1—3 • The merchant and the jinni • 1—2 The story of the first old man • 2 The story of the second old man • 2—3 The story of the third old man • 3—9 The fisherman and the ‘ifrit • 4—5 The story of King Yunan and Duban the sage • 5 The story of King Sindbad and the falcon • 5 The story of the treacherous vizier • 7—8 The story of the semi-petrified prince • 9—19 The porter and the three ladies • 11—12 The story of the first dervish • 12—14 The story of the second dervish • 13 The story of the envious and the envied • 14—16 The story of the third dervish • 17—18 The story of the lady of the house • 18 The story of the doorkeeper
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Ch. 64)
The prospect of reading The Arabian Nights is a daunting one. It will be an epic journey of sorts, even if it is one taken from the comfort of one’s home rather than a trudge across the dunes or a hike up a mountain.
But just as every journey begins with a single step, our assault on this three-volume mountain of literature must begin with the first page and the first Night.
Nights 1 to 18 comprise three sets of stories: ‘The Merchant and the Jinni’, ‘The Fisherman and the Ifrit’, and ‘The Porter and the Three Ladies’. Each is slightly longer than the last, and each is more ‘nested’ as Shahrazad presents more stories within stories. But I’d say that these tales do a good job of setting expectations for the Nights to come. Themes are established and, even in these early literary foothills, we see tropes recurring in different stories.
The one thing that I (and, one suspects, most new readers) know about The Arabian Nights is the basic premise: that Shahrazad finds herself in the king’s presence, telling stories to save her life. We open with a framing narrative that explains why this should be so: the king has been cuckolded by a slave and therefore killed his queen. Fearful of a repeat, he resolves to ‘deflower’ a different girl every night and kill her in the morning.
Throughout this project, I will refer to the book I am reading as The Arabian Nights. Yes, I know that is only one of its possible names. It might also be called The Arabian Nights Entertainments, The Thousand and One Nights, or The Book of A Thousand Nights and a Night.
In any case, the book’s ‘real’ name is ‘Alf layla wa-layla.
أَلْف لَيْلَة وَلَيْلَة
I also know that to describe the stories as ‘Arabian’ is a something of a misnomer when the collection apparently includes stories set in China, India, the Levant, North Africa, Persia, and Turkey, and therefore features plenty characters who do not speak Arabic.
However, set against all this is the fact that the version I will be reading – the three-volume Penguin Classics edition published in 2010 – is a translation from Arabic, and is formally published as The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights. I’d rather not keep typing all that, so for simplicity’s sake, I will just refer to it as The Arabian Nights in my recaps, for now at least. If anyone feels strongly that I should not do that, then please let me know.
Why do any of us read anything? I have been meaning to read the Arabian Nights, or The Thousand and One Nights, for many years. Whenever I tell anyone that I have an interest in non-linear fiction, they usually mention the nested, story-within-a-story structure for which the tales are famous. In response, I have always said that I would get around to reading the collection “at some point.”
During such conversations, I also tend to mention that one of my favourite authors, Jorge Luis Borges, was obsessed with The Thousand and One Nights. That fact alone is enough reason for me to read the stories, if only to understand Borges’ work and sensibilities a little better. So it has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while. Continue reading “A short introduction before we get started”