All Human Life is Here

The Arabian Nights translated by Malcolm C. Lyons with Ursula Lyons, introduced and annotated by Robert Irwi

North of Riyadh, in a lush oasis on the Najd plateau, lies the abandoned city of Dir’iyya, a complex of mud-brick palaces and humbler dwellings dominated by the citadel of Turayf. Though founded in 1446, the city now stands as a shrine to a drastic ideal. Here, from 1745 until 1818, when it was sacked by the Egyptian forces of Ibrahim Pasha, fanatical Wahhabi Muslims dedicated a polity to the re-establishment of the “pure” Islam of the Prophet’s time.

Dir’iyya has been preserved as a monument to that disastrous endeavour. Although little visited, it is revered as the birthplace of the Saudi state. To wander through its deserted lanes, as I did some years ago, climbing the eroded battlements, crossing public spaces where the markets once rang with haggling or trespassing on the vacant chambers of its private houses, is to undergo a spooky “Arabian Nights” experience: the formal reception rooms, the hidden women’s quarters, even the windowless cubicles reserved for servants and slaves, once echoed with living voices.

Never mind that inside these austere precincts enterprising renovators have occasionally installed modern plumbing and electricity, the pipes and the switches pressed incongruously into the ancient mud. No one lives here now or would want to. But if Dir’iyya called up memories of The Arabian Nights, the sensation it inspired in me was anything but elegiac. It was painfully double-edged.

For the question is not only “where are they?” – that immemorial ubi sunt?, echoing through the hundreds of nights during which Shahrazad spins her yarns – but “what happened?” How did a narrow and primitive – and wholly fictitious – vision of Islam, hatched on a barren plateau, supplant, and presume to speak for, the rich and sophisticated culture which that faith had once brought forth? In The City of Brass, one of Shahrazad’s most powerful tales, Musa and his fellow explorers come upon a gleaming, hermetically sealed city without visible gates. When they manage to scale its high walls, they find a metropolis of the dead within. In Malcolm C. Lyons magnificent new translation, we read:

The shops were open, with their scales hanging up and the copper pots arranged in orderly rows; the khans were filled with goods of all sorts, but the traders could be seen dead in their booths with their flesh desiccated and their bones crumbled away, a lesson for those who could learn.

Wherever the travellers go, from the silk market to the jewellers’ emporia to the innermost chambers of the palace, they find such macabre scenes. The merchants are dressed for business, the princess lounges on her dais, but all are skeletons, decaying simulacra of the living in a city closed forever to the world. On the most obvious level, this is a parable of transience. (As the cynical pasha puts it in Ivo Andric’s novel Bosnian Chronicle, “We’re all dead but some of us are buried later than others.”) But is it not also a symbol of what happens when a once vibrant culture becomes intoxicated by its own most poisonous fantasies?

Readers who come for the first time to The Thousand and One Nights ( in Arabic Alf Layla wa’Layla) may be startled to discover an Islamic culture almost unrecognisably at variance with any we know today. Though rigidly hierarchical, dominated by Koranic precept and prophetic example, as well as by meticulous social protocols and rituals of courtesy, the Baghdad or the Cairo we encounter in these pages pulse with a sense of freedom and expansive possibility. The high and mighty rub shoulders (as well as other parts) with the lowest of the low. A slaughterhouse worker (one of the “vile professions” in traditional Islamic culture) finds himself suddenly in bed with a high-born married woman, and at her invitation. These are cities of abrupt reversals: a prince is reduced to tattered beggary, a slave-girl ends up on a throne, a wolf vows to become a Sufi. This may be a “patriarchal” society but its women, whether simpering courtesans or toothless hags, are hardly “oppressed”. They dominate and hector their men. Far from being languorous odalisques, they are bold in their desires; they make impetuous assignations, it is their lovers who hang back.

In this world, men and women fall in love at a glance, and before you know it, they’re snogging between scented sheets, often under the noses of oblivious spouses. Nor is either sex abstemious. They gorge on delicacies washed down with gargantuan draughts of wine. At the same time, they are unabashedly devout. The sharper and the whore are as fervent in belief as the cadi (Islamic judge), indeed, often more so, and this is not seen as hypocrisy – that is the exclusive province of the smugly sanctimonious, who are often satirised. The piety of rogues and backsliders represents one of those recurrent collisions of extremes by which the anonymous story-tellers of the Nights sought to portray human life at its most joyous pitch.

Of course, you may say, this represents nothing more than fantasy; it’s the sort of extravagant wish-fulfilment tall tales customarily exploit. As Robert Irwin notes in his brilliant The Arabian Nights: a Companion (London, 2004), it would be risky to draw conclusions about medieval Muslim sexual, or social, life from these stories. And yet, fantasies are grounded in longing. However Abbasid Baghdad or Mamluke Cairo differed from their depictions here, the stories reflect the deepest hopes and fears, as well as the most abiding aspirations, of a culture. These are as authentic as any “facts on the ground”. Despite outright errors and blatant anachronisms, the stories remain faithful to a deeper truth than that of mere social history. They embody a vast repertoire of the imagination, perhaps the most intricate ever assembled.

The new Lyons version is the first complete translation into English since Richard Burton published the 10-volume A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, in 1885 (followed by his Supplemental Nights, in six volumes, in 1886-8). Burton’s faults as a translator have been well documented. A disciple of “logopandocie” – which Irwin defines as a “readiness to admit words of all kinds into the language” (and best exemplified by Sir Thomas Urquhart in his gleefully deranged 1653 translation of Rabelais) – Burton positively wallowed in archaic locutions, the more outlandish the better. He larded his prose with such words as “gugglet” and “shroff” and “neave” – picturesque enough, but neither “plain” nor “literal”. His addiction to smut distracts as well, especially in his notorious footnotes (if you want to learn how the most adroit courtesans bring their sphincter muscles into play, Burton’s your man). It isn’t so much his “turpiloquium”, as he put it, which offends as the fussy antiquarianism of his smuttiness. He is simultaneously prurient and Pickwickian.

But, for all Burton’s prodigious erudition, he traduced the text profoundly. The Arabic of the Nights is generally straightforward. Burton weighed it down with gratuitous flourishes. Though he wanted his translation to scandalise Victorian philistinism, he himself – to speak in “Burtonese” – sheathed the sexual candour of the text in virtually prophylactic lewdness; and the effect is not bold but coy.

By contrast, the Lyons translation is lucid and beautifully modulated. Lyons is alert to the nuances of the original. He is as good at the bawdy as he is at the sublime. He translates all the verse with which the tales are interspersed; most of it is doggerel, but he makes even that pleasantly readable. In one of the most thrilling tales, that of Ali Shar and Zumurrud, he conveys with equal ease the tenderness of the two lovers – he an impoverished merchant, she a clever slave-girl – the pungent coarseness of the Kurdish brigand who abducts her, the brisk cruelty of Zumurrud’s revenge, and the lovers’ eventual reunion, in which passion and slapstick coincide. Zumurrud, disguised as a man, has become king and when Ali is brought to her bed, expecting the worst, he is surprised to find that the “king” has skin “smoother than silk and softer than butter.” At first he murmurs, “This king is better than any woman”, but as he extends his caresses, he is astounded: “The king has a vagina.” Zumurrud bursts out laughing and at last he recognises her. (In Burton’s version, “Quoth Ali in himself: Verily, our King hath a coynte; this is indeed a wonder of wonders!”)

Lyons’s version is superior not only because it is simpler but because it respects the delicacy of the original: the reunion is both fantastic and farcical, and the more moving for that. Lyons also preserves one of the most salient aspects of the Nights: all matters, whether ribald or sublime, are treated with the same grave but light-handed equanimity. Human antics are framed, as the stories themselves are, against a backdrop of eternity. And from that illumined perspective, the pettiest of swindlers and the grandest of monarchs stand revealed in all their genial humanity.

In one of the finest essays ever written on the Nights, his Tausendeine Nacht of 1906, the great Austrian poet, playwright and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (who 11 years before had written his own Tale of Night Six Hundred and Seventy-Two in homage) drew attention to the “exalted sensuality” which holds the huge work together. But he also noted that a certain “intuition, a presence of God, lies over all these sensuous things, which is indescribable”. If it is death, “the destroyer of delights and the parter of companions”, which quickens the tales, and which impels Shahrazad to weave ever more fantastic narratives out of her inexhaustible imagination, it is God, invisible but always palpable, who presides over every episode.

This Penguin Classics set has been exquisitely designed, from its sleek slip-case to the subtle motifs, derived from Persian miniatures, which adorn the covers, down to the silk ribbon markers which dangle from each plump volume like the tassels on fezzes. In addition to Irwin’s introductions, which deal respectively with the Nights themselves, their tangled textual history, and their immense influence on later writers, there are three excellent maps, a glossary, a chronology, suggestions for further reading, and a detailed index. The Lyons translation appears two years after the new French translation by Jamel Eddine Bencheikh and André Miquel, in the Pléiade series. It’s a useful reminder that the Nights came to us first in Gallic trappings. It was the French numismatist and librarian Antoine Galland (1646-1715) who discovered the Arabic originals and translated them, in 12 volumes, over the years 1704 to 1717. In the Lyons version, the three so-called “orphan stories” (such as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, for which no Arabic original has been found but which Galland included) have been elegantly translated by Ursula Lyons.

The work poses a final puzzle. How can it be that such vivid tales lull us to sleep? In several, the great Harun al-Rashid, fifth caliph in the Abbasid line, finds himself troubled by insomnia and when all else fails, he calls for a story. Perhaps the answer lies in the tales’ odd but pleasing combination of unrestrained fantasy and shrewd common sense. The stories, however improbable or grotesque, are underpinned by the homeliest of morals: the good prevail and the wicked are overthrown. The prince is restored to his realm and the merchant recovers his lost fortune. The tales satisfy imaginations famished for wonder. But even more importantly, they stand like fabulous cities against the encroachments of the dark.

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