I heard, O King . . .

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence.

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.

4 Replies to “I heard, O King . . .”

  1. I regret to inform you that you are have been expelled from the Victoriana club for your slander of Richard Burton, the great presenter of the mysterious Orient to shocked British audiences. I hardly believe that you have read all 17 volumes of his masterpiece, the favorite work of Jorge Luis Borges as a young child. (Borges went on to write that the Burton collection of stories was infinite. Indeed, no author has had greater influence on Borges, certainly in his direct cribs from Burton: e.g., the Search of Averroes, the Ascent of al-Mutasim, the Masked Dyer of Merv, the Story of Abdula the Blind Beggar, the Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths, etc.)

    Indeed, if memory serves me right, your criticism of Burton echos that of Haddaway himself in the forward to the story. I’ve read both of the Haddaway volumes, and while I find them acceptable (although Haddaway has a strange fixation with the Mahdi edition, which I attribute to the fact that his Arabic is far better than his Persian), they can hardly compare with the art of Burton. True, Burton never fails to shock with his racism and his sexual innuendos, but that simply adds to the verisimilitude of the translation in my eyes. Edward Said did not care for Burton, but then again, Said hardly cared for such pop-literary icons as Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu, or Mary Shelley.

  2. Don’t get me wrong, I do love my Burton, if only for the fact that it’s THAT Burton who translated the pile. I’ve got one of those big thick three-volume sets, with the cute line-drawings, based on his first edition. And like you, I get a great kick out of the truly Victorian notes. But I really just couldn’t stand the verse sections. I love the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but some of those guys were up to the same: using pretentiously archaizing words in their poetry was just annoying, cheap window dressing. Burton did so much of it, that I’d end up skipping the verse altogether. Haddawy’s are no better, actually worse, I think, since he sticks so closely to the Arabic word order that unless you have the mind of a Semite the poetry is half-gibberish syntactically. So I skip his, too.

    Oh, and if Said (spit) didn’t care for Burton, then that means I LOVE Burton.

    That said, now that I’ve gotten more into Haddawy’s translation, I see more problems with it. (I’ve actually set it aside) In order to make it less “Oriental”, he’s made it less Near Eastern. Djinn are not demons, and translating it that way is actually confusing. The footnotes, what few there are, are occasionally laughable. Like “then and now a city in Turkey.” Then? Hardly. Weren’t no Turkey. It feels like I’m reading a shopping mall version. Burton’s was at least colorful.

  3. Ah, the big three volume set (issued by the Limited Editions Club, if I recall correctly) is only the first part of Burton — and omits the supplement (which is approximately the same size as the first part of his translation)!

    I must say that I enjoy reading almost everything that Burton wrote, if only for his breathless style (plus his own colorful life). For a while (I haven’t checked if it is still the case), the majority of his works were being reprinted by Dover.

    While it is politically incorrect to say so, I think that Burton’s descriptions of the Orient are highly edifying reading, not only because they give us a looking glass into Anglo-American perceptions of the Near East, but also because there were large elements of truth in Burton’s description (and, of course, Burton is primarily a sympathetic observer.)

    Modern politically correct descriptions tend to minimize the very real differences. Did Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, and T. E. Lawrence find during their stays that the Orient was indistinguishable from Cleveland? How does one deal with the exoticism in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz or Orhan Pamuk — or, for that matter, in the (stunning) creative output of contemporary authors from the Subcontinent?

  4. Whoa! I didn’t know there was more! I’ll have to find it.

    I don’t think it’s necessary un-“politically correct” to say so. I completely agree with you on that score. The notes are especially good in depicting practices that no longer exist. And those tales are full of details which even within their own cultures (djinn, fabulous wealth, magnificent feasts) that the vast majority of inhabitants of those cultures would have found exotic. Without the fascination of the Other, who would even care to read or interact with anything outside of what’s between our own two ears? Furthered, you get these adventurers like Burton who risk their lives quite literally in order to accurately describe, with perhaps some embellishment (we’re all human after all), these amazing things that others will never see.

    Added to all this is the fact that Near Eastern culture does incorporate various elements of beauty outside of the daily routine which even regular people recognize as exotic. Rose water, incense, oud music, the muezzin’s call — none of these are taken as mundane. They are certainly not as exotic as they are to a Westerner, but they are certainly not so humdrummingly common as a loaf of bread, even to Near Easterners. And the tales are certainly exotic, which is why they appeal, and adventurous, which is why even little boys like to hear them.

    One thing I was thinking about last night after I wrote that first comment in response to you above was the vast difference between the approach taken by Burton and Haddawy. Burton saw these tales as the adventures and fabula that they were written to be, and transmitted them to us through the filter of his own highly adventurous and absolutely amazing life experiences. Haddawy, on the other hand, relates them as the delightful stories that either a woman friend of his mother’s, or his uncle (depending upon which volume’s introduction you read!) told to him as a child: a rather boring and homely setting, which is then filtered through his comparatively boring academicism. Burton’s translations are more lively because he was more lively, and thereby appreciated the nature of the tales better, even as a sympathetic outsider who did, however, enter into the culture in a way that many inhabitants of that culture never did, as a wide traveler fluent in several dialects and languages.

    As I continued reading the Haddawy translation (I was only probably 100 pages in or so when I wrote the above reviewlet), I actually found myself bored, which is something that never happened when reading the Burton translation, perhaps because I was a good boy and read all the notes, too. I set the first volume aside about halfway through. I’ll pick it up again, but the enthusiasm is gone. It’s just so flat. And the verse is distractingly bad.

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