Taha Hussein on the Debate over Banning 1,001 Nights

All right, the dean of Arabic literature died in 1973, so I couldn’t have asked his opinion on the matter. And no, Taha Hussein did not appear to me in a dream, a vision, or a puff of smoke in order to weigh in on the proposed ban of this literary classic.

But there is a long passage from The Call of the Curlew on reading and, specifically, on the joys of reading A Thousand and One Nights. And if anyone has the right to speak on the topic of Arabic letters, it is Taha Hussein.

The Call of the Curlew is eloquent about many things—what other early 20th century writer cared so much about women?—but among them is a love of reading. The English translation is, charitably, not great. Even so, the book is worth reading in English, in Finnish, or however you can get your hands on it.

The Curlew‘s servant-girl protagonist has developed a love of reading, although at one point despairs of finding the books that she loves:

“None are sold in this provincial town except the few that can be found on Thursdays or market days. Then travelling booksellers display them, or go round houses to show them, but they do not interest me; they are stories which I do not like, magic books which I cannot understand, prayer books and books of religious chants with which I am not familiar.”

Amna despairs, but then the “master’s” adult children return from Cairo, laden with books. Their father doesn’t understand their love of books—shouldn’t they be playing games, or chatting?—and thinks proudly of what ambitious young people he has. Perhaps, in this era in Egypt, educated young people did love books?

Amna begins sneaking around with the books, reading them on the sly. Then:

“I had noticed a miserable looking book, badly printed on poor quality paper. The young people were really obsessed by this book, they would read it endlessly, rush and vie with one another to get it, and argue about who should have it. After a more serious quarrel, they decided that they should each have it in turn. I wanted eagerly to know this book; I wanted to know what magic hynoptised the young people and incited them to demand so insistently a book which appeared to be uninviting, with its poor print, miserable paper and common and well-worn binding.”

One night, the young people go to a dinner party, and Amna is left alone with the book:

“The book is now in my hands; it is ugly, miserable-looking, its paper is of poor quality and the print is bad, it is true, but it is called A Thousand and One Nights. I read, I read more, I forget myself, I lose all sense of time and space.”

Of course, Amna is discovered by her master, and things don’t end well for this well-worn copy of A Thousand and One Nights. But are we not trying to encourage reading in Egypt: among young people, among all social classes? What more could we ask than this struggle over a book, this great desire to read and learn and open our minds?

I suppose, though, that the lawyers looking to ban this literary classic don’t spend their time fretting about how to increase literacy levels.