Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 January 2020

British Arabist and author Robert Irwin to reveal tales that made Arabian Nights

The novelist speaks ahead a series of lectures he will deliver in Dubai.
Novelist Robert Irwin. Courtesy Ketchum Raad PR
Novelist Robert Irwin. Courtesy Ketchum Raad PR

“I’m longing to be back in the Middle East and specifically the Emirates,” says Robert Irwin, the British Arabist and author of six novels. “I’ve been several times from the 60s, when it was part of the Trucial States, and I’ve always loved it. I’m beginning to feel almost homesick.”

He’s speaking a couple of days ahead of his series of lectures that start on February 7 at the Dubai International Writers’ Centre, a part of the Emirates Literature Foundation.

A renowned authority on the Arabian Nights, Irwin will also be talking about his latest Orientalist discovery, Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, just published in the UK by Penguin Classics. As befits its title, the extraordinary story of how this ancient manuscript finally saw the light of day is a marvel in its own right. It is now being heralded as the oldest collection of fictional stories from the Arab world, predating the infinitely better-known Nights.

Irwin says it is quite likely that the manuscript, whose collection of stories appears to date back to the 10th century, was looted from Cairo in 1517, when the Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim, victorious over the Mamluks in Syria and Egypt, seized Cairo and proceeded to ransack the city’s prodigious intellectual treasures. Libraries were emptied and their contents despatched to Istanbul, where in 1933 the German orientalist Hellmut Ritter discovered the manuscript in the library of the great Ayasofya. 

“Frankly nobody knew about it in Britain,” says Irwin. “I mentioned it in The Arabian Nights: A Companion in the 90s and thought it would be interesting. I said to Malcolm Lyons [with whom Irwin collaborated on the landmark 2008 edition of the Nights], we should do Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange. Malcolm said no, he had other things on, and I forgot all about it. Then suddenly I got an email from him a couple of years ago saying: I’ve translated all 500 pages of it, what are you going to do about it?”

The answer was a handsome new edition, which has attracted serious interest and considerable coverage. “In some ways it’s a major event,” he says. It brings an ancient yet entirely new title to the reading public and simultaneously deepens our understanding of how the ocasionally overlapping stories of the Arabian Nights were stitched together.

To say Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange is not a title for conservative tastes would be an understatement. One reviewer likened it to a medieval Fifty Shades of Grey. If there is one unifying theme within its lurid, fantastical world, it is surely sex – alternately romantic, capricious and frequently deadly. Princes prowl through the pages, hungry for trysts with insatiable seductresses and wanton sorceresses. Irwin summarises the collection as “pulp fiction”.

Might it all be a bit too racy for his Dubai audience, I wonder? This will be the first time he has discussed the stories in the Arab world. “My problem is I don’t know what the audience will be like,” he confesses. “When I last spoke at the Dubai literary festival five or six years ago, most of the audience were expats rather than Arabs, despite the fact I was speaking about the camel.”

The eponymous marvels are broadly envisioned. Here are mischievous djinn, powerful magic, perilous quests, surreal seafaring adventures, hidden treasures and otherworldly animals. Beyond the fantasy, the sexual scrapes and the female stereotypes – and bursts of what will strike the modern reader as downright racism – the cultural atmosphere of this world is decidedly enlightened, a telling contrast to the prevailing climate in much of the Middle East today. For this reader it recalls the astonishingly risqué, homoerotic verse of Abu Nuwas, who was writing in Baghdad during the eighth and ninth centuries.

“I think it reflects the remarkable tolerance of the time,” says Irwin. “In Baghdad you have a Sunni Muslim caliph being bossed around by Shia Buyid rulers. In Egypt it’s the other way round, with a Shia Fatimid caliph employing Sunni Muslims and Armenian Christians. It speaks of a time when people could be Sunni in some respects and Shia in others. And the stories demonstrate a remarkable interest in Christianity. With the exception of one story, there’s no marked prejudice against Christians, rather a fascination with them.”

Again there’s an obvious parallel with the Arabian Nights, which Irwin will be speaking about on February 7, examining its social commentary on the time. His interest in the text goes back many years. He says he was spurred on by the desire to understand something that was “doubly alien”, in terms of both language and religion, and also as distant history: it is thought the earliest stories, from Persia and India, date back to the early eighth century. “Its history is so dramatic, complicated and frankly still romantic, though that’s not a word that is fashionable at the moment.”

One of the more curious aspects of its history is how relatively long it took for this seminal text to be taken seriously as a work of literature within the region that engendered it.

“The Nights really languished for centuries in the Arab world. I don’t know when it ever really flourished,” Irwin says. “It wasn’t rated as a fine work of literature until the early 20th century – and even that was responding to the European enthusiasm.”

For Irwin the Nights has had possibly the most influence on western literature since the 18th century with the single exception of the Bible. Within the Arab world it was modern Egyptian writers who led the way in taking up the Nights, first through Tawfiq Al Hakim and Taha Hussein in the early part of the 20th century, later with the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. “Novelists and playwrights could see what was good about it but it still faced hostility from much of the intelligentsia, first of all because some of it was bawdy and it had a scurrilous approach to religion – leading to attempts to ban it. Secondly, because the Arabic is so poor. It’s not great fusha.”

In recent decades the intellectual climate has become more conducive to its proper recognition. Irwin himself played a major part in opening up the stories for critical appreciation with his Companion, published in 1994. The 2008 edition, which Irwin worked on with Malcolm Lyons, was the first English translation since Sir Richard Burton’s inevitably dated edition of 1885-88. “It’s really a wonderful subject to have been involved in. When I think of all the deadbeat things I could have done, I’m really lucky.”

You can sense the influence again on Irwin’s latest projects. Returning to fiction, he is working on two novels. One is about the German cinema industry in the 1930s and 1940s, with the rise of Nazism and propaganda to the fore, the other is set during the Wars of the Roses in 15th-century England. “It’s about western storytelling, Arthur, Chanson de Roland, the relationship between storytelling and propaganda and lying.”

In his final talk in Dubai, on February 9 – sit up and listen, all aspiring writers – Irwin will be offering advice on that thorniest of problems: how to get published.

“I will give what advice I can,” he says, trying not to sound too pessimistic. “It’s so difficult to get published these days. It’s never been easy and it’s got harder and harder. It’s a little like [the Noël Coward song] Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington.”

Irwin generally prefers not to be drawn on the contemporary turmoil in the Middle East. “I’m desperately trying not to be a pundit. I always say I speak as an expert on the old manuscripts of the Arabian Nights.” When pushed, he admits he finds it “intensely depressing”, likening the current crisis to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. “I think things will settle down – it’ll just take decades.”

Then, as if to provide a caveat to his own analysis, he says he’s currently working on a talk about all the people who have got it wrong on the Middle East since 1945, from those who prophesied “Islam would wither and become secular and socialist” to those who forecast the domino democratisation of the Arab Spring. Pundits, you have been warned.

• Robert Irwin will be talking about the Arabian Nights and its legacy at the Dubai International Writers’ Centre (www.diwc.ae) February 7 at 11.30am. On February 9 at 7.30pm, the author will give advice about how to get published in the UK.

Justin Marozzi is the author of Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.


Updated: July 21, 2017 06:54 PM