Monday, February 20, 2012

Ras Al Khaimah Sinbad Stamp

Here's a picture of a stamp with an illustration from "Sinbad," (or at least the suggestion of one!), from Ras Al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates, a onetime home of mine for almost five years (Abu Dhabi, UAE)!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Imperial Burlesque Company - Arabian Nights

Here are a couple of posters from the Imperial Burlesque Company's Production The Arabian Nights or  Aladdins Wonderful Lamp, dating from the late 19th century.  Thanks JC.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Visions of the Jinn - Reviews

 Aladdin's Picture Book Arabian Nights, Illustration by Walter Crane, 1878

There are a bunch of great reviews out on Visions of the Jinn, here are excerpts of and links for two:

Many thanks to Ghada for passing along this review of Robert Irwin's new book on the illustrations/illustrators of the Nights from

Irwin's book is currently only in hardcover format and costs almost $200.

Here's part of the review, it has great pictures from the book so do visit their site, this review was reprinted in the Atlantic Monthly too, but don't know the connection between brainpickings and the Atlantic.


From the review:  "Even though the editions since Lane’s scholarly translation had progressed in the realm of visual imagination, the content had remained rather sterilized and prudish. It wasn’t until the 1885-1888 publication of Richard Burton’s sixteen-volume translation that themes of sexuality emerged, complete with extensive notes on topics like homosexuality, bestiality, and castration. Though Burton’s original edition featured no pictures in order to avoid prosecution for obscenity, shortly after his death in 1890 a young friend and admirer of his by the name of Albert Letchford, who had trained in Paris as an orientalist painter, created 70 paintings, which eventually became the basis for the next edition of Burton’s translation. With a keen sensibility for fantasy and a shared interest in the erotic to complement Burton’s own, Letchford’s artwork featured many nudes and were infused with sensuality. Ironically, Letchford contracted an exotic disease in Egypt and died at a young age."


Here is a more extensive review from the TLS, many thanks to Moti for passing this along, I've excerpted bits of it below, for the entire review see:

Visions of the Arabian Nights

Elizabeth Lowry

Robert Irwin
Illustrators of the Arabian Nights
240pp. The Arcadian Library. £120 (US $225).
978 0 19 959035 3

Published: 18 January 2012
"Nowhere is the fascination felt in Western culture for the East more evident than in its avid consumption of The Arabian Nights. Ever since Antoine Galland issued the first translation in French in the early eighteenth century, the stories have become a permanent part of the Western literary and visual landscape, spawning numerous adaptations, tributes and imitations. Princess Scheherazade, Aladdin, Sinbad the sailor and Ali Baba have acquired the status of cultural icons; genies, flying carpets and magic lamps, once curiosities of medieval Arab and Persian mythology, are now the stock-in-trade of modern occidental fantasy. There have been musical interpretations of the tales by Rimsky-Korsakov and Weber; cartoon versions by Disney, and lavish Hollywood incarnations. The influence of the Nights extends from the poetry of Goethe to Wordsworth to Rilke, to modern fiction from Fielding through Proust to Borges. In fact, so much of European and American literature has been influenced by the tales that it would be far easier, as Robert Irwin suggests in his The Arabian Nights: A companion (1994), simply to list the handful of writers who were not influenced by them.

Irwin returns to the theme in this sumptuous history of the illustrated Western editions of The Arabian Nights. Visions of the Jinn is part bibliographical exposition, part dazzling magic lantern show: its 164 colour-saturated facsimiles, photographs and black-and-white images and their accompanying analysis offer a visually stunning and sensitive account of the European response to this important text.

How Arabian are these nights? Although we have come to associate them with Arab culture, the tales are properly speaking a composite work deriving from the oral traditions of India, Persia, Iraq and medieval Egypt. The first written version is a Persian collection translated into Arabic some time in the early eighth century as Alf Layla, or “The Thousand Nights”, although the number of tales included fell well short of that (in Arabic, alf simply denotes a large quantity). The title The Thousand and One Nights (probably from the Turkish expression bin-bir, “a thousand and one”, which is again suggestive rather than exact) became attached to the text in the twelfth century. To this core stories were later added, until the work delivered on the promise in its title. The European translations that followed after Galland produced his courtly twelve-volume Les Mille et Une Nuits in 1704 differed in quality and in their unspoken agendas. The best known are by Edward Lane, Richard Burton and Joseph Charles Victor Mardrus. Lane’s translation (1839–41) is scholarly but prudish, and heavily bowdlerized to eliminate any sexual references that might offend its Victorian readers; Burton’s (1885) takes the opposite approach, ramping up the raunch; while reading Mardrus (1902) is rather like spending an afternoon with a slightly louche uncle who manages to combine whimsy with constant suggestiveness."

"The stories told by Shahrazad draw on a seemingly inexhaustible range of subjects. They are heroic, fantastical, comic, pious, obscene, tragic, didactic, brutal and sentimental in turn – quite a challenge to an illustrator. Some crack along at a tremendous pace and others fall prey to longueurs as Shahrazad meditates on knotty problems of philosophy or abstruse ethical questions (there is an intriguing insight here into what counts as a page-turner in medieval Persia: Shahrazad thinks nothing of including, say, asides on law and human physiology, confident that Shahriyar won’t summarily reach for the axe). The way in which the illustrators of the Nights chose to represent their subject matter, however, inevitably says as much about them as about it. In the eighteenth century, Western artists imagining the East had limited visual resources to draw on: prints of the costumes and peoples of the Orient by those who had actually been there were scarce, and the same sets tended to do the rounds – sixty Turkish drawings by Nicolas de Nicolay were a particularly popular source, and were still being used by Ingres early in the nineteenth century. In the frontispieces of this period, as Irwin points out, Shahriyar and Shahrazad often appeared in bed – but “invariably a nice, solid European bed”. It was not that the illustrators of the Enlightenment weren’t alive to the sexual and seductive overtones of the stories, but the emphasis was firmly on decorum. David Coster’s frontispiece for Galland’s edition shows the royal couple tucked up under a baldachin beneath a neo-classical ceiling. The demure-looking Shahrazad, in a French gown of fashionable eighteenth-century cut, is clearly in the middle of one of her more earnest disquisitions on faith and morals, although her breasts are incongruously bare. Just as the beds were European, so “the landscapes were commonly western and pastoral”. Sinbad and Ali Baba may wear turbans but they are dressed in togas, posing in front of classical ruins, or strolling in breeches through English woods.

It was only towards the middle of the nineteenth century that a broader and more reliable range of visual material about Arab and Turkish life was made available, and the illustrated editions of the Nights from this time begin to have pretensions to visual scholarship. Edward Lane’s three-volume, heavily annotated translation had a self-consciously didactic purpose, aiming to introduce readers to the Middle Eastern way of life. The pictures by William Harvey were intended to have an educative function, serving as the visual flourish to Lane’s learning, and their accuracy was vouched for by the translator himself. In fact, they were supposed to be even more accurate than the source material – as Lane assures the reader in his preface, thanks to his vigilance in standing over the artist and hectoring him with tips, the latter “has been enabled to make his designs agree more nearly with the costumes &c. of the times which [the] tales generally illustrate than they would if he trusted alone to the imperfect descriptions which I have found in Arabic works”. Unsurprisingly, Harvey’s boxwood engravings, though delicate and replete with authentic detail, are rather insipid."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights By Marina Warner Chatto

A new book has emerged from the UK, written by Marina Warner (, a Professor at The University of Essex and noted author.

Below is a review from the Guardian. Here is a link to it:

It's a big (400+ page) book, I'm looking forward to taking a look at it.


"Stranger Magic by Marina Warner – review
Marina Warner has written a scholarly dissection of the Arabian Nights

• Robin Yassin-Kassab
•, Friday 11 November 2011 17.55 EST

The Arabian Nights constitute, in Marina Warner's words, "a polyvocal anthology of world myths, fables and fairytales". The antecedents of these Arab-Islamic texts (also known as The Thousand and One Nights and the Arabian Nights Entertainments) are Qur'anic, Biblical, Indian, Persian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Turkish and Egyptian. In them, oral and written traditions, poetry and prose, demotic folk tales and courtly high culture mutate and interpenetrate. In their long lifetime the Nights have influenced, among many others, Flaubert, Wilde, Márquez, Mahfouz, Elias Khoury, Douglas Fairbanks and the Ballets Russes.

The framing story, in which Shahrazad saves her life by telling King Shahryar tall tales, is only one such ransom recounted in the tales. More than simple entertainment, then: throughout these stories within stories, and stories about stories, narrative even claims for itself the power to defer death. Although oral versions of the Nights long percolated through Europe (elements turning up in Chaucer, Ariosto, Dante and Shakespeare), the tales were established in the mainstream of European popular and literary culture with Galland's early 18th-century French translation. Galland purged the eroticism and homosexuality, added tales from the dictation of a Lebanese friend, and perhaps invented the two best-known and seemingly most "Arabian" tales of all: "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves".

Warner quotes Jorge Luis Borges (a guiding spirit in her book) approving this belle infidèle approach to translation. "I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else." It's this changing aspect of the Nights as a time-travelling, trans-civilisational cooperation that fascinates Warner. She sees in it "a unique key to the imaginary processes that govern the symbolism of magic, foreignness and mysterious power in modern culture".

Stranger Magic, influenced by the work of Edward Said, is an endeavour to uncover "a neglected story of reciprocity and exchange". One of Warner's central intentions is to show that while Christendom and Islam were politically and religiously in a state of hot or cold war, science, philosophy and art recognised no frontiers. Yet this openness closed somewhat from the Enlightenment on, when Europe sealed magic off from science, imagination from reason, and also east from west. The Enlightenment, of course, was the point at which the Nights was translated to such rapturous European reception, and not by accident. The "home-grown practice of, and belief in, magic was set aside to be replaced by foreign magic – stranger magic, much easier to disown, or otherwise hold in intellectual or political quarantine".

So to the orientalisms of Edward Lane and Richard Burton's English translations, which not only presented the medieval fantastic as a documentary resource for understanding the "unchanging" and now colonially subjected Arab culture of the 19th century, but also projected on to the exotic foreign screen fantasies and fears that would have been taboo in a domestic context. Burton famously re-sexualised the tales with his own copious notes on the east's supposed perversions.

Stranger Magic is an enormous work, 436 densely erudite and eclectic pages plus another hundred of glossaries and notes. In its relentless connecting up of diverse stories, from the Inferno to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, it's reminiscent of Christopher Booker's brick-sized Seven Basic Plots. Warner's chapters, allocated into five parts, are beautifully illustrated and interspersed with 15 tales concisely retold.

Part one focuses on the jinn (or genies) – who behave, like the Greek gods, badly, capriciously, illogically – and also on the figure of Solomon, a master of the jinn in his Islamic version, here located in the white wizard tradition somewhere between Gilgamesh, Merlin, Prospero and Gandalf. It includes one of the book's many delightful discoveries: a 14th-century Syrian treatise on the legal status of jinn-human marriages.

The second part attends to the Arab and European habit of attributing foreignness to evil magicians. These dark enchanters come from dark places (Africa and India) and profess dark (pre-Islamic) faiths. During the Enlightenment, black magic became inevitably dark skinned; necromancy became inseparable from "nigromancy".
Warner also examines how the stories "test the border between persons and things" and how severed heads that speak, books that kill and carpets which fly can be linked to the objects of our modern world – not only cinema's animations but also the prosthetic goods of everyday life, the designer labels, gadgets and vehicles by which we project and define our personalities.

Warner moves from considering the derivations and meanings of the word "talisman" to reflect on her own attachment to talismans in her Catholic girlhood (her personal appearances in the book are apt, easing the academic tone) before launching into a fascinating discussion of the talismanic properties of paper money.

There is much on writerly responses to the Nights, including Voltaire's contes, Goethe's "East-West Divan", and (a great chapter) the neglected Gothic novelist and Islamophile William Beckford. The book ends with an examination of flight, cinema, shadow play and Freud. Warner describes the Hampstead cave of wonders that was Freud's final consulting room, "a darkling mirror of the furnishings of his mind", and the iconic analytical couch draped in oriental cushions and rugs. Specifically a Ghashgha'i tribal rug, which leads by glorious digression to Mohsen Makhmalbaf's rug-themed Iranian film Gabbeh, and to a reminder that oriental rugs, the Nights and psychoanalysis are all narrative forms.

Stranger Magic is a scholarly work that often reads like a fireside conversation. It's encyclopediac, a book to be savoured in slices, yet (inevitably) it's easy to think of further potential topics – giants, for instance, or dervishes, or magical realism from the Arabs via La Mancha to the Latin American boom. But Warner's conclusion reminds us of her organising principle: the uses of enchantment to open new possibilities of thought and sympathy – the necessity of magic, especially in a self-consciously "rational", secular world.

•Robin Yassin-Kassab's The Road from Damascus is published by Penguin."