Tales of the unexpected

The Arabian Nights is the greatest literary work of the Arab world. Why, asks Kevin Jackson, does it retain such a profound influence on the Western imagination?
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The Independent Culture

Ten years have passed since the publication of Robert Irwin's exhilaratingly learned and warmly reviewed The Arabian Nights: A Companion (recently reissued, with a new introduction). It would be a wide-eyed Polyanna indeed who would claim that they have been a happy decade for relations between the Arab world and the West. More than ever, the image of the Middle East conveyed even by our more responsible media is compounded almost wholly - as Irwin ruefully puts it in the updated edition - of "Taliban, fatwas, suicide bombers, Intifada, disputes over water rights, OPEC meetings, demonstrations, arrests and executions." Few images are allowed to muddy the prevailing rhetorical division into villains and victims; tyrannical bearded theocrats or tragically bombed babies.

Ten years have passed since the publication of Robert Irwin's exhilaratingly learned and warmly reviewed The Arabian Nights: A Companion (recently reissued, with a new introduction). It would be a wide-eyed Polyanna indeed who would claim that they have been a happy decade for relations between the Arab world and the West. More than ever, the image of the Middle East conveyed even by our more responsible media is compounded almost wholly - as Irwin ruefully puts it in the updated edition - of "Taliban, fatwas, suicide bombers, Intifada, disputes over water rights, OPEC meetings, demonstrations, arrests and executions." Few images are allowed to muddy the prevailing rhetorical division into villains and victims; tyrannical bearded theocrats or tragically bombed babies.

For all the oppressive gloom, though, there are, as it were, a few silver particles in the air, and one of them is a growing appetite in the West - in Britain, anyway - for a broader and more sympathetic view of the Islamic world and its pre-history. Those of us not yet mentally signed up for a new crusade appear encouragingly keen to learn more about the complexities of our reputed Enemy; and, as Irwin will happily admit, his career as a scholar of the Islamic world is being boosted nicely by this wave of interest in all things Arabian. His recent study of The Alhambra (Profile Books), for example, sold out its first imprint within weeks, and is soon to be showcased on both radio and television. And the reissue of The Arabian Nights: A Companion is being accompanied by a prominent five-part series, A Thousand and One, on Radio 4.

One thing that both book and radio series help demonstrate is how curiously familiar the strange can be, and how deeply the formulaic exotica of the Arabian Nights tales have entered Western culture. The first programme begins, piquantly, with the noise of a pinball game. Irwin, while studying at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, developed an addition to the game at the same time he was learning the minutiae of medieval Arabic legal documents, and is an afficionado of the veteran Williams pinball machine entitled Tales of the Arabian Nights. This fine old game is covered with lurid paintings of scenes that have long beguiled European fancy: "the Roc's giant egg, harem girls in diaphanous trousers, hook-nosed men wielding scimitars, genies, minarets, the Cylops ..."

Corny they may be, but such pictures rival, and probably even exceed, scenes from Shakespeare or Homer in conveying an immediate shock of recognition, and they do so as effectively for those of us - the vast majority? - who have never perused so much of a page of the real thing, in any of its standard translations, as for those who keep it by their bedside. (Jorge Luis Borges once remarked of the Nights that "It is a book so vast that it is not necessary to have read it" - though he did read it, and was enduringly affected by the reading.)

As Irwin points out, the Arabian Nights is in at least one respect comparable to that other well-known miscellany of stories from the Middle East, the Bible, since it has an audience far greater than its actual readership. Perhaps only the more literate now think of Scheherzade, fending off her sentence of death for a thousand and one nights by her narratuve skills, but consider: Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and his Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves ... they are surely the peers of Snow White and Pinocchio and Hercules, and, like those European immortals, some of them have helped swell the coffers of the Disney empire.

Nor is the enduring presence of the Nights purely a matter of mass culture, of pinball and pantomime. Voltaire claimed to have read the stories fourteen times, and plundered them freely for his fictions; Horace Walpole said "Read Sinbad and you will be sick of Aeneas"; Coleridge, who claimed to have read the tales aged six, was scared out of his wits by some of them, as was De Quincey; Wordsworth, Tennyson and Dickens all treasured the memory of their childhod encounters with Araby, and Dickens has the repentant Scrooge ecstatic at the thought of "dear old honest Ali Baba"; Gibbon's warm sympathy for the court of the Abassids in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a direct consequence of his childhood passion for the Nights.

Robert Louis Stevenson produced a New Arabian Nights for his age; in America, both Poe and Melville were obsessed by "Arabesque" motifs ... and so the Scheherazade trail goes on, via Proust and Joyce and Borges and others to Salman Rushdie, who picked the Nights as his Desert Island book, and who drew on the tales in Midnight's Children, The Satanic Verses and elsewhere. Incidentally, two very recent works of fiction are directly inspired by Irwin's Companion: A S Byatt's The Djinn and the Nightingale's Eye and Anthony O'Neill's Scheherazade.

This list barely begins to evoke at the pervasiveness of the tales in the Western literature of the past three centuries, and recklessly skims over their abundant recreations in films (Pasolini, Michael Powell), music, theatre and the visual arts. How did this benign invasion come about? A vast question, which takes Robert Irwin well over 300 pages to answer (and then, as he freely concedes, only in part). One quick answer lies in the nursery. Duly, and sometimes dully, chopped up, boiled down and rendered free of nasty toxins (including lashings of sexual activity, horrifying violence and a portrait of the medieval Arabic criminal underworld to rival anything in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature), expurgated versions of the Nights were considered highly suitable for young minds, which - kindly adults were beginning to agree - thrived best on a diet of fantasy and marvels. So, like Gulliver's Travels or Robinson Crusoe, narratives originally meant for grown-ups became an imaginative staple for children. And few things - intellectuals were also beginning to agree - tell so deeply in the work of mature artists as the experiences of their early years.

For curious adults, the story of this European transmission and dilution is as absorbing as any of the yarns spun by Scheherazade. It has its origins in France, with Antoine Galland (1646-1715), the first European translator of the Nights. Galland's edition, published between 1704 and 1717, proved immensely popular. There are some curiosities to the work, since Arabic versions of some tales only showed up after Galland's translation had been in print for a while - which hints that they might have been translated into Arabic from French, which means ... well, no wonder Borges liked the tales so much.

Scrappy English versions soon followed, with the earliest bootleg of Galland popping up in 1708, but it was a full century before Jonathan Scott came up with the earliest properly literary avatar, his Arabian Nights Entertainments (1811). It was Scott's translation which launched a thousand and one children's editions. In his wake, and driven in part by the growth of Orientalism as a useful and well-funded discipline for the world's greatest empire, the principal translations were all made directly from newly collated and published sources: Edward Lane in 1838-41, John Payne in 1882-84, and Sir Richard Burton, in ten volumes, published from 1885 to 1888 - published in Benares, according to the title page, but actually in Stoke Newington. The qualities of the competing editions were crisply summed up by the Edinburgh Review: "Galland is for the nursery, Lane is for the library, Payne for the study and Burton for the sewers."

So, which version to read in the 21st century, if not one of the above? The usually admirable Penguin Classics have, till now, let down the public, since their current Nights is (or so Irwin sniffs) "potted and dull". No, Irwin is unequivocal on the point: for the time being, there is simply no rival for the translation by Husain Haddawy, and published in two volumes by Everyman's Library, the first volume containing the first 270-odd of the key stories, and the second volume including those stories (Sinbad, Aladdin) which do not occur in the earliest known manuscripts, but are understandably desired by modern readers.

That's the policy for 2004. The encouraging news, however, is that Dr Malcolm Lyons of Cambridge University has undertaken the first major English translation of the complete Nights since Burton. This ought to be in print by Penguin some time in 2005 or 2006, and Irwin will be providing the introduction. Nor is this the only major new development in the offing. The final programme of the Radio 4 series includes a scoop - a startling discovery in the field of Nights studies. I am sworn to secrecy as to the exact detail, on pains of having my tongue torn from my throat and thrown from the nearest minaret, but let us just say that it is the kind of thing which should keep scholars happily busy for the next century ... assuming that our two cultures survive the years of the New Crusades.

A humble thought: might a renewed respect for Scheherazade's tales, in both camps, play its modest part in a move away from lethal conflict? Plainly, this is a fanciful idea. Set against current Middle Eastern politics and global realpolitik , there's little that well-intentioned literati can hope to achieve. And yet ... as the remarkable French thinker Charles Peguy once pointed out, the origins of politics lie in sentiment and belief. At the very least, the Arabian Nights can remind readers in the West that there was a time when we looked to the East for "enchantment, romance and mystery", instead of with anger and dread.

And in the Islamic countries, some of which have been known to ban the Nights for immorality, unprejudiced readers might rediscover in the classic anthology a multiple portrait of what Irwin calls a "confident, tolerant and pluralist" medieval Muslim culture in which the Jew and the Christian are welcome inhabitants, very different from the absolutisms of our own time. At the very least, there is a potent symbolism here in the framing tale of Scheherazade: as long as someone is telling a story, and someone else is listening, death is kept at bay.

'The Arabian Nights: A Companion' by Robert Irwin is published by I B Tauris at £9.99. 'A Thousand and One' can be heard daily on BBC Radio 4 from 17 to 21 May at 3.45pm

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