The Arabian Nights

What do the Arabian Nights conjure up for you? Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the Roc’s egg? Would you be surprised to find out that none of those stories are in the original Arabian Nights, which numbered not a thousand and one nights of Shahrazad’s stories, but about 350? In this wonderful new version, edited by Muhsin Mahdi and translated by Husain Haddawy, the tales come from the oldest Syrian manuscript and avoid some of the worst errors of past translations, which either censored and smoothed over the text, or over-exaggerated its bawdiness and exoticism. Instead, they are humorous, poetic, licentious and touching by turns, and always wonderfully readable.

You’re probably familiar with the way the frame story begins. King Shahrayar discovers that his wife has been egregiously unfaithful to him. His response is to kill her, and to take a vow that each night he will sleep with a virgin, then kill her in the morning. This continues for several months (much to the dismay of the families in the country), until the brave Shahrazad steps forward and insists on marrying the king. She plants her little sister Dunrazad under the bed, and when the night’s activity is finished, the sister asks for “one of your lovely little stories, to while away the night.” But, of course, the story isn’t finished by the time morning comes, so the king must postpone Shahrazad’s death until the next day, and the next. We are not to understand that Shahrazad is inventing these stories: she is repeating what she has heard. She is a classical storyteller, telling for her life.

But this is far from being the only frame story in the book. One story cascades into another, and another. The girl tells about a tailor who tells a story of seven brothers, each of whom tells a story, each of which contains stories to be told. The story of the murdered hunchback (one of the funniest in the book) frames four separate stories, each of which is also a story told to save the storyteller’s life, as Shahrazad is telling hers. The story of Queen Jullanar of the Sea-People frames the story of her son, King Badr, which is also the story of Princess Jauhara, and the story of the witch and the wizard. There is magic, there are talking animals, there are demons, there is lost love, there are peasants and jokes and shaggy-dog stories and amnesia and treasures and conflicting religious beliefs and eroticism and humor and poetry (lots of poetry.) There are good-luck stories and terrible-luck stories; each story leans heavily on the workings of fate and coincidence. If you can miss Aladdin in this incredibly rich forest of image and beauty, you would probably have killed Shahrazad.

While the stories are immensely varied in content, they are also formulaic. Each one begins with Dunrazad’s request for a story, and Shahrazad’s answer, “I heard, O Happy King…” and ends with the formula, “… but morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence.” The cliffhanger becomes worn with use. But the translation is so fluid that I didn’t even skim the formulas. I hung on every word.

I think the Arabian Nights is a work that many of us think we know, but don’t actually know very well. This was, at least, certainly the case with me. It startled me both with its difference (coming, for instance, from an ancient and vastly tolerant medieval Muslim civilization) and with its familiarity. Anyone who has read fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm or collected by Italo Calvino will recognize some of the basics: be kind. Be generous to the poor. Being beautiful never hurts. Don’t trust demons. The third son (or daughter) will be the one to find the solution. And so on. These connections make a foreign land hospitable. I recommend the travel.

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22 Responses to The Arabian Nights

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  3. The Haddawy translation is just great.

    • Jenny says:

      I thought so, too: modern without being jarring, readable without being consistently colloquial (the tone varies a lot, from high to low.) Very enjoyable.

  4. Aarti says:

    I read this (possibly a different translation- I don’t remember) while I was in Egypt and really enjoyed it! However, I found that reading all the stories at once kind of detracted from my enjoyment as the language (and sometimes the stories, too, in terms of plot or moral) were a bit repetitive. I think they would be much better in an oral tradition format.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s quite a thought — hiring my own Shahrazad to read them aloud each night! But honestly, these stories have been read in print for many years, in Arab countries as well as in the West. I didn’t think I was getting less out of them, and except for the formulas, I didn’t find them repetitive. On the contrary, I found them as different and as similar as fairy tales, which I adore. If it wouldn’t mean about three more degrees, I’d study this…

  5. claire says:

    I read the Burton translation some years ago and was surprised by how enjoyable it was. Am planning to revisit with the Haddawy translation.

    • Jenny says:

      I read a companion to the Arabian Nights that quoted from the Burton translation and made me laugh! I think you’ll find them quite different, though it’s clear the Burton has a real energy all its own.

  6. J.G. says:

    I only know work from the references by Karen Blixen. What a nice review this is, with a fine ending! Morning didn’t overtake you before you finished , but I am still interested and will add this book to my TBR list right now. Thanks.

  7. I tried several translations in high school but never found one I really liked, though the stories were wonderful. Will definitely need to add this to the TBR list!

    • Jenny says:

      If the translation was what was bothering you, I couldn’t do better than to recommend this one. It’s beautifully done. Can’t wait to hear how you like it!

  8. Jeane says:

    I picked up a copy once (don’t remember which translation it was) and it was far too bawdy for my taste. I wonder now if it’s one of those that was exaggerated? I’ll have to look for this one! I know most of the stories will probably be unfamiliar to me.

    • Jenny says:

      I know that Burton really exaggerated the licentiousness, almost to the point of pornography. That said, there are erotic bits in the stories, no getting around it! There is one story in particular (I found it very funny) that is partially *very* bawdy indeed. But most of the stories are not like that at all. I wish you happy reading!

  9. gaskella says:

    I’ve got the Penguin Robert Irwin translation, and the Folio edition, but haven’t got round to reading either yet. But I love fairy tales of any variety, so must make time for these.

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t know Robert Irwin did a translation! I have his companion (review to come). If you like fairy tales, I really think you’ll like these!

  10. litlove says:

    I’ve long wondered what the Arabian Nights were actually like, so thank you for this wonderful review. I remember reading an academic essay about postmodern fiction that compared such writers to Shahrazad, saying that the genre of the novel may seem exhausted and on the point of extinction but the writers were always able to pluck another story from somewhere. It was a good essay, in fact! I must try to read this book one day – I’d like to.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s a fun comparison — though to be honest, I never think the genre of the novel seems exhausted. (I think you have to think that if you’re a jaded literary critic, but I am just a book-loving academic.) And perhaps, as Aarti was saying above, the number of stories to be told is truly limited, in the end. But the way they’re told and embellished, and all the voices and human lives and details… infinite.

  11. rebeccareid says:

    I too loved this translation! Haddawy went back and “translated” the other, traditional stories and I read that too. They were from a more modern source, not the 1500s text as was this. They were far inferior and I was quite disappointed. Not nearly the same “magical” feel to the langauge as this one had.

  12. Swapna says:

    This translation sounds great – I had no idea Aladdin wasn’t in the original version of the book! I’m definitely going to have to check it out, thanks for the review.

  13. Jenny says:

    I had an Arabian Nights storybook when I was a kid, and I loved it so, so much. It had these gorgeous, swooshy illustrations. I’ve never found a “grown-up” Arabian Nights that lives up to those stories. But this translation sounds wonderful! I must find it! :)

  14. Andy Hopkins says:

    What is the Dewey Decimal # (number) to this book? I am trying to add it to my home library which I have organized by Dewey Decimal. Thanks!

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