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rThe everlasting story behind the tyrannical King Shahryar, who condemns all women for faithfulness, and the Persian queen Scheherazade, who tells her stories to the king, carries into today.
rThe everlasting story behind the tyrannical King Shahryar, who condemns all women for faithfulness, and the Persian queen Scheherazade, who tells her stories to the king, carries into today.

Nights to remember

The novelist Maria Waner takes us on a magic carpet ride through the myths and legends of old Arabia in preparation for a conference on that same topic.

"I feel, personally," says the scholar and novelist Marina Warner carefully, "that it's in some sense sort of prophetic. Prophetic beyond just the reach of fiction. It really did envisage some aspects of the modern world." The "it" in question is The Thousand and One Nights, the ancient and anonymous story-cycle also known as the Arabian Nights, which introduced the world to Aladdin and Ali Baba (not that either of them were originally part of the sequence - but that's another story).

Warner, the nearest thing Britain has to a celebrity mythographer, a reputation established over dozens of books and cemented last year with a CBE, is in Abu Dhabi this week for a conference to discuss how these medieval Persian and Arabic fables have shaped the modern world. And, true to the impish spirit of the tales themselves, she has some provocative ideas. "I think the present financial crisis is rather interestingly depicted in an enchanted form," she says dryly, "with money coming out of nowhere and also vanishing into nowhere... The virtuality of contemporary systems certainly seems to me to have found a way of being told in the Arabian Nights."

That kind of satirical swipe would fit neatly in a world where the tyrannical King Shahryar condemns all women for faithlessness and the story-teller Scheherazade must buy back her life at the cost of one fanciful cliff-hanger a night. "That's a kind of allegory of general abuses of power," says Warner, "so there's an exemplary side to the book. It is sort of philosophical in that sense." And as far as that fairy gold goes, perhaps cautionary for us as well. Warner chuckles. "Unconsciously - it doesn't have to be conscious."

The strange thing about Nights' impact, at least as Warner tells it, is just how unconscious we now seem to be of it. "How many European fairy tales have people flying in them?" Warner asks. "They're all post-Nights... It's not very common to fly around before that. Cinderella doesn't fly, she gets into a magic coach." Now, of course, characters take to the air throughout western fantasy entertainment. As Warner says: "The cinema just took to that, because you can do it ... It's an absolute commonplace of films that are targeted for the family entertainment audience." And the silver screen isn't the only place the Nights cast their shadow.

The three-day public conference at NYU Abu Dhabi's new Downtown Campus this week will include papers on the Arabian Nights on stage, in film and in music. It traces their influence on Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne and Walt Disney. Writers including Elias Khoury, Gamal el-Ghitani and Githa Hariharan, the filmmaker Nacer Khemir and the theatre director Tim Supple will be on hand to talk about how the stories are reflected in their work.

The Nights are everywhere, and all the harder to detect because of their ubiquity. "It becomes so natural and so accepted that it's really almost become invisible," Warner says. It is not only in the West that the books have managed to inveigle themselves, either. In the late 19th-century there was an Arabian Nights craze in Japan. "They did a marvelous knight's move," says Warner. "They went through Middle Eastern orientalism to create their own Japanese orientalism. Just an anecdote, but apparently every wedding in Japan has to have a picture of a camel in the background, even though the camel is unknown in Japan."

Goodness, I reply, I'd never heard that before. Warner seems doubtful for a moment. "I don't know if everybody does," she says. "It might be beyond the reach of some purses." Warner's own area of expertise is magical tales, and it's as a repository of magical tropes and atmospheres that she seems to find the book most interesting. What, I ask her, do the Nights give us that can't be found in European traditions - the legends of King Arthur, say?

"People keep asking me what the differences are," she says with a sigh. "One of the biggest differences is that the Arthurian romance takes place sort of in the countryside. Forests, lakes - rather obviously that geography doesn't materialise in the Arabian Nights very much." Instead the Arabian Nights, for all its enchanted oases and fables about animals, is fundamentally about the city. "It's not pastoral at all," Warner says. "The real flavour of the Nights is an urban one.

"And it's more modern ... It's about consumerism, markets, trading, objects, manufactures, souks, vessels. It's not about swords and knights. It's sort of bourgeois and mercantile. And that's a different character." She laughs. "When an enchanted palace appears in an Arabian Night, it's sort of full of goods. It's like an emporium!" Emporium or not, the book itself is certainly a treasure trove, though what it actually contains is harder to determine than you might think.

The earliest fragment of manuscript was found in Syria and dates from around 800 AD. The largest, and the one which ultimately made its way to Europe, was made 500 years later and contained around 300 stories. That's the one the French Arabist Antoine Galland found in the early 18th century; he put out his own translation in French, and anonymous Grub Street hacks followed it in 1706 with a much-abridged first English translation. It was an instant hit.

"It had an absolutely amazing effect on writing," Warner says. "Once you start looking at it, you can't believe it. So many people suddenly realise there's a way of writing things they wanted to write ... There was a huge a number of forms and devices found in the Arabian Nights that freed the tongues of people." Further important translations followed - a prudish one from Edward Lane that left out all the naughty bits, and a lubricious one from Sir Richard Burton that multiplied them. That kind of editorial meddling seems to have typified the way the Nights were treated, even before they made their way into English.

"The general view I think now is, let's treat this as a collective work," says Warner. "It in a sense is a woven tapestry of different voices, different hands, over time. "[Jorge Luis] Borges wrote a marvelous essay called The Translators of the Nights in which he makes this point, that this is a book that grows, this is like a garden. You don't want to take the garden back to the day it was planted; it would look like very little then."

For one thing, it wouldn't include Aladdin: though apparently of Middle Eastern origin, the tale of his magic lamp, not to mention that of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, were all European interpolations, included to bump up the numbers. Such is the variety of the tales that do belong to the Nights, however, that odd men out like these would be difficult to spot.

Scheherezade's stories include prototypes of the murder mystery and the sci-fi adventure. There are interplanetary voyages, under-sea worlds and a surprising number of robots. Coincidence reigns and the laws of time and space are put aside. Indeed it was just this sort of anarchic fancifulness that made the Arabian Nights so appealing to the great 18th-century European satirists. As Warner explains, the likes of Voltaire and Jonathan Swift realised "if they made them fantastic, if they made them preposterous, if they put in this kind of humour, this wit and lightness and romance, and mixed it all together with terror and magic, it freed people to write. And of course it also eluded the censors ..." Well, for a while.

Nevertheless, the likes of Gulliver's Travels and Candide, were funhouse mirrors held up to European society, their bulges and hollows modelled on the Middle Eastern tales. "There's a paradox," says Warner, "because in a sense there's a mockery of the forms of the Nights. There's a mockery in Voltaire of the preposterousness and the coincidences, and the wife who dies several times and keeps recovering and being rediscovered, all these sorts of devices and untoward events. But at the same time they needed it." The more outrageous Voltaire made his tales, the better he could hide his serious purpose.

And do we need the Arabian Nights today? Its influence rises and falls with the generations. As Warner says: "It's a pulse, the use of the Nights. At the moment it isn't a particular influence. But it has been in the past." She recalls the most recent peak. "The Sixties and Seventies, my youth, when I of course wore kaftans and so did my boyfriend. But that isn't so salient now." Still, if the Arabian Nights teach anything, it's that there is always another lease of life to be found in its stories.

The Arabian Nights conference runs at NYU Abu Dhabi's Downtown Campus from tomorrow until Thursday. RSVP nyuad@nyu.edu.

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