As the Egyptian novelist Gamal al Ghitany faces charges of distributing 'obscene materials' for republishing one of the great works of Middle Eastern literature, Ursula Lindsey examines the troubled history of these opaque and entrancing stories. In April, a group of Egyptian lawyers sued the novelist Gamal al Ghitany for publishing obscene materials. Al Ghitany is the editor of the literary magazine Akhbar al Adab and has recently taken over the government-printed literary series Al-Dakhaa'ir (Treasures). One of his first decisions there was to put out an edition of The Thousand and One Nights. The lawyers and their supporters argue that the classic medieval story collection is offensive trash, and are indignant that government funds were used to publish it. Al Ghitany defends the Nights as "one of the greatest human creations".
This battle over Nights is a recurring one in Egypt's culture wars, which pit conservative religious groups against writers and intellectuals (with the state acting as a cynical and unpredictable referee); previous attempts to ban the stories in 1985 and 1998 met with little success. The work - which in the West lives solidly ensconced in its reputation and influence, inspiring children's tales and novels, fashion crazes and dissertations - still ekes out a marginal existence in the Arab world, somewhere on the edges of both literature and propriety.
Most everyone is familiar with Nights' brilliant framing device, in which the sultan Shahryar, cuckolded by his wife, resolves to take a virgin to bed each night and put her to death every morning. When the Sultan runs out of virgins, Scheherazade, the vizier's daughter, offers herself. She survives the 1,001 nights of the title - by the end of which she has borne the king three sons, and earned his pardon - by telling him mesmerising stories, cleverly left unfinished every sunrise, and full of suspenseful tales-within-a-tale.
Yet no one knows when and how the Nights came into being. Scholars believe the oldest stories originated in India and Persia, and were probably translated into Arabic in the 10th century. As the collection travelled from Baghdad to Damascus to Cairo, tales were added or tweaked, to feature those locales and appeal to the audiences there. The Thousand and One Nights that we know today is in large part the product of medieval Cairo. Jorge Luis Borges - a great admirer - described it archly as "an adaptation of ancient stories to the lowbrow and ribald tastes of the Cairo middle class". As such, the stories are not lacking in explicit content. "Sexual themes - incest, adultery, sadism and so on - are pervasive in the Nights," writes Robert Irwin in his excellent, lively book The Arabian Nights: A Companion.
The early translators of the Nights had to figure out how to tackle the stories' frank sexuality - and did so in quite different ways. In 1707, the scholar and explorer Antoine Galland sat down to translate a 14th-century Syrian manuscript into French. The collection of stories he produced was immensely popular, inspiring an Oriental craze across Europe. The sexual situations in the Nights were often given a veneer of refinement by Galland. They were expurgated, with Victorian stringency, by the Arabist Edward Lane, who first translated the work into English in 1840. Whole stories - those, Lane lamented, that "cannot be purified" - were simply cut.
Lane's prissiness incensed the daredevil explorer and writer Richard Burton - famous for entering the Kaaba disguised as a Muslim and accidentally discovering Lake Tanganyika on a trip to find the source of the Nile. In his 1885 translation, Burton purposefully played up the lewd and the outré. He also provided copious notes that delved into - among the many far-ranging topics of interest to him - the sexual habits and proclivities of Arabs.
The early translators of the Nights, in other words, took enormous liberties, editing and embellishing, adding stories from other sources or their own imagination (some of the most famous stories, like Aladdin or Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, were never part of the original collection), vituperating earlier translators and sometimes backing up their own versions with forgeries. Then again, these faithless translators were true to the tradition of the Nights - the most mobile and malleable of texts, open to endless manipulation. Today's translators take a more staid approach, whether in the excellent, annotated Pléiade edition; Husain Haddawy's translation of a reconstructed medieval manuscript; or the beautiful, three-volume edition released by Penguin Classics in 2008.
The fantastical vistas opened by Nights have a great impact on European writers of the time; its complex, fluid structure - with chains of endless stories nestled one inside the other - has continued to inspire writers from Salman Rushdie to David Grossman to Italo Calvino. So greatly was the Nights shaped by its discovery in the West, and so influential there, that some suggest it should be considered primarily as a work of European literature.
For modern readers in the Middle East, certainly, Nights doesn't provide the exoticism nor the promise of anthropological insight it once held for Western readers. In fact, the first print edition in the Arab world - the Bulaq edition, printed in Cairo in 1835 - probably came about in part because of European interest (and may have contained European additions, back-translated into Arabic). This is the text that al Ghitany recently reprinted.
Writing in Akhbar al Adab, al Ghitany - much of whose fiction is set in medieval Cairo, where storytellers may have recited the Nights to café crowds - notes that the collection is "a foundling with no lineage," the product of an oral folklore tradition, and has always been looked down upon by Arab intellectuals. According to al Ghitany, a change in attitude towards the Nights began in the 1930s, when the great writer Taha Hussein encouraged his students at Cairo University to study it seriously. The first scholarly Arabic edition of the Nights wasn't published - amazingly - until 1984, but the work has been an influence on many Arab writers, from al Ghitany himself and Naguib Mahfouz to the Lebanese author Elias Khoury (whose protagonist, in The Gate of the Sun, tells endless stories to a man in a coma, hoping to bring him back to life).
Al Ghitany first read the Nights when he was 10, at a time when cheap, popular editions of the book were easy to find. Now, he told me, it has practically disappeared from the Egyptian book market, the victim of neglect, prudishness and the threat of censorship. So the novelist's decision to publish the Nights - at the affordable, government-subsidised price of 12 Egyptian pounds (Dh8) - is a challenge to Islamist attempts to scrub popular culture clean, and an attempt to reclaim the work as an important element in Arab literary heritage.
Borges called the Nights -affectionately -the "pulp fiction of the 13th century". Even if that was all it was, it would make the stories a precious socio-historical document. But the Nights is so much more than the sum of its (multitudinous) parts. The Nights grew organically from the imaginative accretions of 10 centuries, the collective fantasies of continents. It's small wonder there's sex in the Nights - there's everything in it. It has the depth, complexity, contradictions, surprises, repetitions, lulls, lack of logic, symmetries and accidental poetry of life. Scheherazade and many other characters in the Nights tell stories to stave off death, and it was a common superstition in Arab countries that anyone who finished reading the book would die. The Nights makes storytelling the engine and the essence of life, and also reminds us that our stories are our lives, both of which (no matter how many rambling detours they take) must one day come to an end.
Many believe the goal of the case against al Ghitany is to embarrass the government and intimidate secular intellectuals - to use this book (as others have been used) as a pretext for another moral campaign. At the same time, the Nights are subversive in a way that may genuinely rankle. It's no surprise that bigots, ideologues and literary purists would have problems with this mass of stories, of obscure provenance and dubious intent - stories in which profanity rubs against piety, eloquence against vulgarity, and the moral is often anyone's guess.
For centuries, writes al Ghitany, the Nights "expressed what was not spoken in official, sanctioned literature. I don't mean sex - for all the Arab literary texts by the great authors contain a treatment of sexual matters that no Arab writer dares to embark upon today - but the Nights expressed the repressed collective consciousness since their author is unknown, the Nights achieve storytelling freedom - for who can be held accountable here?"
Of course it's al Ghitany himself who some in Egypt would like to hold accountable. He faces up to two years in jail in the - one hopes, rather unlikely - event that he is found guilty of the crime of publishing material "offensive to public decency". If he was a character in the Nights, he would baffle his adversaries with a wonderful tale, talk his way out of his predicament. But in Egypt today, too many stories that need to be told are hushed up and frowned upon.
Ursula Lindsey, a regular contributor to The Review, lives in Cairo