The ‘1001 Nights’ Outclassed: The 10th-century Stories of Tanūkhī

Al-Muḥassin ibn ʻAlī al-Tanūkhī (939–994) was a judge, collector of stories, and litterateur who was born in Basra and died in Baghdad. Raised in a lettered family with significant connections to the ruling elite, Tanūkhī knew many of the stories behind the great rises and falls of his day. Deliverance Follows Adversity is one of two influential anthologies he compiled, and it is full of stories of imprisonment, loss, and liberation.

More than a millennium after the author-editor’s death, Julia Bray, the Abdulaziz Saud AlBabtain Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford, has translated the first three chapters of Deliverance, titled Stories of Piety and Prayer, into a sharp, clear English. Bray’s scholarly interests focus on medieval Arabic literature, life-writing, and social history, which puts Tanūkhī’s Deliverance—part autobiography, part social history, and part self-help—directly in her crosshairs. Indeed, Bray said that, when she began reading Tanūkhī, she found “practically everything I was interested in was there.”

Why does Bray think Tanūkhī’s tales “outclass the Nights in every way,” and why does she call him “the opposite of imperturbable”? In the first of a two-part discussion on the charming, self-pitying, and erudite Tanūkhī, which also appears at the Library of Arabic Literature website, Bray talks about the author and what his Deliverance might have meant to him and his contemporaries, as well as the ways in which it’s been passed down, adapted, and understood by later readers.

I’d like to start with what brought you to this translation. How does it build out of your work and interests, as well as the work of David Samuel Margoliouth (1858-1940), Alfred Felix Landon Beeston (1911-1995), and ʿAbbūd al-Shāljī (1911-1996)? How do we insert you, and this translation, into the Tanūkhī story?

Julia Bray: How do I connect with Tanūkhī? I got interested in Arabic storytelling as a teenager through a book of translations edited by James Kritzeck. I liked the pieces he chose because of their plots, and because some of the translations were outstanding.

I think it was that that pushed me in the direction of learning Arabic at university. I was greedy for stories, but not 1001 Nights-type stories. I think Tanūkhī’s stories outclass the Nightsin every way, and unlike Shahrazad, he doesn’t go on and on. His plots are brisk and varied, even though in Deliverance Follows Adversity all the stories are about someone, usually someone just like you or me, getting into some sort of tight spot in one of their less bright moments, and coming out gratefully on the other side—one of the unfailing shared plot types that western readers can recognize from Ancient Greek comedy to P.G. Wodehouse. Tanūkhī’s Deliverance stories are written in all the then-available literary registers about very human characters that we only get glimpses of, but long to know more about. Most of them aren’t by him—he makes it quite clear that the book is a collection of stories by other people, andhe’s very anxious that his readers should know who those people are. It’s one of the ways he makes things individual and specific, which is part of what makes the stories so attractive.

Tanūkhī was a favourite of my undergraduate teacher supervisor, Freddie Beeston, who also supervised my thesis, and Beeston had been taught by D.S. Margoliouth, who did the first edition of Tanūkhī’s Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, or what survives of it, and translated it into English. His translation sets the benchmark. As it happens Beeston didn’t teach Tanūkhī to my cohort, so I can’t recall how I came across Deliverance. When I did, I was lucky enough to read it in Shāljī’s edition. Before that, there was only a version based on a rather garbled manuscript, which is surprising, given that there are so many manuscripts of Deliveranceto choose from. Shāljī used as many manuscripts as he could, and his restoration work makes the stories sharp and fresh.

I eventually got to meet Shāljī in London shortly before his death, and told him I wanted to translate Deliverance. He literally gave me his blessing, which is something I’m very conscious of. Editing Tanūkhī had been his life’s work and he had a great affinity with him. He’d been a lawyer, like Tanūkhī, and he’d lived in the same places as Tanūkhī before modernization changed them completely. He put some of his memories of them into the footnotes of his edition. He edited Tanūkhī in his spare time, or when his differences with the authorities kept him from practicing, an act of defiance which gives added poignancy.

Once I started reading Tanūkhī, I realized that practically everything I was interested in was there. I’d sum it up as “lived literature”. All the stories in Deliverance (and Table-Talk) meant something personally to Tanūkhī, and they are, to put it simply, about life as lived, and about lived ideas and literature as part of life.

 Where does this translation build to, for your work and that of others? You say for instance: “This technique, applied to a range of sources—the Qurʾan, histories, life writing, letter writing, and Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī’s Book of Songs are just a few—makes Deliverance a pattern book of Arabic storytelling and a virtual motif index of one of the richest periods of Arabic writing. It has been used as such by folklorists, but it ought to be used much more widely as a guide to plots, themes, and materials that occur across Arabic genres.”

How are some ways you see it ought to be used, beyond of course its enjoyment?

JB: Tanūkhī had a brilliant analytical mind. In Deliverance, he did something very simple and very powerful: he identified a set of core narrative motifs and schemes and organized his materials under that umbrella. Whenever I read medieval Arabic, I’m struck by how often motifs and story types recur, in history, in hadith, literature, and so on, across genres. They’re not always pinned to the same people, which means that they need to be identified by their outline rather than by named characters. Quite often people working in different disciplines don’t realize that a narrative that they’re familiar with is actually one that occurs in other places where their discipline wouldn’t normally take them. As academics, we’ve imposed modern disciplinary barriers where they didn’t exist in the culture, and a motif index like Tanūkhī’s, but on a wider scale, would help us to see over those barriers. This is something that Philip Kennedy and I used to talk about doing, and he has done it now for the motif of recognition in his book which just won the Shaykh Zayed Book Award. I’ve done it too in various articles. A good example is the medical stories that have a chapter to themselves later in Deliverance.They have motifs and plot situations that connect them to a string of different genres and traditions. They can be read in a much more informed way through that multiple literary prism, and paradoxically tell us far more about the social reception of medicine, than if they’re read simply as medical anecdotes. Given that medieval writers were mostly experts in several fields across a range which modern academics usually are not, a tool that would make it easier for us to read across disciplines would be a great help in meeting the culture on its own terms. The tool Tanūkhī has given us is certainly a start, not least in this first part of Deliverance, much of which doesn’t fit with pre-postmodern ideas of what’s literary, which is why a lot of this part got dropped from the French and Italian translations. Now that we’re postmodern, we’re geared to take on the literariness of Deliveranceas a whole.

Another thing a motif index does is make it easier for us to notice the details of howa story is told, and compare different tellings. Comparing is vital for developing an understanding of register and artistry. For example, the first part of Deliverancehas stories in a mix of styles and registers, including some hadith that are quite elegant narratives and others that are quite disjointed, and some stories that look like folk tales or fairy tales. There’s the story of the three travellers who get trapped in a cave by a rockfall and gain release by each reminding God of a good deed he’s done, and the story of the snake which is hidden from a pursuer by a holy man and wants to kill him instead of thanking him.

Tanūkhī gives us several versions of these stories with different degrees of polish, rather like the Grimm brothers’ successive versions of their fairy tales, but even when they’re polished in places, overall I think comparison shows they remain archaic and naïve. Then there’s the story of the shipwrecked man and woman, the demon, and the treasure. I think this is faux-naif, at least in its present setting, which gives it a pedigree that allegedly makes it a sort of caliphal heirloom. The giveaway for me is when the couple find the castle stocked with enough food for their evening meals. In a real fairy tale we’d expect this to go unquestioned or to have a magical explanation. Perhaps anticipating skeptical readers, the man asks where the food came from and the woman just says it was there already. Very unfairytale-like. I suspect we should really view this more as a lightweight philosophical tale.

You must have spent quite a lot of time with Tanūkhī over the years, and, although he doesn’t foreground his own story, he is not shy of inserting himself or his life. How would you describe him? At one point you call sections of his reminiscences “unabashedly self-pitying,” and indeed he doesn’t seem ashamed to feel sorry for himself. 

JB: Self-pity isn’t unique to him. In stories told to him by his contemporaries there’s a lot of it, and a lot of open weeping and trembling and beseeching. Evidently stoicism was admired, and Tanūkhī gives us examples of it, but they’re mostly in the past. So self-pity is part of the emotional culture of Tanūkhī’s time, I suppose, and it’s part of a complex set of emotions surrounding fear and fear of suffering that we haven’t even begun to map—fear of death, torture, poverty, sickness, injustice, and damnation (though damnation seems to be mentioned only once in Deliverance, interestingly). When it comes to other emotions, in spite of being so clever and learned, and worldly and sophisticated, I don’t think Tanūkhī’s religious feelings are very mature. He knows what he ought to believe and spells it out in his introduction, and he recognizes the sublime and heroic and so on in other people’s religious sentiments and gives us plenty of examples of it, but on the evidence he gives us about himself he’s no spiritual athlete. He seems to have spent a lot of his life in fear of things that never actually happened, whereas he was really quite lucky by the standards of his day. After what we can piece together as having been an enriching childhood, with privileged, kind, and entertaining relatives, I think he was rather spoiled and expected everything to be easy, but then his father died when he was in his teens, and even though he had friends who smoothed his career path, when anything went wrong he took it to heart, whereas his father, who led an adventurous life, seems to have been a risk-taker of imperturbable resilience. Tanūkhī was the opposite of imperturbable. I suppose that’s what gives him empathy with such a range of unheroic personalities who would never have made it into a book about divine deliverance written by anyone else.

How do we know that Deliverance was written (or finished) in the final stage of his life, in Baghdad, after his disgrace? (Was this text his deliverance?) 

JB: It’s the scholarly consensus, based on internal evidence, that Table-Talkcame first, but before he finished it, he seems to have begun Deliverance. In his preface, Tanūkhī says the composition of Deliverancestretched over years, so it probably spanned different phases of his career. There’s no sign that he wrote it to win sympathy or favor in high places. The spur seems to have been the theme itself, and to show he could go one better than his predecessors in the genre. I’ve no idea whether writing it brought him peace of mind, if you mean deliverance in the emotional or spiritual sense. From what he says in his introduction, he seems to have found writing and rewriting Deliveranceabsorbing and frustrating in equal measure. But he clearly got great satisfaction from knowing he’d outdone his predecessors with their paltry few pages of jottings. When things got him down, I should think he enjoyed gloating over that.

How many manuscripts of Faraj do you estimate are out there, how widely distributed? What do we know about this book’s popularity, vs. other books of its type, for instance those he cites in his introduction? Why do you think this particularly resonated, above other semi-autobiographical scholarly self-help manuscripts of the time?

JB:I haven’t even a rough estimate of how many manuscripts of Deliverancethere might be, or where, or produced over what length of time. There are certainly a lot. The public, online surveys of, and access to, digitized Arabic manuscript collections that are being launched quite widely now keep changing the picture of what’s out there in general, and will certainly help in plotting the type and distribution of manuscripts of Deliverance, but there are still a lot of major public libraries that aren’t in this loop, and of course private ones too. So the questions of Deliverance’s popularity in its own time and afterwards still depend very much on tracing quotations and references in other works. That’s a major task in waiting. As for how Deliverancemay have compared in its own time with rival works, other than the books or booklets about deliverance that Tanūkhī cites in his introduction and quotes from, I don’t think there were any other books of exactly this type, and I don’t know of any other semi-autobiographical self-help writings at this time. So Deliverancereally needs to be compared with non-autobiographical books of moral, philosophical, or mystical self-cultivation, or with career-orientated books of cultural self-improvement, or with the scholarly tools that were available for improving one’s knowledge of a given field, or with histories and whatever they wanted to suggest to readers about human destiny in general. Your question brings it home to me that Deliverancereally is a very unusual book.

How much do we know about how people used this book? It seems, as you say, to most lend itself to an audience of elites who have fallen on (or might soon be falling on) hard times. Do we have any idea of whether people would have read it alone or with others, in sequence or picking out sections, whether it was owned or borrowed? You suggested that “al-Tanūkhī and his contemporaries would have read aloud to themselves.” In company? I don’t suppose we know anything about how women might have read it.

JB:I think you have to read most medieval Arabic narratives aloud, or at least under your breath, to catch who’s saying what and in what tone of voice, and grasp the sequence of the narrative. In these particular stories, in the Arabic, you notice that in narrating sequences of action, things are often said proleptically, the thing with the most impact first, “he slammed the door and left”, meaning, “slamming the door, he left”, to make up an equivalent English example, which is a bit puzzling if you don’t say it aloud and see why it’s said that way round. The hadiths that Tanūkhī quotes would have had an oral circulation as well as a written one originally. A lot of the items that are literary set pieces he would have taken down by ear in lectures, and the stories about statesmen cry out to be spoken aloud with the tones and gestures the protagonists would have used when they allegedly told them to confidants. I think they’re all meant to come off the page as they got on to it, as though spoken. The two versions of the story about the old Arab servant woman of the Prophet’s wives who was accused of stealing, which simulate her artless speech and subaltern triumph at having the men and great ladies of the tribe grovel to her, are standout examples of this way of writing, which demands a corresponding way of reading. This being said, I have no evidence at all for how the book would originally have been read or used by men or by women. I expect they would have cherrypicked and browsed, as modern readers do, and indeed as Tanūkhī says in his introduction he meant his readers to. He makes it easy for them to locate congenial reading by setting out a typology of situations in his chapter headings: so, if you’ve ever been thwarted in love, go to chapter thirteen; if you’re interested in encounters with wild beasts, go to chapter nine; and so on. As for who owned the book or borrowed it and how literate the people were who used it, we have the evidence of the diction and accuracy of the manuscripts. For example, the Manchester John Rylands manuscript is something of a folk product, with the names in the isnāds and even the names of characters in the stories unrecognized and distorted by the scribe, and happy-ever-after additions to the endings. I’ve noted a few similar passages from other manuscripts that I used in this volume. When more manuscripts go online and we can see all the marginalia and scribbles on the endpapers, which, when we’re lucky, tell us a lot about ownership and circulation, we’ll have a much better idea how Deliverancewas used and perceived and by what kinds of people. For women we sometimes get lucky, for example with al-Sarrāj’s Doomed Lovers, an all-time blockbuster (to which Tanūkhī’s only son was an important contributor), one version of which has a famous woman hadith teacher named as its transmitter in one manuscript. We can but hope.

Speaking of women: There are a few women characters in the foreground of events, although generally not the adventurous sort. There’s the woman in the sea tale, who was pawed by the demon and becomes co-owner of a business; the woman whose crops were destroyed by hail; the slave-woman who was going to be killed by her jealous owner; the woman whose vagina was going to be searched for a sash. I was most surprised that a “holy woman of Basra” was imprisoned with a group of men. There are few named women; I noticed Asmāʾ bint ʿUmays. What did you particularly notice about the lives of women through al-Tanūkhī’s eyes? What can we learn about their lives?

JB:I don’t know whether we can learn much directly about women’s lives from Stories of Piety and Prayer, but we can learn a lot of new things about how people, men, that is, thought about women and used women to think with, and about the kinds of setting and situation they imagined for women when they wanted to think about them. (There are plenty more women later in Deliverance, in fact, and some of them are very exciting.) As for the “holy woman of Basra”, Basra was famous for early women mystics. This nameless one is generic and emblematic, and that’s as much as I can say. I don’t think that any of these stories are unmediated slices of life that directly document women (or anyone else), except in a few respects, for example sometimes, but only sometimes, in what they suggest about material culture, “things”, daily objects, on the assumption that, in basics, stories close in time to Tanūkhī must somehow reflect what people ate and wore and so on at that time; but similar details in what I’d call historical dramas may well be reconstructions (which is interesting in itself). Prisons, like the one where the anonymous holy woman of Basra was an inmate, are one of those historically ambiguous “things” we’d like to know a lot more about as social realities and part of the arm of the state. Tanūkhī’s stories open up fascinating perspectives on ideas about prison culture (on prisons as being somewhere decent people unjustly treated might impart spiritual lessons to each other, for example), and on the symbolism of imprisonment, arising from the fact that spending time in prison was a fairly frequent event in many people’s lives, accepted and not viewed as a stigma. Rather than being the end for the people involved, as it often was in reality, prison is a positive turning point in the stories where it occurs in this part of Deliverance. Joseph and Daniel were examples of unjust imprisonment earning spiritual and even worldly rewards, and Tanūkhī cites them here, but, interestingly, none of the people in these prison stories invoke them.

How has reception of Deliverance changed over time? You noted that printed versions became “blurred and generic.” Are there landmarks in the life of this text that we can point to?

You also suggest there’s a view that it’s “optimistic” which isn’t how I read it at all. I read it in a positive way, although less optimistic and more like, “the world is crazy, you’re not in control, accept that and things will be better.” I suppose that’s my contemporary lens.

JB:I think your contemporary lens is an accurate reading lens. Tanūkhī, I think, would dearly have liked the world to be rational and fair, and therefore manageable by people making responsible, rational choices, both because he was born and brought up a Muʿtazilī and that’s how he was taught to see the world, and because he clearly yearned for security. Storytelling with its managed outcomes made it possible for him to give the edge to rational providence over randomness, so collecting stories that showed that trusting to luck can have a providential outcome, deserved, and coherent rather than capricious, was a way of coming to terms with insecurity. That’s why he wrote Deliverance. It helped him to manage his confusions, but only to some extent. One example of how he tries to deal with inconsistency without being able to resolve it is the story of silly Abū Ayyūb who makes a written petition to God against his persecutor. Abū Ayyūb wins out, and this is good for Tanūkhī’s deliverance storytelling paradigm, but he still feels confused, because what happens is irrational in its premise but logical in its process: as his informant tells him, “by coincidence, Abū Ayyūb was delivered in pretty much the time that it takes for the depositions in a lawsuit to be processed.” Tanūkhī admits that “I myself have witnessed something similar,” but declares that “it never entered my mind to appeal for deliverance to a higher power!”. If anything, he’s rather indignant at the outcome. Twentieth-century western readers tended to see this kind of story as optimistic, and overlooked the confusions, which Tanūkhī in fact spells out—he deconstructs the stories himself and doesn’t sweep the problems under the carpet. Deliveranceis more complicated than it looks, and in our increasingly complicated twenty-first century circumstances, I think we can recognize that Tanūkhī is raising problems, not solving them.

The second part of this discussion is set to appear next Thursday, May 30.

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