John Walsh: This genie won't go back into the lamp

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The Independent Online

A group of Islamic lawyers has called for the banning of The Arabian Nights, on grounds of obscenity. Lawyers Without Shackles, as they call themselves – a revealingly self-aggrandising name for a bunch of querulous, legalistic bed-wetters – were upset when Egypt's state-sponsored publisher, General Organisation Cultures Palaces (GOCP), republished the classic work, and they've filed a complaint with the prosecutor general. "I was shocked at the offensive phrases it contains," said one chap, about a poem in which a nymphomaniacal woman challenges Muslim men to fulfil her insatiable sexual needs. Yeesh, said Ayman Abdel Hakeem, "We understand that this kind of literature is acceptable in the West, but here we have a different culture and different religion."

Oh no you don't, Ayman, is I'm afraid the only response. The stories in One Thousand and One Nights, to use its proper title, may derive from Middle Eastern, South Asian and North African sources across 500 years, but they were all invented during the Islamic Golden Age (mid-8th to mid-13th centuries.) They are the million-petalled finest flower of Islamic culture, and, since their English-language debut in 1706, the first introduction of generations of Western schoolchildren to the Eastern mind. The children might have balked at the idea that, in Islamic circles, Eastern kings thought nothing of taking a different virgin to bed every night and killing her in the morning, but they would surely have admired Scheherazade's enterprise in telling the king stories without reaching the end, to guarantee she wasn't killed herself.

You can see, though, what might have upset the Unshackled Ones. The Nights aren't all brave, adventuring (Sinbad) and exotic crime-fighting (Ali Baba); they're often fantastically obscene, especially in the 1885 translations by Sir Richard Burton, who helpfully supplied extensive footnotes to the action. For every elevated tale of oriental romance, you get some knees-up vulgarity: "Wardan the Butcher's Adventure With the Lady and the Bear," for instance, or "Harun Al-Rashid and the Two Slave-Girls," or the subtly titled "Ali with the Large Member." We can imagine Ayman and his friends throwing up their hands in horror to think the people in such stories, presumably good Muslims, could do such things and say such things, and that a scribe should write them down. We are not like that, they cry, forgetting the fact that all mankind is like that, whatever its beliefs.

It's interesting to reflect that the Shackle-free Lawyers had their predecessors 1,000 years ago. A 10th-century bookseller called Ibn al-Nadim referred to Nights as "coarse" while his contemporary, the sage Masudi, condemned it as "full of untrue stories". But then, Islam was never happy with fiction. I remember, at the height of the Rushdie fatwah, talking to a Muslim scholar about the contentious passages in The Satanic Verses. Did he not see, I asked, that the characters (including one called Salman) were made-up, invented constructs who had no existence or power outside the pages of a fiction? "We are not interested in your excuses about what is made up or not," he replied. "The quality of the insult is all that matters." The Lawyers Without Shackles feel similarly insulted by the inventions of their ancestors. But I'm afraid their attempts to ban the gorgeous, vivid storytelling tradition of the Islamic Golden Age is just trying to jam the pesky genie back in the lamp.

Insightful remarks give birth to a new word

How easily words can be forced into new meanings. On Radio 4's Today programme, I listened as a government commentator talked about the loathsome remarks in praise of Raoul Moat that have appeared on Facebook and elsewhere. Not only were they creepy and immoral, he said (I paraphrase) they were "insightful." What? I thought the guy was saying how bad they were. What kind of insights did he think they offered? A moment later, all was clear. "They are inciting people to kill the police." And so the word inciteful is born. It will become common currency in a year, and us radio listeners will strive in the future to work out what on earth is being said...

Woods's putter goes the way of his partner

There's ordinary news, there's hot news and then there's the news that Tiger Woods has changed his putter. Could you believe your ears? The great golfer has only gone and changed his putter for the first time in 11 years. Since 1999, he's used a Scott Cameron putter (and won 13 majors with it) but now he's switched to a Nike. This is scarcely credible. Future generations of children will gaze wonderingly in your eyes and ask: "Granddad, do you remember where you were when you heard about Tiger Woods changing his putter?" Apparently he finds Nike's new "groove technology" makes you putt better when you're faced with a lower "stimp reading" than usual. But of course that's just an excuse. Woods just felt like trying something new and wickedly different. "I have always been tempted to change my putter on slower greens," he shamelessly admitted on Wednesday. "I've always experimented with other putters throughout the years, but I've never put one in play until now."

I'll bet you have, you faithless swine, deserting your poor faithful old club after a decade of clutching her in your uncaring hands, tossing her aside for some flash new model with peculiar bends and curves, and pronouncing yourself "happy" with her new grooves. But it's hardly surprising Tiger has mixed feelings about his old putter. He's probably still trying to erase from his memory the sight of his wife whacking the hell out of his car with it.

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