As popular as they have been in the Western world, The Thousand and One Nights as a piece of literature has never been regarded very well in the Arab world. Written in its highly colloquial, easily read style, this huge compendium of bawdy tales, adventure stories, romantic sagas, jokes, et al. has often been dismissed as a collection of simple folk tales when compared to the high art of Arabian Classical literature.
Oh, but what folk tales these are. These stories exist in the world of evil jinni, capricious sultans, beautiful sorceresses, and that magnificent giant bird called the roc. But, among these magical and romantic images, this world also contains cross-dressing heroes, chess-playing apes, insane fishermen, and historic farts. In the universe of these stories, hidden doorways in the ground are commonplace; and, down in the dungeons below, one might find great treasure, the true love of one’s life, punishment from Allah, or all three at once. In this world, it seems that, if you are a king, you are more likely to end your days as a half-blind beggar; if you are a povertous young ruffian, you may end your days as a king. And, if you’re a fisherman, whatever you do, do not listen to the advice of any talking apes!
As the author of the preface to this edition writes, each of these stories is a masterpiece of the art of story-telling. From the complex and hilarious story-within-a-story-within-a-story farce of “The Tale of the Hunchback” to the high adventure local-boy-does-good story of “Alladin and the Enchanted Lamp,” we are treated to tale-weaving at its best.
My personal favorite was “Sindbad the Sailor and Sindbad the Porter,” wherein very rich Sindbad the sailor hosts a nightly dinner for the very poor Sindbad the Porter and each night tells the story of one of his voyages. There is melancholic feeling, that is brought out in each of Sindbad’s adventures. When he tries to settle down in Baghdad, he just can’t stay still for long and soon finds himself yearning for the adventuresome life. But, each time he goes on a new voyage, he finds only danger and the deaths of his companions. And now, at time of the telling of his tales, the sailor is too old to continue his adventures, even though there is clearly that wanderlust gleam in his eye still.
The backdrop of The Thousand and One Nights is the unbelievably violent prologue story of the Kings and brothers Shahriyar and Shahzaman. Shahriyar, finding that his wife has been unfaithful to him, kills her and visits his brother Shahzaman, only to find that his wife is as unfaithful. After killing her, they roam the world and find that the wife of every king they meet is equally as unfaithful. Upon his return to his own kingdom, Shahriyar marries a virgin every night and then kills her the next morning. Finally, he marries a very clever woman Shahrazad (also known in the Western World as Sheherezade) who figures out that, if she tells him an entertaining story every night, he will delay killing her the next morning.
N. J. Dawood has translated the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights into an extremely easily-read format, apparently reflecting the every-day language in its original Arabic setting. In fact, any 12-year-old child could easily read this translation and enjoy it. Not that you’d want your 12-year-old child reading it: the various authors of these stories seemed to have been absolutely fascinated with infidelity, decapitations and gratuitous sex and violence, in general (Well, come to think of it, this is normal everyday stuff for any American 12-year-old).
This particular edition is abridged, and Dawood has selected what he considers the best and most accessible of the tales. It is a very nice format, since he alternates the stories from short to long, so that in between the long almost novella-length epics like “Alladin and the Enchanted Lamp” and “Sindbad the Sailor and Sindbad the Porter,” we get little humorous stories, such as “The Young Woman and her Five Lovers” and “The Tale of Kafur the Black Eunuch.”
I highly recommend this unbelievably entertaining collection of stories. It offers a peek into a world, similar enough to that of our own fantasy literature to be accessible, but just different enough to add a refreshing feeling of exoticism.
(Penguin Classics, 1973)