One Thousand and One Retellings

Why do people still keep rereading, and retranslating, the Thousand and One Nights? Does its hold have to do with the stories’ strategic positioning between “East” and “West” ...

Why do people still keep rereading, and retranslating, the Thousand and One Nights? Does its hold have to do with the stories’ strategic positioning between “East” and “West”? Is it the frame tale that seduces readers as Shahrazad’s stories seduce her husband into postponing her execution? Or have the Nights come to feel like the fragments of a universal narrative, scattered across several centuries and languages? Intriguing answers to these questions are suggested by two recent additions to the Nights archive. The first is a vibrant new “retelling” by the London-based Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh, a novelist known for her idiosyncratic and often controversial depictions of contemporary Arab societies and their European diaspora. The second, Stranger Magic, is a beautifully written critical study by the eminent British mythographer Marina Warner, best known for her controversial study of the cult of the Virgin Mary, Alone of All Her Sex (1976).

In One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling, al-Shaykh distills the vast corpus of the Nights down to 19 stories, thematically linked through their observation of gender dynamics, a central theme of al-Shaykh’s novels. Her tight coil of stories restructures a loose collection of tales into something that reads more like a novel, giving her retelling a dynamic, up-to-date feel. Though al-Shaykh usually publishes in Arabic, she has written this collection in English, presenting the stories in a vivid colloquial prose style. This linguistic transition raises a number of questions. In her acknowledgments, al-Shaykh thanks Margaret Stead for helping her to make the stories shine in English: readers are left to wonder, however, about the extent of this collaboration. The choice of English also bears on the question of the book’s intended audience. In her preface and in various interviews, al-Shaykh suggests that she is addressing, among others, readers in the Arab world—indeed she characterizes the Nights as a font of popular Arab wisdom handed down from a savvy and pragmatic past to a present sorely in need of cultural therapy. Whether a text published in English will in fact reach this audience remains open to question.

The Nights were first translated into French between 1704 and 1717 by the traveler, collector, and scholar of “Oriental” languages, Antoine Galland, and immediately captured the imagination of European readers. Until quite recently, they were thought of as a collection of popular Arabic stories that had a second life in the West. Recent scholarship, especially by the Iraqi-American Arabist Muhsin Mahdi, has, however, revealed the situation to be considerably more complex.1

Galland’s translation is based on a three-volume Syrian manuscript that has been dated to the 14th or 15th century. His French rendition took the kind of liberties with the original that were conventional for translators in the period. For example, he eliminated explicit sexual references that offended literary propriety or bienséance, as well as poetry and formulaic devices. The result of his labors was a collection of stories closely resembling the fairy tales popular in Old Regime France: morally motivated fables in the courtly register of French classicism. Galland also included stories that do not appear in the Syrian manuscript, including two that now figure among the most popular episodes of the Nights: “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba.” Though the exact genesis of these tales remains unclear, it seems likely that Galland fleshed out skeleton plots provided by a Maronite Christian from Aleppo who was visiting Paris. The instant and enduring popularity of these two “orphan tales,” for which no Arabic manuscript or oral tradition has ever been identified, has also been attributed to the fact that they emanated from the pen of a Frenchman and spoke to European sensibilities. These are narratives of arrivisme, rags-to-riches tales whose heroes resemble the protagonists of picaresque novels. Perhaps not incidentally, they also happen to be tales that depict Arabs as thieves, anticipating what Edward Said, in Orientalism, showed to be a leading Western stereotype of the “Arab mind.”

Galland’s introduction of new tales is not the only complication that recent scholarship has introduced into the story of the East–West trajectory of the Nights. It has also become clear that before their translation into French and quickly thereafter English, the Nights were less famous and left fewer written traces than other Arabic narrative cycles, such as the animal fables Kalila wa-Dimna. If the Nights have since become such a key component of Arabophone culture that, as al-Shaykh notes in her preface, the names of characters figure in common proverbs, this is largely the result of a feedback loop by which, after captivating readers in France and Britain, the stories became popular in the Arab world. The Arabic diffusion of the Nights in the 19th century was propelled by the publication of several print editions, starting with the so-called “Calcutta I” version, published between 1814 and 1818 at the behest of the British East India Company. The Nights are, in effect, Arabic rendered popular in the Arab world under the auspices of European colonial rule.

The translation history of the Nights has been almost as storied as the stories themselves. The famed Argentine modernist Jorge Luis Borges indeed devoted one of his best-known essays, “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights” (1936), to the idiosyncrasies of the translators and their translations. Each new translation has resonated with the literary fashions and social mores of its time and place. The compendious 16-volume version published between 1885 and 1898 by the British linguist, explorer, diplomat, spy, and connoisseur of erotica Richard Francis Burton channeled colonial cosmopolitanism and Victorian sexual fixations. The fin de siècle French translation of the Cairo-born doctor Joseph Charles Mardrus, on the other hand, mobilized decadent aesthetics and the poetics of symbolism. Al-Shaykh’s and Warner’s books follow on the heels of two comprehensive new translations: an elegant French version published in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade by the Arabists André Miquel and Jamel Eddine Bencheikh, and an equally scholarly though slightly less expressive English rendering by the Cambridge Arabist Malcolm Lyons, issued by Penguin Classics.

The Nights’ circuitous history between East and West has a number of implications. We have to think of translation in this context as a process of adaptation or trans-creation rather than as a straightforward linguistic operation. We also have to consider whether the belated embrace of the Nights in the Arabic-speaking world betokens an internalization of a set of European fantasies about Arabs, a contentious question that hovers in the background of al-Shaykh’s new English rendition.

Next to the three substantial volumes of Malcolm Lyons’s English translation, al-Shaykh’s One Thousand and One Nights feel slender, and indeed her objective is entirely different. Her rearrangement fashions the stories into a playful, metafictional novel in the mode of Borges or the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, both of whom invoke the Nights in works that straddle the boundary between tale and novel, oral traditions and literature.

Consider, for example, how al-Shaykh scales down the collection’s famous frame narrative, which introduces Shahrazad as storyteller. The frame tale tells of two royal brothers, Shahrayar and Shahzaman, who witness their wives committing adultery with lowly palace slaves. Shahrayar, the elder and more powerful brother, becomes fixated on vengeance and embarks on an infamous career as a serial bridegroom/executioner, paving the way for the entry of Shahrazad as therapist/narrator. Most versions of the story, however, only reach this point after a dilatory series of embedded stories, including that of “The Demon’s Wife,” in which the two brothers, having set off on a quest to find someone even more unfortunate than themselves, encounter a mighty genie so jealous that he locks his wife in a sealed glass trunk. While the demon sleeps, his wife manages to release herself and seduces the two brothers, proving that since there is no limit to women’s cunning and desire, even the most powerful male being can be brought low by the woman he strives to control.

In al-Shaykh’s version the story proceeds differently. Gone is the preliminary journey around the world. Instead, Shahrayar gets right down to the business of marrying and beheading the kingdom’s virgins. The tale of the demon and his wife does appear, but only much later. It is introduced as a story told to Harun al-Rashid, the powerful Abbasid Caliph who reigned over Baghdad during its golden age. In what amounts to a narrative loop in which the story folds back on itself, Shahrayar and Shahzaman appear as characters in a story told by a character in a story that Shahrazad tells to Shahzaman. This playful entanglement has several effects, one which is to confer an early sense of closure: the narrative’s circular return to the frame tale confers a sense of completion after a couple of hundred pages, as opposed to several thousand pages in Malcolm Lyons’s English translation.

The faster pace of al-Shaykh’s retelling is not the only reason for what Hanif Kureishi, reviewing the book for the Guardian, has called its “bang up-to-date” feel. Another factor is her use of an informal linguistic register and a battery of concepts and ideas drawn from contemporary life. Shahzaman is described as feeling “depressed” and “pressured,” while Shahrayar exclaims that he is becoming “addicted” to Shahrazad’s stories. There are also many references to “the police” and “the army,” evoking a setting that could be a dictatorship in the contemporary Arab world. To what end is al-Shaykh adapting the Nights to the language and experiences of contemporary readers?

Her approach to the Nights is in many ways consonant with the vision of her novels, which explore gender dynamics in the Middle East from the vantage point of idiosyncratic characters who don’t correspond to anticipated social types. Al-Shaykh foregrounds the quirks of her characters rather than the ideologies and historical forces with which they contend. This mode of writing was first and perhaps most powerfully demonstrated in The Story of Zahra (1980), which depicts a young woman caught up in the often arbitrary violence of the Lebanese Civil War. Rather than depicting her protagonist exclusively as a victim of war, al-Shaykh renders an intimate portrait of a woman with a precarious mental state and troubled personal life. As violence explodes around her, Zahra goes through a brief marriage and divorce, has two abortions, and worries obsessively about her acne-prone skin.

Al-Shaykh shows her female characters to be subject to social and sexual domination, but she also depicts them as losers on their own terms, like Zahra, or as wily survivors, like Amira, the Moroccan prostitute who is a central character of Only in London (2000). In the preface to her Nights she writes that “as a female Arab writer my real enchantment was the discovery that women in those forgotten ancient societies were far from passive and fearful; they showed their strong will and intelligence and wit …” Al-Shaykh seems indeed to have found in the stories a ready-made cast of kindred spirits: women who experience domination, but always find ways to turn the tables.

Through the cumulative impact of its interlocking stories, al-Shakyh’s Nights unfold as a battle of the sexes in which men are portrayed as authoritarian, jealous, and vengeful, but also lovesick and gullible, while women are portrayed as lubricious, cruel, and vindictive, but also sisterly. One story in particular, the extended tale of “The Porter and the Three Ladies,” provides the forum for this sexual contest. As the tale builds to its climax, various narrators take the stage, either to defend or to oppose the proposition that women are better off single. The outcome of the trial, presided over by no less an authority than Harun al-Rashid, will determine whether the eponymous “Three Ladies” can continue living together without male tutelage or will have to get married. Perhaps the most important point about this mock-serious trial of the institution of marriage is that the judge does not remain outside the frame of the narrative. A tale told by one of the ladies exposes the Caliph himself as the love interest who has deterred her from marriage. We are left to conclude that no authority should be above the law.

Al-Shaykh’s retelling of the Nights grew out of a collaboration with Tim Supple, a British theater director known for innovative, large-scale productions of literary classics such as Grimm’s fairy tales, Oedipus, and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Following in the footsteps of pioneering figures such as Peter Brook, Supple has shown a special interest in works drawn from a global literary heritage. He is also, like Brook, a director who likes to take shows on the road for international tours. His six-hour, three-language adaptation of the Nights premiered at the 2011 Luminato Festival in Toronto and was subsequently performed at the Edinburgh Festival.

The literary theorist David Damrosch has argued that “world literature” is not a fixed canon of universally known texts but a mode of circulation. World literature, he proposes, is literature that travels, changing shape and gathering luster in the process. This definition perfectly fits the Nights, whose geographic mobility has been interwoven with recurrent textual transformations. In some recent recreations, the migration of the Nights narrative has inspired narratives of migration. Contemporary writers have used the framework of the Nights to reflect on the global dynamics of immigration and exile. In the Algerian French-language writer Salim Bachi’s sparkling New Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (2010), for example, Sinbad is reimagined as a North African immigrant, shuttling around the Mediterranean. Al-Shaykh’s Nights, an English-language adaptation by an Arabic-language writer, can be viewed, in a similar light, as a product of diasporic experience.

Any Arab writer who takes on the Nights opens him- or herself to criticism from various quarters. Some devout Muslims have denounced the stories as offensive for their depiction of unexplained supernatural phenomena and socially transgressive behavior. In 2010, the prominent Egyptian writer and scholar Gamal el-Ghitani came under attack when he reissued a 19th-century print edition. “Lawyers without Shackles,” a political opposition group, which under the Mubarak regime advocated a rigorous application of Islamic codes, demanded that the book be banned on grounds of obscenity. Inadvertently, but perhaps not surprisingly, the campaign had the opposite effect of endowing the edition with the allure of forbidden fruit: 10,000 copies were sold in a matter of weeks.

Al-Shaykh is no stranger to this kind of controversy. The Story of Zahra was self-published because no Arabic press was ready to handle her heteroclite tale of divorce, abortion, sexual discovery, and mental illness set against backdrop of the Lebanese Civil War. Her retelling of the Nights similarly does nothing to attenuate the stories’ potentially controversial elements. Their sexual episodes are recounted with verve, in graphic and unabashed language. Al-Shaykh has characterized the Nights as a repository of plain speech and moral wisdom far removed from the religious leanings of the contemporary Middle East. In an interview broadcast on National Public Radio, for instance, al-Shaykh ascribed to the Nights a pedagogical function, stating provocatively that:

I’d like every single Arab to read One Thousand and One Nights. They [would] learn a lot from them, especially [because] these stories were written away from the influence of religion. It’s interesting to see how we were open, how we had a dialogue with each other, how we wanted to understand, how we respected each other. There was a great dignity, and I’d like this to be restored again.2

It is important to note here that al-Shaykh harnesses her implied criticism of the religious current in contemporary Arab societies to references to the Arab wisdom of an earlier age, rather than gesturing in the direction of Western secularism. It might, of course, be said that such claims rest on shaky grounds, since, given the Nights transcultural circulation between East and West, it is problematic to treat it as a pure product of Arab imaginative pragmatism. But beyond this quibble, statements of conviction such as these cannot avoid the cross-wiring of Orientalist and post-Orientalist representations. Public criticism of the influence of a certain brand of Islam on politics and society tends to be well received in Europe and North America, and has been a factor in the recognition accorded to writers such as Salman Rushdie. From a different vantage point, however, such criticisms appear as pandering to Western perceptions of Muslims or as the internalization of Islamophobia. The fact that al-Shaykh has retold the Nights in English adds to the likelihood that some will read her in this way.

Al-Shaykh confesses in her preface that for a long time she gave the Nights a wide berth because, like other Arabs of her generation, she considered them to be a cliché. In the end, however, she found it impossible to escape their hold on the cultural imagination. In the interview mentioned above she recalls that when she first began publishing, “[in] every single review, they would call me the new Sheherazade.” As this repeated slippage from creation to creator illustrates, the Nights
tend to be interchangeably viewed as both a product and a depiction of Arab societies, an Orientalizing conflation that is difficult to unravel. To acknowledge these dynamics is not to deny the interest or validity of what al-Shaykh is attempting to do, but rather to point to the resistant legacies of Orientalism with which her work is entangled.

If al-Shaykh’s retelling of the Nights draws energy from its positioning between cultural contexts, Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights focuses primarily on the stories’ rich and still unfolding reception in the West. Challenging the conventional opposition between “enchantment” and “Enlightenment,” Warner argues that philosophy and science have always been nourished by the flights of fancy of mad inventors and practitioners of the dark arts. The Nights, for her, are emblematic tokens of a wider Western cultivation of Eastern magical thinking.

Like al-Shaykh, Warner boils the Nights down to a handful of essential stories. The opening chapters of her study explore magic as portrayed in the Nights, surveying the stories’ repertory of enchantments and enchanters. Warner examines key motifs such as flying carpets, magic lamps and amulets, dream-reading, and other forms of prophecy, analyzing their impact on modern culture. She approaches magic and fiction as staging grounds for science, arguing, for instance, that people had to imagine human flight before they invented the means to achieve it. Later chapters consider how writers, artists, and filmmakers have responded to the Nights in genres such as poetry, puppetry, and film, forms drawn together in Lotte Reiniger’s graceful 1926 shadow film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, to which Warner devotes a chapter of Stranger Magic. Warner also touches on psychoanalysis, imagining Freud, the dream-reader, as the heir to Shahrazad’s practice of the “talking cure.” In a fascinating excursus, Warner notes that Freud’s analytic couch was always draped with an oriental rug, which his cousin Moritz had brought back from Turkey. Though Freud called it the “Smyrna rug,” it was in fact a textile made by the Ghashgha’i, a nomadic tribe for whom every carpet tells a story.

Warner’s view of the Nights resonates strongly with arguments made by the literary scholar Srinivas Aravamudan in his recent book Enlightenment Orientalism (2012). Arguing against a common tendency to see the “rise of the novel” as the main event of 18th- and 19th-century European literary history, Aravamudan makes the case that the oriental tale, whether imported or domestically manufactured, was a crucial genre: a vehicle of moral and scientific thought experiments as well as of cross-cultural encounters. Rather than follow Edward Said’s lead by focusing on the Orientalist implications of the European reception of oriental stories, Warner and Aravamudan take another direction by considering how seemingly frivolous stories were interwoven with key chapters in the history of European philosophy and science.

If Warner’s study has a limitation it is that it principally imagines the Nights as an Eastern tradition that has had a major impact on European culture, saying little about the stories’ fundamental hybridity or their continuing influence in the Arab world. Al-Shaykh’s Nights represents a fruitful complement in this regard. As an English-language retelling by an Arab writer, it stands at the intersection of East–West exchange, bringing a new diasporic twist to a three-century history.

Correction: July 24, 2014

The originally published version of this review imprecisely referred to Toronto’s Luminato Festival as “the Toronto theatre festival.” icon

  1. Muhsin Mahdi, The Thousand and One Nights (Brill, 1995).
  2. Interview with Rachel Martin, broadcast June 9, 2013.
Featured image: Page from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, illustrated by Sani ol-Molk, circa 1849–1856. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia