The Thousand and One Nights, also known as The Arabian Nights, is the world’s best-travelled collection of stories, and the most popular. It might be the most-read book in English after the Bible and Shakespeare, but it has a different kind of familiarity than those canonical works. What we remember from the Nights is not high eloquence, intellect or faith, but a handful of characters and scenes: the shrewd Ali Baba spying on the gang of thieves, resourceful Aladdin with his lamp, and Sheherazade herself spinning tale after tale in order to survive. Borges, who read the work many times from childhood on, and found in it a model for the storyteller’s art, memorably observed that “One knows that entering the book one can forget one’s poor human fate.”
Arabian Nights, as Borges knew better than anyone, is the book as universe: an endless realm of magical wonders and urban low life, palaces and harems, genies, automata, princesses, and monsters. The work is full of heroic, self-reliant women, outlandish adventures, and science-fictional marvels (a flying horse, a city of brass). The reader who only recalls Ali Baba or Aladdin will be surprised by the puzzle-like nestling of the stories, which are interlinked in ingenious and absurd ways. One tale leads to another; characters often tell their stories in order to ward off death (as Sheherazade does); coincidences multiply fiendishly. Ordinary life seems governed by marvelous laws, and sometimes supernaturally dreadful ones. In the first tale that Sheherazade tells her king, a fierce genie persecutes a man because, while eating a handful of dates, he flings a date stone and kills by accident the genie’s invisible son. Coleridge was horrified by this episode, and it became a chief inspiration for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: the most random action elicits a blank, unforgiving destiny. For all their reputation for innocent enchantment, these tales can be fearfully inexorable.
With a few exceptions such as Naguib Mahfouz, who paid homage to the tales of Sheherazade in his novel Arabian Nights and Days, the Arabian Nights has had a mixed reception from many Arab readers. Its style is often deemed low and crude, its content immoral. Its true home has been the West, ever since 1701-1717, when Antoine Galland translated it into French. Galland inaugurated the discipline of Orientalism in 1697 with his massive Bibliothèque Orientale. In this encyclopedia of Islamic culture, he emphasized the richness of Arabic writing and the high achievements of Arab society. He was the first in a long line of admirers of the Middle East: another of them, Edward Lane, produced an English version of the Arabian Nights in 1838-1841, and supplemented it with a rich treasury of footnotes on Arab life and culture. When Galland translated the Nights, the Ottomans had recently put Vienna under siege. The Muslim world was not an underdeveloped region, but a still mighty empire.
Galland worked from fourteenth-century manuscripts, some of which have since been lost; he also listened to a Maronite storyteller named Hanna Diab, from Aleppo, and transcribed some of his tales. He ornamented the text with his own plot twists and descriptions, so that it may seem that the Nights belong as much to Galland as to the Arabic manuscripts that he consulted. Some later Arabic versions seem to rely on Galland. Two of the most famous tales, Ali Baba and Aladdin, appear in Arabic only after Galland’s translation: they could have been his invention, or Hanna Diab’s.
The first scholar who mentions the book—Al-Mas’udi, in the tenth century—claims that many of its stories came from Persian, Hindu and Greek sources. Sheherazade, her sister Dinarzade, and Sharyar, the king she entertains, bear conspicuously Persian names. Occasionally a king of China will wander through the stories, or a Zoroastrian magus, or the greatest caliph of them all, Haroun al-Rashid, slumming incognito in the streets of Baghdad. Galland added French mannerisms to Mameluke drinking parties. The Nights may be the original multicultural text.
Galland’s version of the Arabian Nights included 281 nights—about forty stories. (Later translations, which rely on additional manuscripts, are much longer.) Rapidly translated into English and other European languages, it became a huge hit. Two centuries later, wide-eyed English schoolchildren still imbibed expurgated and simplified versions of Galland’s Nights. Every educated Victorian knew the Nights. Wordsworth, DeQuincey, and Stevenson all testified to the haunting powers of this book of magic when encountered in early youth. (These days we have Meguey Baker’s 1001 Nights, a wholesome role-playing game for teens.) The movies too have paid tribute to the Nights, from Lotte Reiniger’s inventive The Adventures of Prince Achmed, to Disney’s Aladdin. Alexander Korda’s sumptuous, swashbuckling Thief of Baghdad, from1940, a re-make of the silent version starring Douglas Fairbanks, remains the pinnacle; but movie, television, and video-game adaptations keep on coming.
The scholarly consensus is that the Nights appeared in Arabic in the eighth century, its core a set of tales from India and Persia. The original germ of the frame story, Robert Irwin argues in his delightful and indispensable The Arabian Nights: A Companion, may be a Chinese Buddhist text from 250 CE about a king who despairs of woman’s fidelity. This could be taken, in turn, from a Persian original. Sheherazade’s role as storyteller probably has its origin in a Jain legend of a woman named Kanakamanjari, who keeps her king in love with her by telling him stories every night.
In the ninth or tenth century, Arabic material was added to the collection, including the set of stories featuring Haroun al-Rashid. Then, in the ensuing centuries, came sagas such as Sindbad’s voyages, and tales of gritty urban life. The Cairo Geniza reveals that a Jewish bookseller was loaning out the Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, as it was then called, in the twelfth century. The Nights was revised and updated, and soon references to guns, tobacco, and coffee began to pepper the stories, marking them as modern. Though Baghdad is the most common setting, the newer tales began to reflect the low life world of Cairo. In fourteenth century Cairo, beggars, sorcerers, and prostitutes plied their business in the cemeteries, and thieves were crucified on the backs of camels. Irwin reports that over half the city’s streets ended in culs-de-sac. This was fertile ground for fiction-making, and the Nights became the first instance of urban noir, adding this genre to the others in its repertoire: sword and sorcery, true love story, science fiction, didactic exemplum, simple folktale.
The next translator of the Nights, after Galland and Edward Lane, was the most famous of all. When Richard Burton embarked on the stupendous task of turning the book into English, he was known as an unparalleled master of Eastern languages and a courageous African explorer—and most of all as the reckless adventurer who had penetrated Mecca disguised as a Muslim pilgrim. Impulsive and self-thwarting, he had the physical endurance of a Greek hero, and was an equally heroic scholar. None of his fellow Victorians could match his learning for its scope and originality. Burton published his Arabian Nights translation in sixteen volumes between 1885 and 1888, and it was a wild success.
Burton accurately conveyed, for the first time, the sexual frankness of the original. Burton insisted that the Nights have “a coarseness of language, not of idea; they are indecent, not depraved; and the pure and perfect naturalness of their nudity seems almost to purify it….Such throughout the East is the language of every man, woman and child, from prince to peasant, from matron to prostitute.” Burton idealized the erotic liberty of the East, but he was onto something. Sheherazade tells the story of a porter mysteriously welcomed into a palace who plays childlike games with the three beautiful ladies—swimming nude, answering riddles about the sexual organs. The porter’s paradise represents a recurrent fantasy in the Arabian Nights: sex released from its bondage to power.
This power belongs most of all to the cruel king who listens to Sheherazade’s stories, and the main drama of the Nights is his relinquishing of it. Before the arrival of Sheherazade, Sharyar vows to deflower a virgin each night and kill her in the morning, before she can betray him with another man. After a number of women are sacrificed to Sharyar’s anxious appetite, Sheherazade turns the tables, and makes the king the servant of her power. The king lives happily under her tale-telling spell and eventually, we are told, she bears his children.
Burton’s famous footnotes, which run to thousands of pages, are a smorgasbord of strange lore. He tells us in great detail about Middle Eastern techniques of coffee-drinking, depilation, drug-taking, blinding (a gruesome paragraph), and much else. Abraham, Burton informs us, was—according to Islam—the first man to part his hair and to use a toothpick. He displays a wit born of experience: “It is an epoch in the civilized traveller’s life when he catches his first louse.” Burton, who had previously translated the Kama Sutra, ventured in his footnotes into realms of sexual oddity unmatched by previous or later translators. “Burton’s notes are obtrusive, kinky and highly personal,” Robert Irwin notes. Burton comments on the Egyptian peasant’s habit of having sex with a female crocodile, and delves into penis size among the different races. (“I measured one man in Somali-land who, when quiescent, numbered nearly six inches.”)
Burton’s notes are at times unhinged, marked by paranoia and racism, but they can be moving in their confidential quality, and thrilling in their raconteur’s verve. Burton was a deep and perverse sympathizer with Arab society. He praised revenge killing, harems (since they save women from the curse of prostitution), and the Islamic submission to fate. And his sex-obsessed translation was, rather surprisingly, acclaimed in the Victorian press, though a few reviewers objected to its “Pantagruelism or pornography,” deeming it a “morally filthy book.”
Today it seems largely unreadable (except for its footnotes). Burton’s clotted labyrinth of a style, stilted, languorous, and full of inkhorn terms, imitates Thomas Urquhart’s needlessly ornate Renaissance version of Rabelais. Borges strenuously defended Burton, whose Nights he read as a child, but few will agree with him. The reader who wants to tackle this book of marvels should go to either to Husain Haddawy’s recent translation or to one of the English adaptations of Galland, such as Robert Mack’s edition of the Nights, issued by Oxford World’s Classics.
The Nights, which describe a crazy variety of sexual stunts, enjoy a healthy roll in the dirt. (Pier Paolo Pasolini’s studiously naïve film version dotes on the book’s erotic brio.) But the tales also display a profound fear of the sexual powers of women. This fear provides the starting point for Andrei Codrescu’s brisk retelling of the Nights’ frame story. (Codrescu spells the heroine’s name in his preferred fashion.) Codrescu has been preceded not just by Borges, but by Italo Calvino, John Barth, and Salman Rushdie—strong competition; but at his best Codrescu is a splendid entertainer and a thought-provoking analyst, ready to tease out each witty twist and turn of Sheherazade’s nightly work.
Codrescu spends much time on a rendition of the Nights’ frame story, which concerns preparations for the initial meeting of Sheherazade and her king Sharyar. He greatly extends the opening quest, when Sharyar and his brother Shahzaman, both of them kings spectacularly cuckolded by their wives, travel the world in an effort to find a still more powerful man who has been defeated by a woman. They meet a huge demon who tries and fails to keep his wife captive in a glass box; she commands both kings to have sex with her, and takes their rings as souvenirs to add to her already large collection. Convinced of the fantastic strength of female treachery, Sharyar returns home, and enacts his lethal virgin for a night policy.
The Arabian Nights is haunted by female sexuality and sneakiness. Women’s ability to run rings around male efforts to corral them comes up again and again: royal wives rarely pass up the chance for some brisk erotic exercise with their handsome Moorish slaves. These proto-Berlusconis are at the mercy of their harems. Asceticism doesn’t help. Codrescu is acute on Sharyar’s rejection of philosophy, proffered by a hermit as the cure for his ills. “’I am not seeking an answer!’ he said proudly, ‘but a being more powerful than I betrayed as I was.” He adds, to the miserable anchorite: “Wisdom is depressing, a form of inaction. You’re an old man, brother.”
When Sheherazade steps in, she acts to save the virgins of the kingdom, who are rapidly being depleted by the king’s murderous ways. (It is hard to avoid thinking of the Book of Esther, which may have been known to the authors of the Nights, though Sheherazade outshines even Esther in her savvy manipulation of the king.) Her father the Vizier tries to dissuade her, but she heroically insists on going in to Sharyar, confident that she has a way to survive. And she does: her immense talent for tale-telling, which far overpowers the despot’s deadly whim. “When she appears, like the Genie in the bottle of literature that she is, we must obey the order of her stories,” Codrescu writes. Instead of controlling this woman, Sharyar wants to be held captive, kept in suspense night after night. (Sheherazade’s stories usually break off in the middle with the coming of dawn, to be resumed the next night.)
Codrescu is a great fan of Burton and writes similarly expansive footnotes, without Burton’s salacious peculiarities. His jokes can be labored, but often they are good ones; and his delight in his source text is infectious. One wishes that he had tackled some of the other parts of the Nights, such as the mysteriously perfect tale of Jullanar of the Sea (which inspired Hans Christian Andersen), or the dizzying, hilarious Hunchback cycle. His tribute to the book barely skims the surface of its ocean of stories. By the end of Codrescu’s book, his fooling grows old, and his structureless jeux d’esprit seems to trail off; but still the ride is diverting.
In the Arabian Nights, the quest finds you unexpectedly: you are, and always will be, unready for it. Borges was fond of “The Two Dreamers,” the tale of a poor man in Baghdad who dreams of a fortune in Cairo. He journeys there, and he is imprisoned and beaten. When he recounts his dream, his jailor laughs and says: “I had a similar dream … there’s a house in Baghdad, with a garden, and a fountain, and a buried treasure is there.” From the jailor’s description, the poor man recognizes the house as his own, and hastens back to it: he finds the treasure in his own backyard, just as the jailor envisioned. “And this was a wonderful coincidence,” the story concludes (in Lane’s version). Pity the jailor: the eternal straight man, imprisoned by his disdain for illusion. In this tale, reality and dream become two halves of a strange whole, and one life answers the riddle of another. Whether you have spent your time dreaming or soaking up reality, you remain subject to this uncanniest of laws.
In vignettes such as “The Two Dreamers,” the Nights assiduously practices the reduction of a life to a single scene, something that can be told in a few minutes. Its authors had discovered the central wisdom of the short story, with all the stunning luck and all the potential for inhumanity that such reductiveness entails. The Breslau manuscript of the Arabian Nights concludes with Night 602, when Sheherazade begins telling her own story. Borges, meditating on this remarkable conceit, makes it still more remarkable: he says that Sheherazade, when she reaches the 602nd night must tell the whole chain of stories over again, touching her own existence at the center of the vast skein. Like her listeners, she is sentenced to fiction, and the wonders never cease.
David Mikics is the author most recently of The Art of the Sonnet (with Stephen Burt), Who Was Jacques Derrida? and A New Handbook of Literary Terms.