Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

A thousand and one images

The stories of the Thousand and One Nights, one of the most famous works of classical Arabic literature, are the subject of a new Paris exhibition, writes David Tresilian

A thousand and one night
A thousand and one night
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Arabian Nights or the Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla wa Layla), a collection of stories some of which date back to at least the 9th century CE, is one of the few works of classical Arabic literature to have achieved international fame. There can be few readers worldwide not familiar with the stories of Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, or the Adventures of Sindbad the Sailor, all among those collected in the Thousand and One Nights, even if this familiarity is sometimes more from pantomime restaging, in the case of Aladdin, or Hollywood adaptation, in the case of Sindbad, than acquaintance with the original stories themselves.

Generations of children across the western world have been brought up on stories from the Nights, still presented by some as essentially children’s literature, while just as many adult writers, artists, painters and musicians have drawn on the Nights for motifs or inspiration. No other work of classical Arabic literature has enjoyed such an extensive international afterlife, with references to the Nights cropping up in works by Marcel Proust and James Joyce apparently as easily as they do in less exalted cultural forms, such as comic books or films.

Aladdin has been a fixture of British Christmas pantomime since at least the beginning of the 19th century, and the mediaeval Baghdad setting of many of the stories has been grist to the mill of film adaptations at least since Douglas Fairbanks fell in love with the caliph’s daughter in the swashbuckling 1924 film of The Thief of Baghdad. According to the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, the Arabian Nights should be considered part of the definition of literature itself, the work suggesting that story-telling is eternal and never-ending and its labyrinth-like structure leading readers on a journey of endless transformation.

The Nights come with an impressive western pedigree, and it is chiefly this story of how the stories have been translated, adapted, and reimagined in Europe since the first translation, by French scholar Antoine Galland, appeared three centuries ago that forms the core of a new exhibition at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris. Simply entitled The Thousand and One Nights, it is intended, its curators write, to “showcase the world’s best-known work of Arabic literature, a monument… that symbolises better than any other the connections that unite East and West.”

Anyone who remembers reading the stories of the Arabian Nights or any of the many adaptations made from them will enjoy the present exhibition. Though perhaps rather short on the Arab contexts of the Nights, the focus being on their European and particularly French reception, the exhibition should encourage visitors to revisit material they first encountered as children and it will certainly deepen their understanding and appreciation of these remarkable stories.

Translating the Nights: The exhibition starts by presenting the first European translations of the Nights, focusing particularly on Galland’s French translation which appeared in 12 volumes over as many years at the beginning of the 18th century.

It was Galland’s translation that launched the Nights on their secondary, European career, with the stories soon generating a host of other works in a variety of European languages. Galland died in 1715, two years before the final volumes of his translation appeared, but long before he did so it had already become clear that this “modest Caen librarian,” as the exhibition describes him – Caen is a town in France – had been responsible for a publishing sensation. Having published the first volumes of his translation in 1704, Galland was obliged to produce further volumes, and find more stories, to meet what seemed to be an insatiable pan-European demand.

The story of how he did so has become part of the European history of the Arabian Nights, and the exhibition includes some fascinating original exhibits. Galland made his translation from a 15th-century Syrian manuscript copy of the Nights, and the first three volumes of this, bearing Galland’s original annotations, are in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. They have been brought out of storage for the present exhibition, where they have been joined by pages from Galland’s diary in which he records meetings with a Syrian visitor to Paris, Hanna Diyab, who told him additional stories not included in the original manuscript that eventually found their way, in French translation, into Galland’s version of the Arabian Nights.

Since these additional stories include some of the most famous stories of the entire collection, including the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba, it has seemed to many since that Diyab alone, or Diyab and Galland between them, should to a certain extent be credited with having created the “Arabian Nights” for European audiences, given the popularity of precisely these tales among subsequent generations. Such perceptions are supported by the fact that Diyab’s additional stories at least at first did not exist in written versions or in any of the Arabic manuscript collections of the Nights. Western orientalists eventually identified Arabic manuscripts of the Aladdin and Ali Baba stories, but these were shown to be back-translations from Galland’s French versions by the Syrian scholar Muhsin Mahdi in his 1984 scholarly edition of the Arabic text of the Nights.

This complicated history is presented in the exhibition and described in detail in the sumptuous accompanying catalogue, which contains articles by Arab and western scholars on various aspects of the Nights. The earliest manuscript on show, a fragment from a 9th-century manuscript acquired in Egypt by the University of Chicago, testifies to the antiquity of the Arabic versions of the stories, the architecture of which and much of the earlier content is believed to be of Indian or Persian origin. Later manuscripts, such as that used by Galland for his translation, indicate that Syria became a centre for the elaboration and transmission of the stories in the Mamluke period, with Egypt later also playing a significant role in copying and particularly in extending the original corpus of stories.

Galland’s translation was the standard European version of the Nights for over a century, and it was only in the 1830s that the British orientalist E.W. Lane, author of a famous account of Egypt in the time of Mohammed Ali (Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 1836), began an English-language translation of the Nights, this time using an Arabic version of the stories printed in Bulaq in Cairo in 1835. The Egyptian version of the stories differs significantly from the Syrian one, not least in its much greater length, and scholars of the history of the Nights often speak of the Syrian and Egyptian “branches” as a result. As befits Lane’s career as a student of Egyptian customs, his translation treats the stories as source material for the study of Arab life, and it comes complete with footnotes on all aspects of the Nights.

In this respect, Lane began a tradition that found perhaps its apogee in the translation by the English orientalist and explorer Richard Burton a generation or so later, who created a version of the Nights which, unlike those by Lane or Galland, is still widely read today. Burton also supplied his text with copious footnotes, sometimes of enormous length and on often apparently random topics, designed to illuminate various aspects of Arab life. However, unlike Lane, who domesticated the stories to Victorian English taste, altering them or omitting parts at will, Burton deliberately played up their exotic and unruly character, such that while Lane’s translation was intended for family tea-time reading, Burton’s had a sometimes disturbing force and was privately printed for subscribers only.

The exhibition includes copies of both the Lane and Burton translations, the latter misleadingly bearing the advertisement that it has been translated into “plain English” when “exotic” or “exoticised” would be nearer the case. There are also copies of later translations on display, including those by J.C. Mardrus, for many years the standard French translation and the one that did most to introduce 20th-century French readers to the Nights, and Husain Haddawy, perhaps the standard English translation (from Mahdi’s edition of the Syrian branch of the Nights) until the appearance of the complete translation of the fuller Egyptian version by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons two years ago.

Thematising the Nights: The setting of many of the stories is the commercial world of mediaeval Baghdad, with tradesmen and merchants acting as the narrators of tales featuring elements of the supernatural, including jinn, or genies, and the doings of the aristocracy, including the caliph himself. As a result, the world of the Nights can be both fantastic and surprisingly matter-of-fact, and it is a world in which market transactions are often recorded in as much detail as magical happenings or the luxurious lifestyles of the rich.

The exhibition’s second section identifies such motifs in the Nights, and it illustrates them with a variety of objects drawn from collections in France and elsewhere. It glosses the urban setting of the Nights much in the way that Lane did in his 19th-century English translation, using it as a point of departure for presenting the everyday details of Arab life. Early photographs of 19th-century Syrian tradesmen taken in Damascus in 1870 are used to recreate the commercial world of the Nights, for example, with its cast of shopkeepers, street vendors, water-sellers, barbers and tailors. This approach, though undoubtedly anachronistic, captures something of what Haddawy in his translation of the stories called the “fidelity to precise detail” that is crucial to achieving “the essential character of the Nights by bridging the gap between the natural and the supernatural.”

In the story of the 28th night, for example, telling of a porter and three mysterious women, the first of whom employs him in the markets of Baghdad, though these women eventually invite the porter into a magical world of extraordinary happenings they are careful to do their shopping first. Accordingly, items are listed, in Haddawy’s translation, that may well have been familiar to the first audiences of the Nights. Among them are “yellow and red apples, Hebron peaches and Turkish quinces, and seacoast lemons and royal oranges, as well as baby cucumbers. She also bought Aleppo jasmine and Damascus lilies, myrtle berries and mignonettes, daisies and gillyflowers, lilies of the valley and irises, narcissus and daffodils, violets and anemones, as well as pomegranate blossoms. Then she stopped at the butcher’s and said, ‘cut me off ten pounds of fresh mutton.’”

As well as illustrating the extent of the commercial world of the Nights, flowers, fruit and vegetables from across the region apparently all making their way to market in Baghdad, the list provides ample scope for illustration. Burton, using an Egyptian text of the stories, gives “cucumbers of Nile growth” for “baby cucumbers,” skips “seacoast lemons and royal oranges,” whose meaning is admittedly rather obscure, and adds “open-worked tarts and fritters scented with musk and soap-cakes and lemon-loaves and melon-preserves and Zaynab’s combs and ladies’ fingers and Kazi’s tit-bits and goodies of every description.”

However, the illustrative approach perhaps works less well for the elements of fantasy in the Nights, whether in the shape of the interior of the caliph’s palace, presumably ordinarily out of bounds to most of the narrators of the stories, or what the exhibition terms the “intermediate world” of the jinn, or spirits, who may famously inhabit magic lamps, or, as in the case of the jinn encountered by the fisherman on the eighth night, “a large, long-necked brass jar with a lead stopper” (Burton has a “cucumber-shaped jar of yellow copper”). Here, the exhibition turns to western re-imaginings of the décor of the Nights, with the caliph’s palace being notably represented by illustrations from Mardrus’s turn-of-the-century translation, presenting an angular, art deco version of the architecture of mediaeval Baghdad, and the intermediary world of the supernatural and the jinn glossed through objects such as mediaeval oil lamps, brass vessels, and various talismans. There may be a danger of literal-mindedness here, with magic carpets, which make a rather late entry into the stories collected in the Nights, being illustrated by antique Persian carpets, for example.

However, the thematic approach has the virtue of allowing visitors to the exhibition to understand something of the mental and geographical worlds inhabited by the early story-tellers and listeners to the Nights. The known world was a largely urban one, centred on Baghdad and the doings of its merchant and business classes. Sometimes, members of the aristocracy, and even the caliph Haroun al-Rashid himself, together with his vizier Jaafar, would enter this busy world, descending into the streets in disguise at night and, having listened to the tales told by Baghdad residents, dealing out summary justice to them. This the caliph does in the third dervish’s tale, for example, which stretches from the 53rd to the 62nd night. At the end of the dervish’s strange story, and the even stranger behaviour of its listeners, the caliph reveals his true identity, having previously adopted the disguise of a merchant from Mosul.

He is full of curiosity about the events he has heard, Jaafar saying on his behalf in Burton’s translation that “we pardon you your maltreatment of us and your want of courtesy, in consideration of the kindness which forewent it, and for that ye knew us not; now however I would have you to know that ye stand in the presence of the fifth of the sons of Abbas, Harun al-Rashid, brother of Caliph Musa al-Hadi, son of Al-Mansour, son of Mohammed the brother of al-Saffah bin Mohammed who was first of the royal house. Speak ye therefore before him the truth and the whole truth.”

The truth, inevitably, turns out to be even stranger than the fictions that preceded it.

Reading the Nights: The Baghdad setting of the core stories of the Nights intersects with the intermediary world of the jinn at various points, often through apparently everyday encounters. This happens when a porter is employed by an aristocratic lady in the market, for example, or when a fisherman lands a sealed jar in his nets. There is also the perception that Baghdad and the caliph’s domains, though vast and making up the whole of the civilised world, border on unknown regions that hold further marvels in store.

This perception is explored in the exhibition through the story of Sindbad the Sailor, whose voyages, always south or east and apparently never north or west, take him to India and China and the extremities of the known world. In the exhibition itself there is a small selection of early Arab maps, as well as of navigational instruments, and the accompanying catalogue extends this geographical theme by including intriguing essays not only on the reception of the Nights in Europe, but also on their reception eastwards in China and Japan. It is interesting to learn, for example, that though China appears in the Nights the first Chinese translations of the stories were not published until early in the last century, some years after the first translations appeared in Japan.

Weighing in at several kilos, the exhibition catalogue is something all admirers of the Nights will want to look at since it contains specially commissioned essays on many aspects of the stories, from their translation and initial reception in Europe to their complicated textual history and rich afterlife, not only in France and Britain, but also in Russia, Germany, Scandinavia, Argentina (in the writings of Borges), China and Japan. There are essays on the Nights in film, painting, and music, as well as on literary adaptations of the Nights. One of the most intriguing sections considers how the Nights have been read by modern Arab writers and critics, though here the focus is on the Maghreb and, perhaps inevitably for a Paris exhibition, on the use made of the stories by Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian writers whose medium of expression is French.

The most recent French translator of the Nights, Jamel Eddin Bencheikh, whose translation is now the standard French-language version, receives special consideration here for his attempts to think through issues of transmission and narration using the medium of the Nights, and his argument that this Arab work, extensively worked over by Europeans, can be used to “rethink Arab culture” as a whole. The Algerian and Moroccan woman writers Assia Djebar and Fatima Mernissi, perhaps attracted by the intriguing figure of Sheherazade, the female narrator of the Nights, have also reused material from the collection for various purposes.

According to the French critic Cyrille Francois writing in the exhibition catalogue, the example of the Nights assisted the Algerian novelist Rachid Boudjedra “in retaking possession of eroticism in literature, pushed out of sight by the legitimate culture, while at the same time going beyond the neo-realism of his predecessors.” In the work of the Algerian writer Mourad Djebel, “the Nights are rethought within the framework of a rhizome-like structure that examines problems of inheritance, transmission and rewriting.”

Finally, the critic Ferial Ghazoul, writing on Sheherazade, surely the world’s most-famous female storyteller, asks the question of whether the latter should be seen as a figure of female emancipation or of anti-feminism. In the stories that Sheherazade tells to her husband king Shahrayar at night in an attempt to ward off her death by his order in the morning, eventually apparently succeeding in curing the king of his cruel hatred of women, Sheherazade, Ghazoul says, “resists patriarchy, even if she does not try to overturn the established order.”

“However, she offers a new discourse that goes against that of a literary institution dominated by men.”

Les Mille et Une Nuits, Institut du Monde arabe, Paris, until April 2013.

add comment

  • follow us on