THE ARABIAN NIGHTS [BASED ON THE TEXT EDITED BY MUHSIN MAHDI]

[P], brow furrowed and with the hint of a tear in his eye, sat on the bed, the bed that was little more than a valley surrounded by mountains of books. He had finished the book he had been reading nearly two weeks ago and was engaged in choosing the next, although, from the outside, it appeared as though he was building himself some kind of fort. Of the high mountainous piles of books around the bed, [P] had read at least 50 pages of each, before abandoning them, Goldilocks-like, as not quite right. [P] was at the pitch of madness when he spied a spider crawling down his wall. ‘Stop!’ he screamed, and the spider looked at him, stared at him like one of Flannery O’Connor’s more under-developed characters. [P] leapt from the bed, a heap of books falling from his lap, Buckaroo-style, and made for his killing-shoe. Shoe in hand, he cautiously stepped towards the spider, raising hand and shoe in readiness for the fatal strike.

‘Wait!’ said the spider.

‘No! I must kill you!’

‘Why? What have I done to you? Why must you end my life?’

‘It’s not what you’ve done, it’s who, or what, you are. Now, be quiet and take your medicine like a man!’

‘But I’m not a man. I’m a spider; and I’m female.’

‘Arachne, is that you?’

‘What? Oh, Ovid? You do know that was just a story, don’t you?

‘But…’

‘Have you ever thought about seeking professional help, [P]?’

‘Quit stalling, spideress! It is time for you to die!’

‘Wait! Wouldn’t you like me to tell which book you ought to read next?’

‘Huh?’

‘I know what the perfect book is for you.’

‘Go on.’

The Arabian Nights is the perfect book for you right now.’

‘Fine. Now, let us finish this!’

‘Wait, wouldn’t you like to know which edition to read? There are hundreds of them out there, and you yourself have three at the last count.’

‘Go on.’

‘If you spare me tonight I will tell you.’

[P] considered the spider’s proposition and decided to accept, for the killing could wait until the following day.

The First Night

‘We meet again!’ said [P] as the spider emerged from her hiding place late the next night.

‘As planned and as foreordained, master.’

‘So, deliver on your part of the agreement, strange speaking-spider!’

‘I will.’

[THE STORY OF BURTON’S EDITION]

‘If I recall correctly you own the Burton single volume edition, published by Modern Library, and the Haddawy translation of the Mahdi edition, and the most recent Lyons translation.’

‘That is correct,’ said [P].

‘Richard Burton’s version of The Nights has its detractors and its supporters.  It is based on a French edition by Galland, who is said to have added stories from a variety of sources, and may possibly have written some of them himself. Ali Baba, for example, is not meant to have been part of the original manuscript, but was added by the Frenchman; many of the most famous stories became part of The Nights in the same way. Burton’s original translation spanned 16 volumes, but, I think in 1932, a single volume compendium of the best stories was published. This is the volume you own. Now, as I said, the Burton translation has been heavily criticised and praised. It is praised, mostly, due to the Englishman’s [possibly insane] personality, which comes through in the text in his notes and comments and in the way that he interprets or translates the stories. Be warned, his is not a reliable edition if you want something authentic; it is very much Burton’s book. And, to some extent, this makes for an enjoyable experience. One of the main gripes one might have is that The Nights is a bunch of random stories and it is sometimes difficult to find the impetus to read it cover-to-cover; Burton side-steps this problem, because he unifies the stories, his voice brings them together and makes the book feel like a complete work. However, Burton is an acquired taste and what some enjoy about his version of The Nights is what others dislike about it. Firstly, his language is biblical and that certainly alienates certain readers. Secondly, his asides and comments are by no means politically correct, and it has been said that his work actually goes beyond being merely close-to-the-bone and could be accused of racism. Certainly there are references to…’

‘To?’ said [P] eagerly.

‘Sorry, [P] I’m getting tired. See out the window, how late it is? I need to go to bed, and so do you. If you let me live tomorrow, when the night comes I will tell you all about Burton’s racism.’

[P] was so anxious to find out what Burton had written that he allowed the spider to live.

The Second Night

On the second night the spider and [P] met up as arranged.

‘Ok, so, spider, here we are, as promised tell me what Burton wrote and then enlighten me as to which edition of The Arabian Nights I ought to read

‘Of course! Burton presents the people who populate his tales in a less than complimentary way, adding commentary about female circumcision and pederasty, and describing the moors as having big dicks. None of which is particularly palatable. At its best it is reactionary and lazy stereotyping, at its worse it is racist. Lyons’ translation is much less intrusive, although it, too, retains the tales added by Galland and taken from various sources. If you want a multi-volume edition of The Nights then I’d perhaps advise you to read that one.

[THE STORY OF HADDAWY’S EDITION]

However, if you were to ask me which edition of The Nights I favour, I would, without hesitation, point you in the direction of Haddawy’s. His version is, as I mentioned yesterday, a translation of the Mahdi edition. The Mahdi edition is based on what some claim to be the earliest surviving copy of The Nights, a Syrian manuscript dating from the 15th or 16th century which is to be found in the Bibliotheque Nationale. Of course, this Syrian manuscript, which is believed to be ancestral to all other versions of The Nights, does not…’

‘Does not what, spider?’

‘I want to tell you, my lord, but I’m afraid I’m rather sleepy.’

‘Goddamn it, spider, are you narcoleptic? You’ve only just started!’

‘I’m not sleeping very well lately.’

‘Why not?’

‘I’ve just given birth to hundreds of children.’

‘Oh, congratulations…hold on, hundreds? In my room?’

‘Er, I must turn in now. If you want to know more about the Haddawy translation you must let me live and I will tell you all I know tomorrow night.’

The Third Night

‘I hope you’re well rested, spider,’ said [P] on the third night. ‘If so, now tell me everything you know about the Haddawy translation so that I can make an educated decision as to which version of The Nights to read and then finally put you to death.’

‘Your wish is my command, sir…Galland and Burton both used the Syrian manuscript as the basis for their versions, but, as noted, they both re-worked or added stories and commentary. The Mahdi edition, however, does not  contain any stories or content that is not to be found in the original manuscript, it is therefore, for the man who wants an authentic experience of The Nights, the only version untouched by Northern and Western European influence.’

‘So, you’re saying, really, that if you want to be an Arabian Nights hipster then Haddawy’s is the translation to read?’

‘Yes, think of how superior you’ll seem if you can say oh, I see you’re reading Burton’s Arabian Nights; I, myself, prefer the original.’

‘It’s a little like going up to a kid who is playing The Best of The Smiths and telling him that, yeah, Hand in Glove sounds ok on CD, but it sounds even better on the original 7″ vinyl!’

‘Ha, indeed.’

‘Cool. I’ll read the Haddawy translation.’

[P] picked up his killing-shoe.

‘So, I’ll try and make this quick.’

‘Wait! Don’t you want to know if the content and style will suit you?’

‘I know what the content is and what the style is like, everyone does,’ said [P] impatiently.

‘But I’ve told you that the Mahdi edition lacks most of the really famous stories, which are probably the only stories you would know in advance. In any case, you are on record as not really liking short stories; don’t you want to know what you’re letting yourself in for?’

‘Ah, yes. Proceed.’                     

[THE STORY OF THE STORIES-WITHIN-STORIES]

‘The stories in Haddawy’s translation of The Nights are less well-known, but for me this works in its favour. Ali Baba, Alladin, Sindbad etc, are all so much a part of popular culture that one could feel as though reading the stories is actually pretty pointless. Haddawy’s Nights is fresher, more surprising, although, of course, it still features demons and magical events, princes and princesses and so on. Crucially, every story in his edition is of the highest quality. Seriously! Burton’s and Galland’s and Lyons’ versions are so long that the quality is bound to be uneven; Haddawy’s is roughly 450 pages, which is about half the size of the single volume of Burton published by Modern Library and not even a quarter of the length of Lyons’ version. All the stories are taken from the same source too, so they work together, are less jarring. Indeed, the book, in this edition, reads like a complete work, not as a seemingly never-ending compendium of short stories tied tenuously together. Some of my favourites include the hunchback who died in one house, is taken and left on the stairs of another, and is then subsequently passed from house to house as each man who finds him thinks he has killed him; then there is the story of the three girls who invite some men into their home but on the condition that they will not ask questions about the strange things they will see.’

‘What did they see?’

‘I’d like to tell you, O impatient one. But, I’m rather exhausted. If you promise not to kill me tonight I will tell you about the three girls tomorrow.’

The Fourth Night

At nightfall [P] and the spider reconvened. [P] said, ‘no more delays, tell me what happens in the house with the girls.’

‘My pleasure,’said the spider. ‘The girls invite into their home a porter, three one-eyed dervishes, and a king and his adviser. During the night one of the girls brings out two black dogs, and begins to beat them until they faint. At the end of the beating the girl weeps over the animals and the animals weep with her.’

‘Why did she beat the animals and then weep over them?’

‘If I tell you it will spoil the story.’

‘What about the dervishes? All one-eyed, you say? What happened to them?’

‘This too is revealed in the book, for the king calls the dervishes and the girls to his palace the next morning for explanations. Each dervish has a wonderful story to tell.’

‘So, within each story there are other stories?’

‘Oh, yes. I see your arm there, that matryoshka doll tattoo of yours; the stories in The Nights are like one of those dolls; within each story there are other stories. Just like life! With the advent of every incident in your life, other incidents have taken place in order to bring it about. Indeed, I would say that the most satisfying thing about reading this version of The Nights is how sophisticated and complex the stories are in structure. Some of the main narratives can last for 40-50 pages, containing within that framework another 6-7 stories. Not only that, but the content of the stories often mirrors the structure, in that they are concerned with labyrinths and secret rooms and rooms-within-rooms, surprise revelations, etc.’

‘I like that, spider, I really like that! Say, all of this sounds like Calvino; Borges too maybe.’

The Nights is very much like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but better, master, so much better. Why? Because all the stories contained within it are superior to those in Calvino’s book. It is also similar to, and superior to, Rousell and Perec and a whole host of others. As for Borges, well, I know you love him; I, too, rate him very highly. I wouldn’t want to say that The Nights is better than Borges’ best work, but it is the equal of it, certainly. Borges himself, actually, was a massive fan, he even wrote his own stories about it.’

‘I must not have read those stories. Tell me one.’

‘My lord, I would be happy to do so, but I am unable to keep my eyes open.’

‘You’ve got lots of eyes, I’m sure you can keep a couple of them open long enough to tell me!’

‘I’m afraid that isn’t possible. But if you spare me tonight I will tell you tomorrow evening.’

The Fifth Night

With the coming of evening [P] said to his eight-legged companion:

‘I’m anxious, spider, to hear what you have to say, so reveal to me Borges’ story.’

‘As you wish, sir,’ said the spider.

[THE STORY OF BORGES’ STORY]

‘In one of Borges’ stories Shahrazad tells the king the story of a girl who must tell her king stories to keep him from killing her.’

‘Very droll. I am satisfied, spider. And how early it is! You can’t be tired already, so tonight will be the night that you perish, as you have no more to tell me!’

‘But, my lord, wouldn’t you like to know if The Nights is sexist, if women are relentlessly mistreated, if there are numerous rapes? Don’t forget, you regularly complain about the frequency with which you encounter this kind of thing in books, how, indeed, it actually compromises your enjoyment.’

‘That is true. Tell me then, O weaver of webs, for it is so early that you can complete your task and I will still have plenty of time to end your existence.’

‘[Hoarsely] Master, nothing would make me happier, but I’m afraid I have a sore throat and cannot speak for much longer without losing my voice entirely. A good night’s rest will cure me of this ailment and tomorrow night I will be able to reveal all.

‘Very well, till tomorrow then.’

The Sixth Night

‘Hear me, my black-backed foe! Come forth and tell me, in fine voice, whether The Arabian Nights will depress me with tales of abuse and rape.’

‘My lord, my voice has recovered so I am able to do your bidding.

[THE STORY OF THE FEMALE HERO]

So often I have read that The Nights is sexist and yet I don’t agree; or, it is, in some versions, certainly in Burton’s edition, but that is not the case with Haddawy’s version. Yes, there are adulterous women, but there are an equal number of adulterous men; yes, the women are often portrayed as manipulative, but is that any more insulting than the men they dupe who are portrayed as idiots? Some women are ill-treated physically, but as far as I remember none are raped. But, then, men too are physically ill-treated, so where is the sexism? Women are killed at the drop of a hat, but so are men. Furthermore, women are shown to be very interested in sex and are shown to enjoy it. The only real basis for complaint would be how women are kept veiled and not allowed outdoors, which is an odd complaint considering that it is an accurate representation of the times and culture. Not only that, but Shahrazad, a woman, is the strongest-willed, most admirable, and heroic, character in the entire book! As everyone knows, the framing narrative of the work is that a king, who has a bad experience with a woman, decides to take a new wife every night and kill her in the morning. Shahrazad, against her father’s wishes, offers to marry the king, who himself advises against it due to his vow to dispose of all of his wives within 24 hours. She insists though, stating that she will put an end to these deaths or die herself trying. By telling the king stories every night she saves her own life and eventually the king softens and gives up his vow. Her bravery and resourcefulness is what saves the day.’

‘Wonderful! You have put my mind at ease. Now, say your final prayers.’

‘But, master, what is the moral of the story of Shahrazad and the king? What do you think it may be telling you vis-a-vis you and I?’

‘Not to be rash, not to be blood-thirsty, and not to be unkind to an innocent? That we ought to live together, peacefully and happily?’

‘Precisely!’

‘Yes, I see that. Accept my humble apologies, spider. You have my permission to live here; this is your home too now. Go and fetch your children and bring them to me so I can bless them all. But first one last question.’

‘Anything, O benevolent master!’

‘Is there a word limit for a review on wordpress?’

‘What? I don’t know.’

‘No matter then; bring me those lovely children of yours!’

The spider merrily departed and returned in haste with her offspring. [P] gazed at them in turn and then, from behind his back, produced his killing-shoe and took care of each and every one. Next, he turned on the articulate arachnid and administered a most brutal and fatal squashing. After cleaning up the mess he’d made he pulled from his bookshelves Haddawy’s translation of the Mahdi edition of The Arabian Nights and took it with him to his bed, laid down and began to read. And it was good.

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3 comments

    1. I’m really struggling this week; a few personal problems. Tried reading War & Peace again, which I love, but my heart wasn’t in it. Just picked up The Charterhouse of Parma, hopefully that will stick.

      1. Good luck – there’s nothing worse than struggling with book choices (been there, done that and very much wore the t-shirt recently).

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