Queens of the Night

McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas
Set design by Leon Bakst for the Ballets Russes production of Scheherazade, circa 1910

On June 24, 1911, the fashion designer Paul Poiret held a much-anticipated costume party in Paris, which he promised would “be the Thousand and Second Night.” The guests, who had received invitations designed by Raoul Dufy, were led past a huge golden cage, in which Madame Poiret was imprisoned, along with a harem of friends singing Persian songs. In another room, the actor Édouard de Max, lounging on embroidered cushions, recited select tales from Joseph Mardrus’s recent translation of the Thousand and One Nights. Mardrus, the Cairo-born friend of Gide, Mallarmé, and Proust, was himself a guest. Monkeys, macaws, and parrots were released into the garden, where famous ballerinas of the period danced on the lawn. Poiret’s wife Denise, evoking Shahrazad’s captivity, left her gilded cage, “as a bird might escape.”

Poiret, Proust, and their belle epoque circle were what the scholar Robert Irwin calls “the Children of the Nights,” who emerged in Europe after the first French translation of 1704–1717, by the scholar of Oriental languages Antoine Galland, who also translated the Koran and collaborated with another scholar on an encyclopedic study of Islamic cultures. Galland had been sent by Louis XIV’s finance minister, Colbert, to a school of Oriental languages established by the French in Turkey, the precursor of France’s famous École des Langues Orientales.

The primary source of Galland’s Nights was a set of fourteenth- or fifteenth-century Syrian manuscripts brought to him by a friend from Aleppo for his personal library. Galland eventually incorporated into his translation tales told him by Hanna Diab, a Maronite Christian monk living in Paris. Galland might very well have worked with another compilation, incorporating other stories, if one had come his way. As the English scholar of myth Marina Warner writes:

Now in this version, now in that, [the Nights] has no known author or named authors, no settled shape or length, no fixed table of contents, no definite birthplace or linguistic origin….

Galland’s translation launched a sequence of translations into other languages, serials, adaptions, abridgments, and expurgated children’s editions, in such quantity that by 1783 the poet James Beattie remarked that “most English young people knew the Nights intimately.” They would all have been familiar with the frame tale that starts off the intricate story-within-a-story of the thousand and one nights: the Sassanid Persian King Shahriyar discovers his wife making love with a slave. After killing them both, he vows in revenge to marry a virgin every day, and ensure her fidelity by having her executed by his vizier the next morning.

The killing persists for three years until the kingdom is nearly depleted of marriageable women. The vizier’s own daughter, Shahrazad, insists on marrying the king, hoping to save the remaining women and girls of the kingdom, as well as her father, who will soon fail the king, unable to find more women. Shahrazad’s strategy is to tell the king a story every night, artfully falling silent at dawn, so that the king will want the story to continue. After a thousand and one nights of stories, the king acknowledges his love for and trust in Shahrazad, and they live happily together, along with the three children she has borne him, until they die.

Two recent books by Marina Warner and the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh confirm the continuing power of this work, unique in the world’s literature. As Warner writes, and al-Shaykh’s retellings demonstrate, the tales

form a book, but also a genre which is still changing, still growing. The tales spill out from the covers of the volumes in which they appear, in different versions and translations, and escape from the limits of time…generating more tales, in various media…. The stories themselves are shape-shifters.

The stories draw from Indian, Persian, Syrian, Coptic, Berber, Greek, Hebrew, Roman, Turkish, and Pharaonic sources. Scholars do not agree on what should be treated as the authoritative version of the Nights. In 1984, the Iraqi scholar Muhsin Mahdi published an Arabic text drawn from the oldest surviving manuscripts, using mainly Galland’s volumes, now in the Arabic manuscript collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Mahdi held that this edition, translated into English by the Iraqi Husain Haddawy in 1990, represented the authentic surviving Arabian Nights tales.

Others, like the Arabist Robert Irwin, author of the indispensable The Arabian Nights: A Companion (2004), treat “every story published in the four nineteenth century editions printed in Arabic [Calcutta I, Enlaq, Breslau, and Calcutta II] as part of the Nights,” including “Nights apocrypha.” Jorge Luis Borges famously took the storyteller’s view that “the idea of infinity is consubstantial with The Thousand and One Nights.” Even translation was a form of continued storytelling. (He thought the ideal German-language translator for the Nights would have been Kafka.) In an uncanny way, the Nights illuminates and reveals the desires and fantasies of each of its translators; Shahrazad’s tales not only entertain King Shahriyar, but mirror and comment subtly on his own preoccupations. Warner quotes Henry Reeve’s pithy summary of the Nights’ most famous translators: “Galland is for the nursery, Lane for the library, Payne for the study, and Burton for the sewers.”

Recently there have been three fresh translations of the Nights: by the Iraqi Husain Haddawy, which follows Muhsin Mahdi’s edition; by the French and Algerian team of Andre Miquel and Jamel Eddine Bensheikh, who translated in 2005 the whole of the nineteenth-century Bulaq edition into French for the first time; and by Malcolm Lyons, who published in 2009 the first full English version from the Arabic since John Payne’s of 1882–1884.

Warner’s own preferred translation is the French Pléiade edition by Bensheikh and Miquel; she describes it eloquently as “an incomparable account of the 1001 Nights, and it would not be a mistake to translate it into English, notes and all, as Galland’s version was three hundred years ago.” I, too, hope this marvelous version is translated, and would add a plea for Malek Chebel’s delightful, idiosyncratic meditation on the Nights, Dictionnaire amoureux des milles et une nuits, a wonderful companion to the tales, which also explores the new terrain of how the Nights is experienced in the Middle East.

The Nights was for centuries not accepted into the canon of Arabic literature: Robert Irwin in his Companion writes that “stories, such as the Nights, were classified as khurafa, lies or fantasies, tales fit for women and children and only suitable for telling in the evening.” Poetry “was the most noble and challenging of literary forms” while the Nights, “being full of khurafa and for the most part, written in a fairly simple prose that was littered with colloquialisms, had a low status in medieval Arabic literature.” The work began to be valued in the Arab world in the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Warner tells us, as important Arabic writers like Naguib Mahfouz, Tayeb Salih, and Elias Khoury began to make self-conscious use of it in their novels, while the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum performed a song called “Alf Layla wa Layla” (One Thousand and One Nights) in her epic style.

In a further testimony to the Nights’ elasticity and hybrid nature, Galland himself, writing in the early eighteenth century, may have invented, or translated with libertine improvisation, two of the most popular tales, Ali Baba and Sindbad; Borges saw this as a storyteller’s privilege and, perhaps, truest ambition. In any case, it seems a superb irony, in Shahrazad’s own style, that creative infidelities could produce such fruitful results in a work initiated by an act of infidelity, and a king’s implacably unforgiving reaction to it.

The ambiguous figure of Shahrazad herself is an example of the way the book seems to claim its own independent life. We often do not know in the Nights where the storyteller ends and the stories begin. In tale after tale, the Nights raises questions about how imagination shapes and alters what we see, often with real and lasting consequences, joyful or cruel, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream does, or Macbeth. I am not as sure as Warner is that the original infidelity is incontestably real; after all, Shahrazad spends 1,001 nights with the king, a bridegroom who fails, until she presents them, to notice the three sons she has borne to him, one still at the breast; he is not a man with altogether reliable powers of perception. Her danger, and the murders of the other women who preceded her, are even more disturbing if they are the results of the king’s fantasy and his power to bring his dreams to life. The narrator of the Arabian Nights does not comment or moralize on the actions of her characters. She describes what happens to them. Her reticence enables her to challenge the king with impassive daring.

Proust, above all male writers, saw himself as an incarnation of Shahrazad, engaged, as she is, in an epic work of remembering: he alludes to the Galland and Mardrus translations given him by his mother, personifies death as Shahriyar, and at the end of his novel confesses that his tales are told, like hers, to stave off his death.

Shahrazad is indeed gradually revealing to the king that a sword even more powerful than his executioner’s lies on his own neck. She constantly evokes “Death, the destroyer of all delights,” and her stories are not only addressed to the king, but to the unseen presence of Death (the Angel of Death is often a protagonist). When she falls silent, in the middle of an unfinished tale at daybreak, her silence is an implicit, eloquent reminder that the king cannot know his own fate any more than she does.

Warner explores the ways in which these fantasy tales have emerged as an inextricable element of Western culture, not only in literature but in art, film, theater, commerce, science. Stranger Magic is an unabashedly joyful work of scholarship, a study of the history of the human imagination as it shapes and reinvents reality through stories. Here, Warner comes close to inventing a genre of literary criticism: she takes fifteen tales from the Nights and uses them as her own frame tales to embark on a series of erudite adventures. She performs a kind of intellectual free association based on rigorous research and enhanced by handsome illustrations, a number from her own collection. In homage to the Nights, this is a scholarly entertainment.

A chapter on the flying carpets in the Nights moves through the history of Oriental carpets and their motifs, to the practice of weaving as an inspiration for the complex patterns of storytelling in the Nights, and finishes at the carpet-covered grave of Rudolf Nureyev, whose dancing evokes for Warner an important theme of her book, the passages between the physical world and the world of imagination. A history of the imagination of flight inspired by the Nights leads us to a discussion of nineteenth-century stagecraft inventions used to present Aladdin in English productions, where the character becomes a symbol of abolition, freeing the genies who are the slaves of his lamp. For Warner, the motifs and characters of the Nights have been the means of imagining other worlds, artistically, materially, and politically.

Comenius-Film/Kobal Collection
A scene from The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a German animated film based on stories from the Arabian Nights and directed by Lotte Reiniger, 1926

As in the Nights themselves, the tales Warner presents generate story after story, in lives as well as art. We follow the tales as they emerge in the biographies and work of both familiar and lesser-known figures shaped by their encounters with the Oriental world. Warner discusses how the “orientalising fever” created by the Nights stimulated the “cultural army” that accompanied Napoleon to Egypt to produce the Description de l’Egypte. The artists and engravers, Warner suggests, saw not only the Egypt they worked in, but also the Egypt the Nights had taught them to see—“barbers and tanners, belt-weavers and dervishes, attendants at the baths, porters and traders, singing and dancing girls, and wandering holy men or dervishes.”

A section on the Nights and film introduces us to the remarkable Lotte Reiniger, a German filmmaker whom Jean Renoir described as having “magic hands” and who created a classic of animation based on the Nights in the 1920s. She used delicately hand-cut silhouettes to tell an Arabian Nights story and camera techniques that anticipated Walt Disney.

Warner demonstrates that there is nothing idle about imagining. In a marvelous meditation about the couch, she speculates that Shahrazad’s “book of stories told in bed” might have influenced Freud’s creation of psychoanalysis through stories told by a patient reclining on a couch.

Through her chapters on the Arabesque tales of Voltaire and Anthony Hamilton, on William Beckford’s Vathek, and on Goethe’s twelve-volume cycle of poems The West-Eastern Divan, Warner draws us quietly toward the dramatic realization that the wonder tales of the Arabian Nights are no mere influence on the literatures of Europe. Even Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales contain motifs and plots similar to stories in the Nights, though scholars have not established precisely how he came to know the tales. The introduction of the Arabian Nights in the eighteenth century made it integral to literature, a graft that remade the orchard. The Galland Nights connected European writers across linguistic borders: both Pushkin and Goethe had copies in their personal libraries. Pushkin’s poem “Egyptian Nights” is informed by it, as Goethe’s late poems are. Borges points out that the Arabian Nights created an adjective in Spanish, milyunanochesco.

The scholar Martha Pike Conant called the Arabian Nights “the fairy godmother of the English novel,” and Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, like Voltaire’s Oriental tales, was composed under its influence. George Eliot imagines Daniel Deronda as the Nights’ Prince Camaralzaman, while one of the novel’s characters sketches him as the Prince. The Arabian Nights is ubiquitous in Dickens’s works; he opens the second volume of The Old Curiosity Shop with a homage to it, while Scrooge envisions his young self in A Christmas Carol as Ali Baba.

The Grimm Brothers, Tolstoy, Hans Christian Andersen, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Isak Dinesen, Joyce, and Italo Calvino were all influenced by reading the Arabian Nights. Yeats declared that the works of Shakespeare and, after them, the Arabian Nights were his indispensable books. Wordsworth devoted a stanza of The Prelude to it, while Tennyson wrote a poem called “Recollection of the Arabian Nights”—“Adown the Tigris was I borne…. True Mussulman was I and sworn….” Much that is familiar in European literature would quite simply not exist without the cornerstone of the Arabian Nights.

Stranger Magic is largely a book about the effect of the Nights on Europe. Though the Orient has strongly marked the American imagination—particularly in decor and architectural fantasy, like Frederic Church’s Olana, Glen Curtiss’s 1926 Arabian Nights–themed development of the town of Opa-locka, Florida, and P.T. Barnum’s Bridgeport mansion, Iranistan, the Arabian Nights has not utterly transformed the nature of literature in North America as it has in Europe. Though it is certainly present, it has served more often as a means of imagining America, as with Melville’s Sindbad-inspired Mardi, than other cultures.

Both Poe and Twain wrote stories depicting a Thousand and Second Night, though Twain’s was never published. Twain’s Shahrazad has a flavor of the suffragette and talks the king to death; Poe’s is resolutely modern, and is executed when she describes a bustle, which infuriates the king as being too fantastic. The Nights in America has perhaps been most embraced by writers of fantasy, like H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, whose novel Misery tells the story of a male writer trapped by a deadly female fan who insists that he become her private storyteller.

Nor is there in America the depth of engagement that translation brings to encounters with another literary tradition. Curiously, though the Nights has found generations of translators in European languages, there seems never to have been a native-born American translator: the translators Muhsin Mahdi and Husain Hadawy made their careers in the US, but were natives of Iraq.

It may be that a country of institutionalized slavery was uneasy with tales of slaves winning their freedom by outwitting and occasionally marrying their masters. Perhaps another partial answer emerges from the legacy of the radical Protestants who colonized New England. They based their nation-building claim on a reading of the scriptures: Jerusalem was ubiquitous in American fantasy rather than Baghdad or Cairo. Travel narratives of journeys to the Bible lands form a distinctive American genre. American translators of Arabic seem to have put their energies into the Bible and missionary materials rather than Arabic literature, although accounts of daily life in the Middle East were an improving entertainment at churches, like the one described by the children’s book author Kate Douglas Wiggin, who also edited a popular children’s anthology of Arabian Nights tales. Strange Magic’s portrait of the Arabian Nights as a part of the irreplaceable architecture of European literature reveals one of the great divides between European and American literature.*

Warner’s rich, diffuse, and unconventional scholarship is as much a retelling of the Arabian Nights tales as the novelist Hanan al-Shaykh’s, though Warner tells the stories as they unfold in history. Al-Shaykh’s charming versions were first conceived as a play directed in 2011 by the brilliant Tim Supple, whose work has often engaged the challenge of presenting stories on stage. The resulting book shows traces of its theatrical origin and the ingenious techniques al-Shaykh has used to maneuver the limitless scope of the tales into a form that fits the constraints imposed by theater.

Al-Shaykh had to find a way to tell her stories in one night rather than a thousand and one, and to accommodate a handful of actors, instead of the infinite cast available to Shahrazad. Al-Shaykh’s tales read as if they are being acted on the page, rather than narrated, with her deliberate use of often slangy dialogue: demons “show up”; a jinni addresses the fisherman who frees him from a jar, “Hey, fisherman!”

Al-Shaykh brings her tales to life with a wonderful earthy immediacy, informal and intimate, though they paradoxically lose the quality of oceanic timelessness that captivated Proust. Her tales are not told “once upon a time,” but now, at this instant.

Al-Shaykh has written that the characters in the stories remind her of the people in the Beirut neighborhood where she grew up and, elsewhere, that Shahrazad was like her mother. Anyone who has read al-Shaykh’s The Locust and the Bird, her account of her mother, an illiterate child bride who invented one new life after another for herself through wit and daring, will recognize the resemblance.

Al-Shaykh’s nineteen tales reveal the strategy she devised to make a coherent group of stories for an evening of theater. After the frame tale of the infidelity of King Shahriyar’s wife and his revenge, Shahriyar and Shahrazad recede into the background, although themes from their personal story resonate in the group of tales that follow. The rest of the stories are told in an elegant mansion where three ladies and their guests, among whom is the disguised Caliph Haroun al-Rachid, have been brought together by a series of coincidences. They tell their adventures, their stories becoming dialogues with each other.

Al-Shaykh manages to reflect the Nights’ multiplicity by doubling the stories, the way an actor takes on two roles in a play. For instance, in one story, a dervish from the eleventh night in the original is conflated with a character from the 113th night, and tells the latter’s story as his own. Some stories, like “Dalila the Wily” and “The Woman and Her Five Lovers,” follow the originals closely, but in others, al-Shaykh changes fates, foreshortens, magnifies, and omits, sometimes creating a new story using a technique that seems akin to the way professional storytellers make a tale their own, committing an original tale to memory partly by settling on certain themes and details. The new story combines the way the storyteller remembers the story with the original version.

Al-Shaykh’s variations and narrative choices concentrate and focus the stories on the erotic passions and struggles of women and men, inquiring which sex is less trustworthy, which more cruel. For al-Shaykh, the answer would seem to be men, not because they are innately more vicious, but because their political power gives them the capacity to legislate injustice that women can only alter or evade through personal means, through heroic strategies of wit. Shahriyar can order Shahrazad’s execution and expect to have his will carried out efficiently and obediently, even though his deputy is, in fact, Shahrazad’s own father. Al-Shaykh’s three hostesses refuse the caliph’s traditional attempt to transform into joy their suffering at the hands of men, through arranging desirable marriages. In a startlingly blunt manner, the women defy the caliph, saying they have had enough of marriage and of men. They do not want a ruler to dispose of them, either through marriage or murder. For them, the tale told by the voice of power, even benevolent power, intends to force a fate on them; they want their stories to be their own.

The compression al-Shaykh must impose on the tales both sharpens and narrows them. While she does full justice to the indomitable, sparklingly witty women she evokes so well, cousins of Beatrice in Much Ado, I miss some of the sheer erotic grandeur of the Nights, a rhetoric that is both sensual and sublime, indicating the larger world of what is desirable. Erudition is an aphrodisiac in the Nights; Shahrazad herself has collected a library of a thousand books, of poetry, history, medicine, and the lives of kings and peoples. The slave Anis al-Jalis, of the tale told on the thirty-fourth night, has a perfect oval face and saliva sweeter than perfumed water, but she also knows calligraphy, grammar, vocabulary, the art of exegesis of texts, the principles of law, religion, medicine, and astronomy, and is a master musician. Even she is not the equal of the incomparable prodigy Tawaddud, the slave girl of the tale “Abu-l’Husn and His Slave-Girl,” who bests the finest scholars of Baghdad in Koranic exegesis, principles of law, philosophy, physiology, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, music, chess, and backgammon. And while desire can lead to every kind of destruction, fulfilled desire can also be a divine gift, as in the description of the lovers Ghanim and Qut al-Qulub, on the forty-first night: “More and more happy and in love, they held each other closely in each other’s arms, for the glory of Him who created these feelings in our hearts.”

Al-Shaykh’s book refuses the original’s finale of reconciliation and rejoicing. In the Nights themselves, in his subtle, almost imperceptible reactions to Shahrazad’s stories, we sense the king’s slow recovery of his humanity. He gradually begins to ask for stories, rather than command them, and on the 145th night, there is a moment of grace when he unexpectedly makes a personal request, telling Shahrazad courteously that he would very much like to hear a story about birds. For a moment, we catch a glimpse of a refined and civilized man, as we do when Banquo makes his delicate observations about the martins nesting at Macbeth’s castle.

Al-Shaykh, despite her relish of the erotic candor and richness of the Nights and its range of irrepressible heroines, finishes on an ambiguous, even ominous note: the people of the kingdom cannot forget how the king killed their daughters, so trust in his rule is eroded. Al-Shaykh suggests that Shahrazad, favorite though she is, will always live in danger. King Shahriyar, under the spell of Shahrazad’s stories, permits her to live, but a life conferred on her by an absolute ruler is a life that may still be ended by decree. The king and his bride speak different languages: his is the language of law, of the inevitable, hers the speech of freedom, of what is marvelous, unforeseeable, and possible.

  1. *

    The splendid recently published anthology Scheherazade’s Children: Global Encounters with the Arabian Nights ( NYU Press, 2013), edited by Philip F. Kennedy and Marina Warner, reflects this division of influence.