Sindbad and the sinking island

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The winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Award for March/ April is Arabian Nights and Days by the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz translated by Denys Johnson-Davies (Doubleday, £15.99). Set in an Islamic city during the Middle Ages, the novel describes corruption among the ruling classes and chronicles the underground activities of a number of religious sects opposed to the rgime. It combines political insight - the sects could be identified with modern-day fundamentalists - with the colourful use of fairytale motifs, including a genie in a bottle. The judges this time were Blake Morrison, Penelope Fitzgerald, Michle Roberts and Gilbert Adair.

One day Ma'rouf the governor of the quarter asked him to pay a visit.

''Rejoice, Sindbad, for His Majesty the Sultan Shahriyar wishes to see you.''

Sindbad was delighted and went off immediately to the palace in the company of the chief of police, Abdullah al-Aqil. As he presented himself before the sultan only at the beginning of the night, they took him to the garden. There he was shown to a seat in profound darkness, while the breaths of spring brought to the depths of his being a blending of the perfumes of flowers under a ceiling that sparkled with stars. The sultan talked gently, so he was put at ease and his sense of awe was replaced by feelings of love and intimacy. Shahriyar asked him about his original occupation, about sciences he had acquired, and about what it was that had caused him to resolve to travel. Sindbad answered with appropriate brevity, frankly and truthfully.

''People have told me of your travels, '' said Shahriyar, ''and I would like to hear from you what you learned from them, whether you have gained from them any useful knowledge - but don't repeat anything unless it is necessary.''

Sindbad thought for a time, then said, ''It is of God that one seeks help, Your Majesty.''

''I am listening to you, Sindbad.''

He filled his lungs with the delightful fragrance, then began:

''The first thing I have learned, Your Majesty, is that man may be deceived by illusion so that he thinks it is the truth, and that there is no safety for us unless we dwell on solid land. Thus when our ship sank on our first journey, I swam, clinging to a piece of wood until I reached a black island. I and those with me thanked God and we set off wandering about all over it searching for fruit. When we found none, we gathered together on the shore , with our hopes set upon a ship that might be passing by. All of a sudden someone shouted, 'The earth is moving'.

''We looked and found that we were being shaken by the ground. We were overcome with terror. The another man called out, 'The earth is sinking!'

''It was indeed submerging into the water. So I threw myself into the sea. It then became apparent to us that what we had thought was land was in fact nothing but the back of a large whale which had been disturbed by our moving about on top of it and was taking itself off to its own world in stately fashion.

''I swam off, giving myself up to the fate until my hands struck against some rocks and from these I crawled to a real island on which there was water and much fruit. I lived there for a time until a ship passed by and rescued me.''

''And how do you make a distinction between illusion and truth?'' inquired the sultan.

''We must use such senses and intelligence as God has given us,'' he answered after some hesitation.