Husain Haddawy has accomplished a deed which, “if it could be engraved with needles at the corner of the eye, would be a lesson to those who would consider.” His two volumes The Arabian Nights and The Arabian Nights II: Sindbad and Other Popular Stories comprise translations of the core and several of the more well-known tales from the rest found in The Thousand and One Nights, perhaps most familiar in the complete English translation done by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famous Victorian explorer, along with his occasionally peculiar ethnographic notes. Haddawy’s translations are a pleasure to read, much more so than Burton’s cramped pseudo-archaism and hyperventilating pseudo-Oriental style. They are crisp, clear, contemporary prose, yet with that slightly archaic bent that is appropriate for such tales of a long-gone world of caliphs, slave-girls, and eunuchs. The verse is not as successful, but then it’s difficult to tell to what degree this is to be blamed on Haddawy’s translation, as he does state in the informative introduction that the verse itself varies distinctly in quality.
These two volumes are included in the Alfred A. Knopf Everyman’s Library, and in the hardcover editions are of the standard high quality for this collection. These are quite nice thin-boarded hardcovers (which I for some reason think of as “French” in style), with sewn bindings and registers (ribbons), and quite thin but opaque paper, with probably a 9 or 9.5 point text, which is not too small for comfortable reading. The first volume includes the core of the collection, based on the critical edition of a fourteenth century Syrian manuscript established by the recently reposed Muhsin Mahdi, Alf Layla wa Layla (vols 1-2: Text and Commentary; vol 3: Introduction and Indexes; Brill, 1-2: 1984, 3: 1994). This volume includes “King Shahrayar and Shahrazad, His Vizier’s Daughter,” “The Merchant and the Demon,” “The Fisherman and the Demon,” “The Porter and the Three Ladies,” “The Three Apples,” “The Two Viziers, Nur al-Din ‘Ali al-Misri and Badr al-Din Hasan al-Basri,” “The Hunchback,” “Nur al-Din ‘Ali ibn-Bakkar and the Slave-girl Shams al-Nahar,” “The Slave-Girl Aniz al-Jalis and Nur al-Din ‘Ali ibn-Khaqan,” and “Jullanar of the Sea.” The second volume includes “The Story of Sindbad the Sailor,” “The Story of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “The Story of ‘Ala al-Din (Aladdin) and the Magic Lamp,” and “The Story of Qamar al-Zaman and His Two Sons.” The textual origins of the works included in the second volume are more complex. The Sindbad stories are taken from the Bulaq edition of 1835, based on a late, conflate Egyptian manuscript. The Qamar story is found in the Mahdi edition, the first pages of which are found in the fourteenth century Syrian manuscript, but the rest of which is culled from later manuscripts. The stories of ‘Ali Baba and ‘Ala al-Din are not found in any authentic Arabic source. These stories were told to Antoine Galland by Hanna Diab, a Maronite Christian from Aleppo, and were included in Galland’s French edition, Mille et Une Nuits (1704-1717). Later Arabic texts of these tales were shown to be based on Galland’s versions. Haddawy thus translated these two tales from Galland’s French.
One thing to be aware of is that these volumes will not make for good bedside reading for children, as some abridged versions of The Arabian Nights may do. The casual brutality and the lasciviousness, the racism and the slavery in the tales are all translated without euphemism, presenting us with an accurate picture of an entertainment from the Muslim world in the age of the Mamluks, a particularly brutal time. As nightmare fodder for young ones, they would excel.
There is a striking sensuous luxuriousness in the descriptions of foods, scents, clothing, architecture, gardens, and scenery, one which is difficult to exaggerate, and one which is, in a way, seductive; but in their very excess, they reveal themselves as the imaginary hyperbole of tale-telling. Though striking, I don’t think they’re particularly good for one, to focus on the pleasing of the senses. Which world does one live for, after all? And this point is sometimes (though not often enough, with more emphasis on worldly success and riches) made in the tales themselves. On that note, I have a weakness for jasmine, I must confess; having a fragrant sprig in a vase nearby while reading these tales is appropriate.
Yet another striking thing about the tales is the presence of the supernatural throughout. God is still striking down proud cities (turning the inhabitants to stone!), sorceresses enchant entire landscapes, demons are everywhere, and angels strike them down. The protagonists are generally pious, with the striking (and no doubt traditional) phrase “There is no power and no strength save in God, the Almighty, the Magnificent” often on their lips when distraught. This is a world in which there is no natural and supernatural, but all in one: those lines had not yet been drawn. Then, as now, spiritual darkness was recognized as ever-present and ready to attack the unwary.
For those seeking a diversion from the humdrummism of the ordinary days of cleaning, or committees, or paper-grading, or too much non-fiction reading, I recommend these two volumes of Husain Haddawy’s The Arabian Nights. They are transporting.