The (Latest) Revival of the Thousand and One Nights

This year, Alf Layla w Layla (One Thousand and One Nights) is being rediscovered. This time, with an eye to freedom.

From time to time, of course, we forget the wealth of Alf Layla w Layla, and remember only the sex and stereotypes. But their power has fed Arabic literature for generations: Taha Hussein and Tawfiq al-Hakim, for instance, chat with Shahrazad in their collaborative “The Castle,”a conversation recently re-mixed by Magdy al-Shafee.

But the Shahrazad figure has generally been spurned by contemporary writers, particularly women. (Poet Joumanah Haddad, for instance, recently killed her.) As Hanan al-Shaykh told the Guardian:

…she used to feel quite dismissive of the tales, and was rankled when book critics began to call her the “new Shahrazad”. She explains: “Shahrazad to me was a cliche! She accepted that she was a prisoner of the king, she was very passive. I thought, ‘I am modern, I am not like her.'”

But then al-Shaykh read the originals.

And so, years later, the gifted Lebanese novelist became the author behind an epic production of One Thousand and One Nights. The production is being staged by Tim Supple with a cast of 25 actors from Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Lebanon. It’s scheduled to appear at this year’s Edinburgh Festival after debuting in Toronto earlier this year. The production didn’t shy from the Nights‘ sexier aspects, featuring rubber penises and straightforward sexual content. Actors and al-Shaykh also saw it with post-Jan 25 eyes, re-seeing the relationships between subject and ruler.

Also, for English-language readers: A Thousand and One Nights got a new translation last year, from Malcolm and Ursula Lyons, which was a runner-up for the 2011 PEN translation prize, announced last week.

And, since it’s his centenary, we’ll finish with Naguib Mahfouz on Alf Layla w Layla:

Besides the Qur’an, heroic epics formed my literary style. I remember reading Antara Hamza al-Bahlawan and other stories at an early age. Then I read the stories of the pre-Islamic Arabs and their wars. I was greatly affected by them. Then the Thousand and One Nights, with their unparalleled richness. Their density of detail and the sheer brilliance of the plot make them important narratives in human literature. Although their effect extended to European and other literature, their effect on us was greater because they emerged from this land and are infused with our Arab heritage.

Still, the Thousand and One Nights have a bad reputation. When we were young, we only read abridged versions—all the explicit scenes were censored. I later read the complete version. The tales express all the dreams that human beings share, yet some people have given themselves the right to confiscate parts of these dreams.

When Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels were described in terms of magical realism, I immediately thought how appropriate that was to the Thousand and One Nights. This is where we must look to find the beginnings of magical realism. The stories combine reality and fantasy, truth and invention as no other narrative had done before. Perhaps non has been so successful since, either.”

Want to listen to the stories as they once enchanted al-Shaykh on the radio? Zeinobia is posting installments again this year.

And, yes, numerous forces have tried to ban the Nights. One of them here in Cairo.

Also, on The Guardian: Al-Shaykh writes about her relationship with The Nights.