Saturday, 22 August 2009

Arabian Nights - ألف ليلة وليلة

When the usual hour arrived the grand-vizir conducted Scheherazade to the palace, and left her alone with the Sultan, who bade her raise her veil and was amazed at her beauty. But seeing her eyes full of tears, he asked what was the matter. "Sire," replied Scheherazade, "I have a sister who loves me as tenderly as I love her. Grant me the favour of allowing her to sleep this night in the same room, as it is the last we shall be together."

Schahriar consented to Scheherazade's petition and Dinarzade was sent for.

... "Will your highness permit me to do as my sister asks?" said she. "Willingly," he answered. So Scheherazade began ...

And so begins the story of the 1001/Arabian Nights, the quest to save a city and the world from a king, who starts off good, but has lost his way because of a broken heart following a deception.

A couple of years ago I read Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp by Philip Pullman to a group of school children on camp (late night drinking cocoa before we went to sleep) - I had absolute attention and everyone of them was carried away with a story that they already knew, but as if listening for the first time - a magic carpet ride for sure.

The contents and the origins of the stories in A Thousand and One Nights/Arabian Nights (Farsi: هزار و یک شب)/(Arabic: ألف ليلة وليلة) have Arabic, Indian and Persian elements in the tellings and re-tellings, so what we have is a pot pourri of tales. In the tradtion of oral story telling that these stories come from, changes here and there have kept these stories entertaining. The most famous stories - Sindbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves are known to many. The features of the stories that I like, is the story within a story frame, the clever use of magic, surprise and cliff-hangers, set against an Islamic backdrop that covers far and wide places - Samarkand, Baghdad, Cairo and so - all held within the story arc concerning King Shahryār, his murderous broken heart and his Queen Shahrzād.

Richard Burton's compilations and translations have an known element of orientalism in them - and in my opinion - best read in the expurgated form. Contemporary versions exist too, notably Mohsin Mahdi's Arabic version, translated into English by Husain Haddawy. Last year, the Telegraph favourably reviewed yet another version (this time by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons).

Andrew Lang's version (the passage above comes from his retelling) also remains popular and is available here in PDF and other forms.

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