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.