet ... I have written on Logic, Rhetoric and Mathematics and I know Metaphysics and Astronomy, so fetch me an inkwell and paper that I might write you a book to entertain you on your travels.” If this sounds like overkill wait for the three-page lecture on “Royal Governance and the Necessary Moral Rectitude of those who Administer the Law” that she delivers to the king and his court!

Shahrezad's women, when wise, display a strength and a will that seeks to contain and educate male caprice and aggression. Her project, after all, is to rehabilitate the king and so save - not just herself, but the world.

It is said that reading all of the Thousand and One Nights will kill you; maybe you're not meant to read it from beginning to end. Or maybe the Nights were never meant to be read, only listened to - in the evening, in an open-air coffee shop or in the village square in a moulid - a saint's day, the storyteller almost singing the story in its rhyming prose, soliciting his audience's response (in the manner of a British panto), taking up his three-stringed rababa to sing the verses scattered through the text. The musical interludes give people a chance to wander off and others to take their place, for tea and coffee and shishas to be ordered and replenished. Shahrezad's Nights come alive then, not for a king, but for a community: locals and visitors, old and young, for all who have ears to hear and hearts to attend.

©Ahdaf Soueif 2008

The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights translated by Malcom C. Lyons with Ursula Lyons
Penguin Classics, £125; three volumes

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