Like a dance craze or a charismatic cult, The Arabian Nights seized readers’ imaginations as soon as translations first appeared – in French between 1704 and 1717, and in English from 1708. Oriental fever swept through salons and coffee-houses, the offices of broadsheet publishers and theatrical impresarios; the book fired a train of imitations, spoofs, turqueries, Oriental tales, extravaganzas. It changed tastes in dress and furniture – the sofa, the brocade dressing-gown – and even enhanced the taste of coffee. In fact its diaspora almost mimics the triumphant progress of coffee, as it metamorphosed from the thimbles of thick dark syrup drunk in Damascus and Istanbul and Cairo to today’s skinny latte, macchiato et al. Antoine Galland, the French savant and explorer who discovered and translated the earliest manuscript in Syria in the late 17th century, also published a translation of an Arabic treatise in praise of coffee, one of the first if not the first of its kind. It is his bowdlerised version of the stories that dominated their diaspora, from the ‘Arabian Nights’ Entertainments’, serialised in 445 instalments over three years in the London News, to the fantasies of the Ballets Russes, to the 1924 Thief of Baghdad, to Disney’s Aladdin and Sinbad.
In the countries of the book’s origin, the stories were considered popular trash, and excluded from the canon. In Europe, a similar sense that they had negligible status as literature came about because so many of their early enthusiasts were women. The Earl of Shaftesbury, writing in 1711, three years after the book’s first appearance in English, denounced the Desdemona tendency, claiming that the tales ‘excite’ in women ‘a passion for a mysterious Race of black Enchanters: such as of old were said to creep into Houses, and lead captive silly Women’. It’s significant, in the history of East-West relations, that Shaftesbury could only understand the alien bogeys in terms of beliefs rather closer to home than Baghdad or Cairo.
Another reason the work wasn’t taken seriously was that it eluded concepts of authorship: the stories were anonymous and composed at different periods in different places. The architecture of the frame story – Scheherazade telling stories to the sultan every night till dawn to save her life – insisted on the oral, collective, immemorial character of the tales, presenting them as a compendium of collective wisdom, or at least as literature with a thousand and one owners and users. Madeleine Dobie, in the opening essay of ‘The Arabian Nights’ in Historical Context, a collection edited by Saree Makdisi and Felicity Nussbaum, shows how Galland’s work set the trend. A brilliant linguist, antiquarian and Orientalist, Galland began the process of treating the book as something that could be altered and made to express fantasy. The most popular tales of all, the ones that have become synonymous with The Arabian Nights and have been retold in children’s books and films (‘Aladdin’, ‘Ali Baba’, ‘The Ebony Horse’, ‘Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou’), are probably Galland’s invention, concocted of pomegranates and ebony, damask and jasmine, in tribute to the style of the original stories.
No early manuscript has been found for these ‘orphan tales’, and the first Arabic version shows clear signs of being back-translated from Galland’s French. The fine Italian translation by Francesco Gabrieli, published in 1948, printed ‘Aladdin’ in an appendix, and Penguin’s new three-volume translation follows suit, allotting ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Ali Baba’ separate quarters, and leaving out Prince Ahmed’s adventures altogether. Indeed the rags-to-riches plot of ‘Aladdin’ isn’t typical of The Arabian Nights, and the success story of Ali Baba and the romance of the young man and the fairy queen echo the extravagant and often sly fairytales – ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘The White Cat’ – that were being retrieved and written down in France by Charles Perrault and Mme d’Aulnoy in the 1690s. D’Aulnoy did, however, claim that her inspiration came to her from ‘une vieille esclave arabe’.
So the story of The Arabian Nights is a story of complex attention, formed by different historical and social interests, and becoming more complex still with the publication thirty years ago of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said doesn’t discuss The Arabian Nights itself, but he does scathe some of its scholars and translators, notably the English Arabist Edward Lane, whose three-volume edition, illustrated with William Harvey’s fine steel engravings, was published between 1838 and 1841. I have a copy of this translation, which came from my great-grandfather’s library, and it’s one of the few books I owned as a child and have been reading ever since. Despite Said’s strictures, and though it’s pretty fustian, with Lane tranquillising much of the book’s agitated emotion and toning down many of its adventures, his translation is readable in a way that Richard Burton’s lurid and archaisising version, made fifty years later, is not. Lane expurgated, Burton fantasticated. There have been many wilful translations in the book’s history, a history that in its geographical, linguistic and picaresque range echoes some of the vicissitudes in the tales themselves. The Arabian Nights has been treated throughout with a kind of insouciant liberty.
It’s an astonishing fact, but the first scholarly rather than popular Arabic edition wasn’t published until 1984; Muhsin Mahdi based his text on a manuscript dated from the 14th or 15th century and tackled only a handful of stories. The ambitious new Penguin edition, translated by the veteran Arabist Malcolm Lyons, can claim to be the first ‘complete’ English version rendered from the original without recourse to Galland. But the inverted commas are needed, because there can never really be a definitive edition of this book. Nor, in some sense, can it even be attempted. The Lyons translation, as Robert Irwin explains in his introduction, returns to the Arabic version that Burton used, restores the interjected outbursts of song and bawdy that Galland skipped, and sternly avoids the free and easy habits of some of his successors. It clearly aims to supersede the many Galland-influenced versions of the last three hundred years, yet the manuscript used by Burton and Lyons, known as ‘Calcutta II’, is itself a compilation of material from different periods and places, from Cairo to India: it would have been good to have a much fuller account of why it should be favoured, other than for its comprehensiveness. I found that reading the Penguin edition was like going to a new production of Hamlet or Lear: memory stumbles, because bits are missing, dialogue is transposed, and scenes turn up in different places. Leaving out the story of ‘Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou’, for example, without a word of explanation, means that we lose the flying carpet, the image that has come to represent The Arabian Nights more than any other. It is in this tale – possibly written by Galland or taken down from an oral source – that the flying carpet figures as a magic gift at the disposal of an ordinary princeling, rather than as the heavenly vehicle of Solomon and his djinns.
The new Penguin looks sumptuous, a boxed set with metallic blue tooled cloth bindings, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, which reinterpret Oriental motifs. But it hovers uneasily between a scholarly attempt at a definitive edition and a popular (and canny) piece of publishing intended for a wide market. Every translator, Borges said, must work with the orchestration of his predecessors sounding in his ear: Lyons has paid both too much and too little attention to past versions. The phrasing subdues 19th-century excess and fancy to an extent, yet it’s still packed with words and phrases like ‘lest’ and ‘know then’. Some charming antiquated formulas have been kept, but they are isolated, stripped of surrounding texture, and literal fidelity is overdone: ‘extraordinary sea creatures that looked like humans’ replace ‘mermaids’ in the closing scene of the elegiac ‘The City of Brass’, where they are presented to the sultan as special gifts and given basins of water to live in, only to die of the heat.
Burton added voluminous apparatus, trying to justify the importance of the book through a literary Euhemerism: following Lane, he believed that the stories communicated historical facts – customs, beliefs, manners – transfigured in the imagination’s crystal palaces. The new tendency, by contrast, is to see the stories as fantasy literature. Here, too, the Penguin edition hasn’t altogether made up its mind: there are historical maps – ninth-century Baghdad, 14th-century Cairo – but little help with many retained Arabic terms, words and names. Irwin points out that readers might need to look up puzzling elements in the invaluable Arabian Nights Encyclopedia edited by Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen. But compared to the Pléiade edition, immaculately edited, annotated and translated by André Miquel and Jamel Eddine Bencheikh, the Penguin shows up to its disadvantage the character of Anglo-American publishing.
The Arabian Nights gave readers different ways of interpreting their experience. On the one hand, it seemed to open vistas of new freedoms – freedoms of form and of fantasy – with consequent effects on the political and social imagination. On the other hand, as Shaftesbury’s comment makes clear, it allowed magic, lust and cruelty to be portrayed as unknown, foreign and inimical. This double dynamic, sometimes contained within a single individual’s response, both attracts readers to the stories and repels them. Anthony Hamilton, an urbane Jacobite aristocrat and soldier, living in Paris in exile at the court of James II, and a much petted cavaliere servente of the court ladies, read Galland’s translation straight off the press before writing a parody, ‘Fleur d’Epine’ (‘Mayblossom’), to put an end – he hoped – to the insane passion for this tripe. In his version, Dinarzade, Scheherazade’s younger sister, begs her sister to stop – she can’t bear another night of her endless storytelling – and wants to trick Schahriar, the sultan, into calling a halt to the whole business. Yet, in spite of his impatience with the form, Hamilton couldn’t stop himself Orientalising, and wrote several more absurdist parodies so mischievously and adroitly that Voltaire acknowledged his influence on his own stories. The genre of the Oriental tale gave many writers’ footsteps a particular spring.
Voltaire began producing contes like ‘Micromégas’ and ‘Zadig’ when he realised that rather than write learned philosophical essays he could reach an audience and change their values by entertaining them. He gave spoof Oriental provenances to some of his satires on politics and prejudice, and in Candide and The White Bull attacked tyranny with methods borrowed from Scheherazade, who tried, by telling stories about irrational tyrants and flagrant injustice, to make Schahriar see his own face in the mirror. In London, spectacular Oriental pantos depicted the abuses of these societies – their treatment of women, the way they tormented their slaves, their excesses of despotism. At the same time even a light-hearted impresario like John Rich was aiming at targets closer to home, as Bridget Orr explains in an essay on the Oriental theatre. But it was the example of Scheherazade that the writers who flocked to ventriloquise Oriental tale-tellers took to heart. The most obvious lesson absorbed from the tales derives from the overarching narrative: Scheherazade is talking herself out of her fate. The heroes and heroines may live according to thrilling, ineluctable destinies, but Scheherazade is resisting death through the tales she tells, and if she succeeds will redeem her sex.
In France, The Arabian Nights influenced libertine fiction: the young Diderot imagined speaking jewels hidden in the private parts of a series of Scheherazade storytellers, and Crébillon fils wrote in the first person of a sofa, formerly a young rake, transformed as punishment for his misdeeds. Like a genie in a lamp, he’s sentient but captive. He eavesdrops on many gallant conversations, but will be changed back into human shape only when and if a couple make true love when sitting on him. In 1786, William Beckford took inspiration from Anthony Hamilton, the fables of Voltaire and the tradition of the galant when he wrote (in French) his hallucinatory fiction Vathek; the Faustian figure it centres on is drawn with comic-book virulence. He composed the story – he claimed – over three days and two nights after attending a phantasmagoric party designed as an Oriental spectacular by Philippe de Loutherbourg, a master of special effects on the London stage. But Beckford was also a scholar and translator: he worked on the manuscript of The Arabian Nights that Edward Wortley Montagu had brought back from his embassy to Turkey. Vathek was published with copious learned annotations, compiled by the Rev. Samuel Henley, but reflecting Beckford’s concerns and vast knowledge.
Henley published the novel in Beckford’s absence, and pretended it had been translated from a genuine Arabic manuscript. This assertion, combined with the extensive glosses, created a very strong reality effect and encouraged the reading of The Arabian Nights and other Oriental fictions as if they were documentary accounts of events in the past and customs in the present. However, as Donna Landry points out in her perceptive and original account, Vathek’s blasphemies and salaciousness are directed principally against England and English conventions. She sees the prodigious camel Alboufaki as a steed conjured to belittle the hunting horses of the landed gentry to which Beckford belonged. Alboufaki is the mount of Carathis, Vathek’s malignant enchantress mother, and a kind of self-portrait of Beckford himself, Landry suggests, with his ‘desire for solitude, and his nose for the pestilential and the ghastly’. Beckford, she says, gives us a ‘monstrous camel as also a type of the self . . . as Romantic solitary’.
For a long time, Orientalising was either ignored or disparaged, seen as a low taste or a childish interest. Today, relations with Islam both at home and abroad have drawn a more sober attention to such works. The society that created and read The Arabian Nights has become an object of interest, and Makdisi and Nussbaum are able to make the heady claim that the book ‘changed the world on a scale unrivalled by any other literary text’.
Always hanging over this kind of discussion is Orientalism, a cult bible itself, as well as being seen, in some quarters, as a candidate for burning. The contributors to the volume don’t deal directly with Said’s analysis – this is not another instalment in that quarrel – but allude to him throughout and by implication reorientate his arguments. Reading The Arabian Nights as a case-study of history’s contact zones helps us to change preconceptions about Arabs, Islam and the history and civilisation of the Middle and Near East. A book of multiple transformations, putting on different guises and exciting different effects, it reveals the degree to which translations between cultures can affect and even mitigate protracted and entrenched hostilities. The writers here are trying to see beyond an antithetical model of East-West relations to one in which, as Amit Chaudhuri has written, ‘the Orient, in modernity, is not only a European invention but also an Oriental one.’ Srinivas Aravamudan brings in Said’s later concept of the ‘travelling’ text, from his 1983 study The World, the Text and the Critic (which will be published in its first official Arabic translation by the Kalima Foundation next year). The Arabian Nights is a pre-eminent example of the travelling text, an extraordinary case of cross-fertilisation, retelling, grafting and borrowing, imitation and dissemination back and forth between Persia, India, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Europe over several centuries. Narrative sequences of this sort – interlaced within the frame of a ransom tale – became nomadic, camping and settling until they were indigenous throughout the world.
Said also demanded, three decades ago, that the ‘Orient’ be allowed to speak. An eye-opening essay by Nabil Matar explores the presence of Christians and other religious believers in The Arabian Nights, and tracks a growing intolerance in the stories. In the earlier romances, medieval in origin, the characters observe Islamic precepts (interfaith marriage is allowed; hospitality is a great good as well as a duty), though conversion only takes place in one direction. In the later urban adventure stories, which often show evidence of contact between East and West (pirates from Genoa, for example), hostility towards Christians has hardened.
In a closely argued meditation on the role of Dinarzade, who is entrusted by Scheherazade to ask for a story every night and so help forestall the fall of the axe, Ros Ballaster focuses on women writers’ uses of Oriental plots and characters to draw attention to their own concerns, and argues strongly that the Oriental tale, as practised by women writers such as Clara Reeve and Frances Sheridan, was employed to convey an ideal of nation and to forge a new community, open to female independence and opposed to domestic and political tyranny. In the fiction of the long 18th century, from the work of the radicals Charlotte Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft to the novels of the conservative Jane Austen, Ballaster finds many pairs of sisters who manage to impress their alternative views on their fellow characters and their readers. New forms were used to stage the storytelling scene: letters, confessions, ‘memoirs’ and ‘true reports’, even travellers’ tales and captivity yarns, adopt women’s voices to communicate unknown or concealed truths. At the level of plot, this process mimicks the foiling of evil designs in The Arabian Nights, with enchanters’ secret machinations successfully resisted. At a deeper, metaphorical or even metaphysical level, it assumes a world where hidden djinns and peris lurk in old bottles or padlocked boxes or swarm invisibly in the air; these are spirits who can strike malignly but can also be controlled and exploited. Unexplained spirit presences soon began to infuse Gothic writing: Horace Walpole argued for The Arabian Nights against the insipid fiction of his contemporaries, and The Castle of Otranto shows its influence.
Somewhere between the supernatural, which presumed a belief in God, and the uncanny, which saw inexplicable, dreadful or wonderful things as the dream products of the mind and, often, of personal disturbance, the spirits of The Arabian Nights opened a space in which heterodox fantasy could be indulged without danger – believed in without having to believe it true, to adapt a phrase of Wallace Stevens. The Victorians dismissed genies as belonging to the most primitive stratum of spiritual development, animism, but had no explanation for their stubborn appeal. Tim Fulford perceptively comments on Coleridge’s enraptured response to the capricious motions of fate in the tales beyond logic, beyond ethics. Pre-1817 versions of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, published ‘before Coleridge added the moralising marginal gloss’, produces the same cold thrill in us because it too conveys ‘the inadequacy of human morality to comprehend the world in which we live’.
The fatalism of the tales, combined with their exaggerated luxuries and treasures, penalties and rewards, has meant that European readers have always connected them with irrationality, supernaturalism and transgressive self-pleasuring. But the very terms of that condemnation opened up another horizon. Khalid Bekkaoui writes about the attractions of ‘turning Turk’ and discusses several ‘captivity narratives’ (Linda Colley’s recent study of Elizabeth Marsh is a good example). In these, the flickering lamps of the seraglio throw shadows over historical events until it becomes impossible to see their original outline: fiction giving fact its form.
In the final essay in the collection, Maher Jarrar examines the return of The Arabian Nights to the Middle East and its impact on the modern Arabic novel. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al-Aswany, published too recently to be included in Jarrar’s discussion, continues the process: an enthralling piece of storytelling as well as a brave and straight-dealing account of Cairo, al-Aswany’s novel adapts the urban labyrinth of The Arabian Nights while containing its cast of intricately connected characters within a single, many-chambered building.
The difficulty of reading the tales themselves has proved a persistent topic, and not just because of the prophecy that anyone who finishes the book will die – an interesting extension of Scheherazade’s deferral of her own death. The tales made the leap into the world by word of mouth: the book became a genre, a style, an image-language before it was grasped as a text. The title alone summoned a mood, an atmosphere, a sphere of the imagination, dominated by enchantments and prodigies, terrifying metamorphoses (into animals, stone, things), flagrant coincidences and cruel horrors, voluptuous pleasures and despotic injustice, with fountains, rubies, sherbet, genies swarming out of caskets like smoking chimneys. Reading the stories is hard because they disobey so many rules about character, motive, verisimilitude, plot structure; they do not fit with theories about fiction, history or psychology, and their excesses of emotion, their desultory and extreme violence, twists of fate and improbable outcomes seem to flout the order of things. This makes them exciting, alarming and compelling. Why is one young woman, with every sign of reluctance and remorse, beating two bitches every evening till the blood runs? Why have three wandering holy men lost an eye? The inventions in the tales remain utterly fantastic and have an eerie compulsion: the magnetic mountain that will draw every nail from a ship if it falls within its sphere of attraction and reduce it to splinters; the giant bird that breakfasts daily on two Bactrian camels; the frozen cities of past glorious civilisations, where everyone is turned to stone and heaped in riches; the dead queen with wide open eyes of mercury lying on a bier guarded by automata which slice off the head of anyone who tries to steal the jewels that cover her body.
But once one starts reading, as Coleridge discovered, the way Scheherazade sets one story inside another, starting new ones before the first, or the second, has come to a conclusion, acts like metre and rhyme in poetry: your mind rushes ahead before you can put up resistance (just like the sultan). The prose is fiendishly patterned, more terza rima than heroic couplets. Although the book forms a collage of so many different materials and forms of literature, it does work itself out in the end – like a very long and complicated puzzle – as Scheherazade’s tales gradually move from the complacent misogyny of the frame story and many of the earlier tales, into a politics of love and justice that opens the cruel sultan’s eyes to a new understanding of humanity and of his responsibilities as a ruler.