From The Sunday Times December 14, 2008
The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights - the Sunday Times review
A fresh translation of the world’s greatest collection of folk stories restores their colour and verve
“In the royal palace there were windows that overlooked Shahriyar’s garden, and as Shah Zaman was looking a door opened and out came 20 slave girls and 20 slaves, in the middle of whom was Shahriyar’s very beautiful wife. They came to a fountain where they took off their clothes and the women sat with the men. ‘Mas’ud,’ the queen called, at which a black slave came up to her and, after they had embraced each other, he lay with her, while the other slaves lay with the slave girls and they spent their time kissing, embracing, fornicating and drinking wine until the end of the day.”
Blimey. And this is just page two, with a couple of beheadings in the bag already. Odd that, for generations in the West, the Arabian Nights was a children’s book, albeit so bowdlerised that there was never much left. Now Penguin has produced this magnificent, unexpurgated edition of the greatest collection of folk tales in the world, each volume running to nearly 1,000 pages, with a beautiful cover design in midnight blue. The translation by Malcolm Lyons, the first complete one since explorer Richard Burton’s in 1885, is plain and lucid, unlike the tortuous, antiquated Victorian version, and the sheer colour and verve of the original stories shine through.
This “ocean of stories” begins with King Shahriyar, having been betrayed by his wife, vowing to sleep with a different virgin every night and then kill her in the morning. But when he takes the smart and sassy Shahrazad to his bed (along with her sister Dunyazad, since she’s around), Shahrazad forestalls their beheading by telling him magical tales. Always keen to hear the next one, the king continually spares her life until the following night.
Besides Shahrazad, however, as Robert Irwin explains in his masterly introductions, the Arabian Nights is a book without an author — or with many thousands. For these are tales that were passed down over centuries, perhaps millenniums, bearing numerous traces of preIslamic culture, and endlessly retold and embellished in the souks and caravanserais of the East. Their influence on the West has been incalculable, from Chaucer to Salman Rushdie. Indeed, much of Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale is straight out of the Arabian Nights. This doesn’t mean that Chaucer read the originals or even knew of their existence. Rather, these marvellous stories had enough innate life to travel on their own, from the backstreets of Baghdad and Cairo to the piazzas of Venice and onward, adapting to their changing environment as they went, like Richard Dawkins’s memes.
And what stories they are, so brimful of energy and lechery, love and cunning, eeriness and death. As a record of oriental low life they are quite invaluable, and often extremely funny. Take the poor old hashish-eater (hashish was known as “the wine of the poor”). After falling to the floor in a stoned swoon, he happily dreams that he is being washed and perfumed by numerous slaves, before having a pretty girl sit in his lap. He is just “pressing her beneath him” when someone shouts, “Wake up, you good-for-nothing!” and he comes round to find himself lying stark naked on the ground with an erection, surrounded by a laughing crowd. “You could have waited until I put it in!” he wails.
Then there’s the young merchant who arrives in Cairo, sells his goods for a tidy “profit of 500%”, and is seduced by a beautiful young girl, who afterwards insists on paying him 15 dinars for the privilege. She does the same the next night, and then on the third she asks him, “Will you let me bring with me a girl who is more beautiful as well as younger than I am, so that she can play with us?” He (surprise surprise) agrees, “And then we got drunk and slept until morning.” So far it sounds like a Lynx advert. But be warned: unlike Lynx ads, these tales have a moral that can be paraphrased as, There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
You can see why the Taliban, or the Muttawa, the religious police of Saudi Arabia, are never going to add the Arabian Nights to their somewhat brusque list of permitted texts. (1 The Koran; 2 The Hadith. Er . . . that’s it.) Even in the broader Islamic world, the Arabian Nights have never been highly valued, and many dismiss them entirely, in the same way that devout Egyptian Muslims show no interest in the architecture or mythology of ancient Egypt. These things belong to Jahiliah, the time of darkness, before the coming of Muhammad, and are therefore by definition worthless. The same goes for the Arabian Nights, with their free and easy ways, unruly djinn, monsters and marvels, hashish and opium, copious wine-drinking and, above all, limitless imagination. Such things are never going to find approval with the puritans.
It is western orientalists, those wicked cultural neocolonialists if you believe Edward Said, who have saved the stories from oblivion. Indeed, for two of the best-known stories included here, Ali Baba and Aladdin, no original Arabic text survives at all. And it is the West that has really taken the stories to heart. Even the titles are liable to send a reader into dangerously incorrect oriental reveries of opium dens, sloe-eyed maidens and caverns gleaming with treasure: The Goldsmith and the Kashmiri Singing Girl, Harun al-Rashid and the Three Slave Girls, or The Island of Waq Waq, where women grow on trees like fruit.
Piety is not a salient characteristic of the tales. There’s far too much unruly life for it to fit a creed. If the tales are set in an Islamic world, it’s Islamic in the way that Chaucer’s world is Christian: religion is a constant but largely benevolent background music, rather than a sinister and omnipresent ideology seeking to impose itself upon every aspect of private life. This is a world of fabulous richness and sensuous pleasure. Here are the contents of a shopping basket: “Syrian apples, Uthmani quinces, Omani peaches, jasmine and water lilies from Syria, autumn cucumbers, lemons, sultani oranges . . . ” Also worldly is the frank celebration of cunning and survival over any more high-minded, abstract notions of virtue. The great thing is to outwit the djinni, get rich quick and marry the pretty girl.
More profound and haunting are those tales which have no clear explanation, and yet resonate deep in the unconscious. Harun al-Rashid is often escaping from the palace and wandering the midnight streets of Baghdad, sometimes in disguise. But in one tale here he takes a boat out on the Tigris, only to see another boat approaching, lit by torches, and, sitting enthroned in the robes of a caliph, a man just like him.
The Arabian Nights is not a book to be read in a week. It is an ocean of stories to be dipped into over a lifetime. And this new Penguin edition is the one to have. Settle back, pour a glass of wine and sail away with Sinbad to the Island of Serendib.