Well, This Isn’t Going to Help Us Read Arabic: The Kerfuffle Over /Arabian Nights/

A new English version of The Arabian Nights, translated by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons, is making its way around the English-speaking world. It’s apparently quite beautifully done, and also quite expensive.

The version that recently came out in Cairo was edited by renowned novelist Gamal al-Ghitani, and part of a low-priced, state-sponsored series. Although also, yes, beautiful.

What do the two events have to do with each other? The Arabic version of this literary work, which al-Ghitani likens to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, is under serious fire. It was yanked from shelves in 1985, after a group of Islamists managed to win an injunction. A similar group is trying to ban the book again.

Al-Ghitani defends Arabian Nights as being “part of humanity’s cultural heritage, like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.” Yes, true. But I prefer to echo Taha Hussein in saying these stories can make people read.

If the “Lawyers Without Shacklers” group gets its way,  Arabian Nights will be available only to those who can read English and afford a three-volume set that’s 60 pounds sterling. (Plus the shipping from amazon.co.uk, ugh.) If they don’t get their way, Egyptians will have low-cost access to a book Hussein’s protagonist describes thus in Call of the Curlew:

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.

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