Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 28 May 2018

New anthology of The Arabian Nights has controversial subtext

A new anthology of The Book of the 1,001 Nights - or Arabian Nights as it became known in English - casts fresh light on the glory period of these stories: the 19th century.

There's a new anthology of The Arabian Nights, edited by Wen-chin Ouyang, that uses 19th and 20th-century works. Courtesy Random House
There's a new anthology of The Arabian Nights, edited by Wen-chin Ouyang, that uses 19th and 20th-century works. Courtesy Random House

We all think we know the fantastical stories of The Arabian Nights. Of Aladdin and the magic lamp, Ali Baba commanding “Open, Sesame!” or Sindbad’s adventures on the high seas. They’ve become, rightly or wrongly, a shorthand for an exotic, magical Arabia. But an intriguing new anthology casts an entirely different light on these ancient folk tales. Drawing on the best European versions from the 19th century, it has a simple but controversial subtext: what if the stories of The Arabian Nights aren’t entirely “Arabian” after all?

“There is a large group of people who now see The Arabian Nights as a western rather than Arabic classic,” says the anthology’s editor, Wen-chin Ouyang. “And it is very possible that Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves were European inventions from writers wanting to pen ‘Oriental tales’. They were then translated into Arabic and became part of this ever-growing compendium of stories by the 19th century. The story of Sindbad is really interesting, for example. Is it originally a Turkish folk tale, or a Turkish translation of an Oriental tale? There’s still work to be done on that.”

You’d bet on Ouyang to do it. Her love of The Arabian Nights reads like a literary adventure all of its own: growing up in Libya, she first read it in Chinese – but her school friends had never heard of this world of genies, ebony horses or fairies. What’s more, in Libya, there wasn’t an Arabic version to be found in libraries, universities or bookshops. Finally, a friend smuggled her a copy of Alf Layla Wa Layla (The Thousand and One Nights) with the warning : “My mother says good girls are not allowed to read it.” This edition was such hard work to read, Ouyang gave up.

“And then I went to New York,” she says, smiling. “I was walking through a second-hand bookstore, looked up and there it was: a three-volume boxed set of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, by Richard F Burton [1821-1890]. I just thought, ‘Wow, The Arabian Nights available in the street!” I went without food to pay for it and just read it and read it.”

Burton’s translations form a crucial part of this anthology, but there’s also work from Edward Lane (1801-1876), John Payne (1842-1916) and even a translation from the French writer Joseph-Charles Mardrus (1868-1949). Ouyang says she wanted to give people a taste of what it was like to read The Arabian Nights in the 19th century, as it was a crucial period in the development of not just storytelling but how we viewed the world. So how did she choose which of the stories to use?

“Paulo Lemos Horta from NYU Abu Dhabi came to London one weekend and we talked about the stories we liked and the stories that had to be included, but it was important to make sure that readability was uppermost in our minds. Plenty of versions have the skeleton of the story – the narrative and the characters – but not the texture. Payne’s poetry is really good, for example, so every time there’s poetry in the text we went to him. Lane was great with genies and sea adventures ... that’s kind of how it worked.”

So, as far as the European versions of the 19th century are concerned, this anthology really is the best of the best, a compelling collection of eye-openingly timeless tales that work for all ages.

“They do address adults and children,” agrees Ouyang. “It’s interesting, this ‘Oriental’ style of storytelling was concerned with telling a tale rather than fixating on language – which is probably why they travelled so easily.

“But the thing I really love about The Arabian Nights is this great sense of mystery. You never know what’s going to happen next on these adventures. The only thing you can be pretty sure of is that you come back safely.”

The Arabian Nights (Everyman’s Library) is out today