Monday, January 15, 2007

Review: Arabian Nights

Title: Arabian Nights
Editor: Husain Haddawy
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co.
# of Pages: 428

Rating: 7/10

Book Description
These stories (and stories within stories, and stories within stories within stories), told by the Princess Shahrazad under the threat of death if she ceases to amuse, first reached the West around 1700. They fired in the European imagination an appetite for the mysterious and exotic which has never left it. Collected over centuries from India, Persia, and Arabia, and ranging from vivacious erotica, animal fables, and adventure fantasies to pointed Sufi tales, the stories of The Arabian Nights provided the daily entertainment of the medieval Islamic world at the height of its glory.

The present new translation by Husain Haddawy is of the Mahdi edition, the definitive Arabic edition of a fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, which is the oldest surviving version
of the tales and is considered to be the most authentic. This early version is without the embellishments and additions that appear in later Indian and Egyptian manuscripts, on which all previous English translations were based.

As I took a trip to Egypt over the new year, I thought it fitting that I should read books pertaining to the culture there. So I picked up this authoritative copy (anything by Norton *must* be authoritative, right? I can't be the only one who drools over Norton Critical Editions of classics!) from the library and took it with me for some reading.

This edition is followed by a second edition that includes the better-known stories (including Aladdin). I didn't recognize any of the stories in this edition. Granted, I didn't read every story.

I think the trouble with getting together an "authoritative text" on the Arabian Nights is that the stories were never meant to be compiled into a book and read straight through. The stories are part of a rich oral culture that involved sitting around a fire with fine musical instruments, good food, great company and a storyteller who could draw in extra details and add in any embellishments that he thought the crowd would appreciate. Meaning- you never really heard the same story twice.

All of this is very lost in a print copy. The stories begin to seem repetitive (which they wouldn't, if they were told over the course of a few years by a traveling storyteller) and the language becomes onerous to continue reading again and again.

However, the stories are a lot of fun :-) If you're interested in the Arabian Nights, I would certainly recommend this edition- Haddawy does well in his translation. But I'd also only read a story or two here and there, so that you don't become tired of it. And that way, the magic will still hit you. Or maybe, you can become the storyteller and read it aloud to someone else- it would probably be excellent in that form!


  1. Excellent review, Aarti. If ever I read Arabian Nights (which I hope to someday), I will definitely keep in mind what you said about stretching them out over time to perserve the quality.

  2. YES! I am interested in reading the "Arabian Nights", I was just hunting for the right edition and it does look like you have brought my search to a close! Thanks for a great review, Aarti!

  3. Have you seen Geraldine McCaughrean's retelling? It's *fabulous.* I remember being continually surprised that it never dragged. (Like this version did at times).

    The best were collected rather than keeping everything for "authenticity."

    Definitely the collection to create hunger for more of the original. Makes you see what the "big deal is" in a way I didn't with the original.


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