The latest version of a classic collection of tales that usually includes Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves has fewer stories and focuses on updated, modern narratives involving strong, intelligent women, writes Steve Donoghue
One Thousand and One Nights is modern retelling of iconic stories
One Thousand and One Nights
In her latest English-language book, One Thousand and One Nights, the Beirut-born publishing phenomenon Hanan Al-Shaykh offers readers a curiosity and a tour de force. The book is styled as a "retelling" of the iconic massive collection of interconnected stories that arose out of Persian, Indian and Greek oral sources and began finding their way into the bookshops of Aleppo, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad in the mid-15th century. That collection - loosely known as the Alf layla wa layla, One Thousand and One Nights, opens with a world-famous framing device: King Shahrayar is alerted by his brother that his wife is being unfaithful right on the grounds of his own palace. "In my garden?" Al-Shaykh has him ask, in silky disbelief, and when he later sees this with his own eyes, he embarks on an epic backlash against the entire female gender. He orders his Vizier to find him a new wife, and after spending the wedding night with her, he orders her executed - and moves on to the next wife, apparently intent on first deflowering and then depopulating a large proportion of his kingdom.
The Vizier has two daughters, one of whom, the wily and courageous Shahrazad, volunteers to go to the king. When her father panics, she insists; either she'll avoid her own execution and thereby save the young women of the kingdom, or she'll fail and die as one of them. But Shahrazad has no intention of dying; she's thought up a scheme to save herself - her sister Dunyazad will come to her after her bedding with the king and implore her to tell a story before her dawn execution. The king will follow the story to its cliffhanger, and his natural human "and then what happened?" instinct will override his vengeful bloodletting. Shahrazad will stay alive exactly as long as she can keep the stories going - it's like Boccaccio's The Decameron, only performed at sword-point.
And the scheme works. After satisfying the king in his "enormous, terrible bed", Shahrazad, at her sister's urging and with the king's permission, tells her first story - and that story, suspensefully halted at dawn, merges into the next night's story, and so on for three years in a gaudy, unending procession of ifrits and djinn, slave girls and succubi, deceitful shopkeepers and honest thieves, forbidden rooms and cuckolded princes. These stories were first introduced to a European audience in the mid-18th century by the French translator Antoine Galland, who freely elaborated as he went along (one of the many ironies of the text's bizarre history is that some of its most famous stories, such as the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, appear to have been invented wholesale by Galland).
A century later, in 1885, Sir Richard Burton came out with his own monumental 10-volume English-language translation, complete with Victorian circumlocutions and ornamentation.
Other translations, in whole or in part, have followed, and there have been countless adaptations and transformations; writers as different as John Gardner, Salman Rushdie and Naguib Mahfouz have been fascinated by Nights to such a degree that they felt compelled to channel the work in their own prose. It haunted the imaginations of the great Romantic poets; it provided the inspiration for one of Pasolini's greatest films, dozens of other movies, countless comics and children's books; and through the medium of Galland, at any rate, it informed the hugely popular Disney animated movie Aladdin. In 2008, Penguin Classics issued a definitive new English translation by Malcolm Lyons and Ursula Lyons, unabridged in three fat volumes.
Hence the curiosity of Al-Shaykh's retelling, which is less than 300 pages long: it doesn't try to relate even a tenth of the great mass of the original, and it pointedly avoids calling itself a translation. Here, the all-pervasive influence of Nights is crafted with exquisite care, refined and refracted into something almost resembling a conventional 21st-century novel-in-stories.
In her foreword, Al-Shaykh rightly claims: "The effect of Alf layla wa layla was so strong and real that Arab societies shaped themselves around it; the names of its characters were embedded in our language, becoming proverbs, adjectives and even modes of speech."
The chief narrative frustration of the original is that its most interesting character, Shahrazad herself, is almost entirely absent from the text - the stories take unrelieved precedence over the storyteller (it's been accurately noted that this can take some of the urgency out of the longer tales; like many ancient oral epics, Nights can often benefit from judicious abridgement). Al-Shaykh circumvents this problem by centering the bulk of her retelling around the famous Tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies, in which a young man "who loved the hustle and bustle of the market" encounters an alluring woman and follows her through a souq bursting with exotic treats - the cataloguing of which Al-Shaykh takes obvious delight: "Damascus quinces, Persian pomegranates, apples from Jabal Lubnan, tamrhenna from Egypt, figs from Baalbek, grapes from Hebron, oranges from Jaffa … anemones, violets, Damascus lilies, narcissi and daffodils, pomegranate roses and stocks..."
The young man is brought to the shopper's home, where he meets her sisters, the doorkeeper and the mistress of the house. He and the shopper slip into a nearby pool and begin to frolic, and when they climb out of the water, Al-Shaykh twines the whole scene with a sexual tension that's almost cinematic. "The porter got out, too, and she made him sit beside her on the sofa, where she slapped him and bit his ear," she writes. "The doorkeeper began to fondle his hair and pull it and the mistress of the house watched him intently with her beautiful eyes, as if she wanted to devour him." In this and in the far more explicit details that fill the book, Al-Shaykh is defying the good-natured censorship that typically attends western versions of these stories and instead hews close to the original, in which asmar, stories of the evening, are often saturated with sex. This modern retelling of Nights is likewise very much not for children; Al-Shaykh's characters - human or otherwise - cavort at every possible opportunity. The singular, almost minimalist charm Al-Shaykh injects into her versions of these stories pivots on a winningly modern idiom.
More than any other ancient epic, Nights is thickly populated with intelligent, resourceful women, and this is even more accentuated in Al-Shaykh's modern version, where these spiritual sisters of Shahrazad are forever standing up for their rights and questioning their own certainties, often with wonderfully modern resonances, as when a young woman suddenly stops herself from becoming infatuated with the dashing Azraq Blue, son of the King of the Jinnis, whose home is a floating castle: "All of a sudden, reality hit me. What was I thinking, falling in love with this man, now that I knew he was a jinni?" she asks herself. Then, in a happy elaboration on the original, she snaps at her suitor: "I do not wish to go to any palace, either in the clouds or on the ground. I will live only in the house which my father built for us and in which I grew up. You are probably not aware that I am the head of this family and I am an accomplished tradeswoman …"
The tales Al-Shaykh has chosen to reshape mirror the much longer original in the most crucial aspect: they continuously shift one into the next, as first one character then another requests some new story of someone else.
As Mary Gaitskill points out in her introduction, Al-Shaykh "stresses the secret underworld we experience every day, in which emotional truth is expressed in strange actions that have somehow become normal". This root strangeness lies at the heart of both the original Nights and this splendid splinter struck off the gem-hoard: Al-Shaykh's concision (and her extremely perceptive choice of which stories to retell) ensures that the reader never forgets the high stakes involved.
Characters in these tales may lack an eye, or a leg, or a livelihood, or a kingdom, but it's the very ransom of their soul to lack eloquence: at any turn of the day, storytelling can mean the difference between life and death.
Al-Shaykh never returns us to Shahrazad. Instead, One Thousand and One Nights draws to a close with the sea of stories still in full flood. There's something richly appropriate about that as well.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.