One Thousand and One Nights: Tales of Enchantment

King Shahryar and Scheherazade
I just finished reading NJ Dawood’s translation of selected tales from the well-known One Thousand and One Nights.

I picked it from a used bookstore a few weeks back before my trip to Europe in June, but I was mostly trying to finish reading 김수영’s “당신의 꿈은 무엇입니까?”, which was also a great read.

As is well known, the frame story for the all the tales features King Shahryar, who marries virgins and executes them on the next day, and Scheherazade, the daughter of a vizier betrothed to King Shahryar who escapes inevitable death by telling the king enchanting tales every night. She continues telling her tales for 1,001 nights, from which the name of this collection of tales is derived.

As a child, I had of course watched Disney’s Aladdin, and was drawn in by a story from an exotic land that featured sorcerers, a magic lamp, and jinn. When I came across this Penguin Classics edition, I knew I had to get it if only to read the original Aladdin tale. I never would have known that the story of Aladdin has its setting in China in the original tale 🙂

What impressed me first of all was the translator – NJ Dawood – who apparently was a translator of Arabic into English of renown. His classic translation was first published by Penguin in 1956, and apparently, has remained in print to this day. And according to this,

Previous translations had been so archaic and literal as to be virtually unreadable. Dawood set out to produce a modern translation that would be readily accessible to an uninitiated readership. To this end he rearranged the original surahs (chapters) into more or less chronological order, to make them easier to understand, in line with the approach taken by the Jewish rabbis and Christian scholars who compiled the biblical canon. At the same time his lively, idiomatic English translation aimed to bring out the poetic beauty and eloquent rhetoric of the Arabic original, giving the reader some sense of why the work has had such power over generations of Muslims.

I had always wanted to try reading the Koran, purely out of curiosity, and after such an introduction of such a well-esteemed translator – and especially after having read his translation of the nocturnal tales – I will doubtless make sure to pick up his translation of the Koran.

As a child, I had read storybooks with large pictures depicting the story of Ali Baba, but besides that, I had not heard tell of the other tales. Dawood’s selection of tales for this collection made for an enjoyable read and included the Aladdin story and the Sindbad story, but notably, did not include the Ali Baba story. Which to me was surprising – not to mention more than a little disappointing 😦

I had maybe reached the middle of the book when I began to wonder when the famed Ali Baba story would come out. I checked the contents, but it wasn’t there. I flipped through the pages to look ahead and see if it was tucked in somewhere. But no. It wasn’t there. I suppose Dawood has his reasons for its exclusion, but I very much wanted to read his translation of it.

The tales are amusing, whimsical, and downright absurd. Several times while reading, I just had to smile imagining in my mind what took place in the stories. As you can imagine, the stories feature tales of magic lamps, magic rings, Ifrit, jinn, hidden caves/underground halls filled with immeasurable riches, avaricious kings, virtuous men and women, sorcerers, treachery and deception, and…so much more. Reading the tales, I was transported to the medieval Arab world. I imagined myself standing in the marketplace as the merchants haggled and bartered, calling down blessings upon people and the name of Allah being invoked.

Of note was the way women were portrayed in the tales. There were descriptions of beautiful maidens and princesses. More often than not, they were depicted as seducing men with an evil aim (murder) or for their own salvation. There was also the story of the kind-hearted mother in the story of Judar son of Omar, who was deceived again and again by her two evil and greedy sons. And also women like Fatimah, the abusive wife who cursed her poor husband Mar’auf all night. Fatimah was described as being a termagant, an interesting word that I came to learn from the book.

I also noted that the people in the stories were all religious. There were numerous religious expressions such as ‘Praise be to Allah’ and ‘by Allah’. When the characters found themselves in a pickle, they would often say “There is no strength or help save in Allah!”, the Arabic phrase of which I was interested in finding since it seemed like an oft-repeated phrase. Each story would usually end with something like “so-and-so lived happily ever after until they were visited by the Annihilator of men, the Destroyer of earthly pleasures”. This I found to be an interesting personification of death. I wonder if there exists some expression like this that is still used to this day when saying that someone passed away. In line with all these stories that involve mystical jinn and Ifrit, an expression like that just seemed fitting. The idea that Death comes when it is time, and no one can be spared from it. That kind of closing comes at the end of a story, when the main problem facing the protagonist has been resolved, and (usually) they enjoy the bounties of immeasurable riches as princes and kings. But, as with all men, regardless of order and rank, Death visits them just the same.

And then there was mention of people like cadi, vizier, nabob, houri, among others. All of these were interesting to me, and I did some basic research to find out more about what these positions were. Obviously these words are Arabic in origin, and they were used in the text, so I was naturally inclined to learn more about what these positions were about. Oh, and houri is apparently from Islamic mythology, so they’re not real people 🙂

Baghdad is the home of Sindbad the Sailor, and every time the city is mentioned, it is described as “Baghdad, City of Peace”. I imagine it must have been a magnificent city in that time. I was a little sad to think that a city that was known as the City of Peace would be today one that knows little peace. To have seen Baghdad at the height of its influence and prestige must have been awesome.

캡처In doing some research about the tales (mostly Wikipedia), I came across this blog that apparently aims to have summaries of all the tales. The main page shows a three volume Penguin series of what I assume are the tales in their entirety. Sure enough, I found them on Amazon. I definitely do want to read those other tales as well some time.I’ll see how the translation of these tales fares against Dawood’s translation 🙂


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