Wafa' Tarnowska's elegant stories reimagine old tales and present a fresh alternative to negative stereotyping of Arab women.
Arabian Nights: a new take on Arab classics
"One starry night, as Shahrazade was listening to the glorious warbling of a bulbul bird, Shahriyar called out: 'Shahrazade, what's the matter with you tonight - why are you late with my story?'
"'I am listening to the song of the bulbul,' she answered. 'You should listen too, or you may not enjoy the story I am about to tell you ...'"
Some stories never die. They are revisited and revised by each generation and reappear in book form, film, animation and theatre. One such example is the timeless Alf Layla Wa Layla (commonly known in English as A Thousand and One Nights) as told by the enchanting Shahrazade, who saved her own life and changed ours by using her storytelling gifts.
Wafa' Tarnowska, who has adapted the original stories in Arabian Nights, her latest book, says that "Shahrazade saves the lives of all the women in the kingdom through intelligent and timely storytelling. She also changes the heart and mind of a very bitter man, making him a good king."
These old stories of obscure origin relate the tale of a Persian king who, after being betrayed by his former wife, would marry a new bride every day and have her killed the following morning to avoid being humiliated ever again by his wife's infidelity. But when he marries Shahrazade she keeps postponing her own death by telling him an enchanting, never-ending story each evening. This went on for 1,001 nights.
"Arabian Nights is one of the most precious and unique collections of stories that were given by the Arabs to the West," says Tarnowska, who is from Lebanon and is married to the author Andrew Tarnowski.
First published in English in 1706 as The Arabian Nights' Entertainment and later known simply as the Arabian Nights, they are a collection of West and South Asian tales dating back to the 9th century that were compiled during the Islamic Golden Age.
Derived from tales from a 14th-century Syrian manuscript, eight of the stories were published in English in a 128-page volume by Barefoot Books and in French by Gautier-Languereau in 2010. It was then published in Arabic this year by Kalimat, the UAE-based publisher.
The publishers also included the famous story of Aladdin, which did not appear in the original manuscript, having been added by Antoine Galland, the first translator of Arabian Nights, into French in the early 1700s.
"In fact, there are no Arabic manuscripts of Aladdin and Ali Baba. I included Aladdin because we wanted a well-known story to attract readers and because I love the character of the genie living in the lamp. I remember my grandmother saying in a frightening voice: 'Shabbayk, Labbayk, abdak bayn yadayk' (I am the slave of the lamp and your wish is my command!) for I have always loved the uniquely memorable rhyming words of this sentence," she says.
It is not just Arabian Nights that continues to attract readers. The fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Aesop's Fables and, to a lesser extent, the stories of Kalilah and Dimnah are constantly being reprinted.
Tarnowska says her version is different because she deliberately chose lesser-known stories and ones that portrayed female characters in a positive light.
"My stories show women that are clever, beautiful, helpful and wise - not just liars and cheats like King Shahriyar thought they were," she says.
The story Three Sisters, for instance, follows the life of a shah called Khusrau who marries the youngest of three sisters after overhearing their conversation while he is in disguise. The two older sisters' jealousy leads them to scheme and plot against their little sister: "One day while the shah was out hunting, his wife gave birth to a beautiful little boy.
"Exhausted by the birth, she summoned her older sisters for help. But they did a very evil thing - they took the baby away, wrapped him in a blanket, placed him in a basket and let it float downriver. When the queen awoke, she found a little puppy sleeping in her bed. 'Look at what our queen has given birth to!' says her sisters, pretending to be astonished."
Full of twists and magic, the hero of the tale is Feyrouz, the daughter of the shah, who ends up saving her two brothers and getting "a speaking bird, a singing tree and golden water" that will transform their garden and their lives.
"I was trying to present an alternative to the negative stereotyping of Arab women in the media and present to young people a different image of Arab women where they were heroines and leaders rather than passive and weak, where they were wise and clever rather than foolish and wasteful, where they rescued their menfolk when they were in trouble," says the author.
It is this special focus on witty and confident women and the style of writing that attracted the UAE publisher Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, the founder of Kalimat Publishing.
"It's one of the few books Kalimat has translated, as we focus mainly on home-grown books and nurturing Arab writers and illustrators by working exclusively with them," says Sheikha Bodour, who is also the president of the Emirates Publishers Association.
"What made this book stand out was the beautiful and eloquent writing of Wafa' Tarnowska … and the beautiful illustrations by the French artist Carole Henaff. Her warm, exotic style worked perfectly with the stories," she says.
Besides Arabian Nights, Kalimat has published a whole collection of traditional Emirati folk tales that have everything from mischievous jinn to magical animals.
But there remains something special about One Thousand and One Nights.
"Arabian Nights is really an exceptional piece of work," says Sheikha Bodour. "I believe the appeal of these stories is that they encompass something for everyone. Firstly, there are many stories within the story, so we are introduced to many characters throughout the narrative. The change in setting and characters keeps the reader enthralled and entertained. Then each story ends with a cliffhanger, leaving the reader anticipating the next event. Finally, it embodies different genres of literature in one book, romance, fantasy, adventure and horror. So, essentially, there is something for everyone."
A fan of the stories herself, Sheikha Bodour adds: "I particularly like the story of Princess Bodour in Arabian Nights, my namesake. She has many qualities that I aspire to have and she comes across brave, strong and very ambitious."
The One Thousand and One Nights stories have inspired many authors to reconnect with their childhood. One such author is AbdulAziz Al Musallam, who in recent years became the UAE's "fairy-tale man", thanks to these stories and the adventures of a particular character from the collection - Sinbad the sailor.
"These stories let us dream, they let us travel around the world through their wit and imagination," says Al Musallam, an Emirati who has published several books on UAE fairy tales, as well as a series of books inspired by Sinbad's travels called Madaen Al Reyh (City of Winds).
Many believe Sinbad is based on a famous Arab navigator, Ahmad Ibn Majid, who some say was born in the early 1400s in Julfar, what is now Ras Al Khaimah, while others say he was born in Sohar, Oman.
"They just don't write stories like Alf Layla Wa Layla any more," he says.
Rym Ghazal is a senior features writer for The National.