A Hundred and One Nights: Part of the ‘Tip of the Iceberg’ of Popular Arabic Tales

MLYNXQUALEY

Bruce Fudge, Professor of Arabic at the University of Geneva and author of Qur’anic Hermeneutics: al-Tabrisi and the Craft of Commentary (2011), wanted to take a break from Qur’an commentary and “read all the things that religious scholars told you not to read.”

So when an opportunity arose to translate a text for the Library of Arabic Literature, Fudge suggested a collection of stories not unlike the 1,001 Nights. For while much of scholarship about classical Arabic literature is focused on what one might call high literature, he said, 1,001 Nights is just the tip of the iceberg of semi-popular stories. Fudge says that, when he first went around Moroccan bookshops asking about A Hundred and One Nights,booksellers told him that surely he meant the 1,001. But, he says, even if they are not that well known today, these types of tales were once enormously popular.

In the first part of an interview about this edition and translation of A Hundred and One Nights, Fudge talks about where the stories might have come from and how they traveled, who might have produced and read the Nights, and what the use of Middle Arabic tells us about their composers, scribes, and audience.

The second part will talk about which came first—the 101 or the 1,001—issues in translation, and the research that still needs to be done.

How did this translation come about?

My first area of specialization was Qur’an commentary, and I worked on that for a number of years. Eventually, I decided that I’d had enough of that for a while, and I would like to read all the things that religious scholars told you not to read. I’d always had a fondness for the 1,001 Nights in Arabic, so I went back to them and began to read about the related stories, to get an idea of what the field looked like. And I liked it a lot more than commentaries on the Qu’ran.

One of the things that I quickly became aware of was that only a fraction of this kind of material was readily available. There were really only two other works, besides the 1,001, that could be said be “well known.” One of these has just been translated into English by Malcolm Lyons as Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange, It was discovered in the 1940s and edited by Hans Wehr in the 1950s. It has been translated into German, and the odd scholar has looked at it.

I began reading those tales, and there are some fantastic stories in that collection. The other one that had some degree of visibility was the 101 Nights. It was translated into French in 1911, and there’s an Arabic edition that was produced in the 1970s.

But these three—the 1,001, the 101, and the Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange—are only the tip of the iceberg?

Ironically, one of the reasons that only these are well-known is that they have titles. There are plenty of other manuscripts. Who knows how many there are! In libraries in Europe and the Middle East, there are countless uncatalogued, unread manuscripts of this type of story. Usually, they’ll have a generic title or no title at all, and that makes it hard for them to be identified. Sometimes the stories don’t even have titles.

How many of them do you suppose there are?

I don’t know. I know in Paris and Berlin alone there are dozens, if not hundreds, of these types of manuscripts. I think Paris alone has enough for a few scholarly careers. But for much of the 20th century, scholars didn’t taken much interest in these.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the 1,001 Nights were a standard part of Arabic studies. People would study Arabic philosophy or theology and also the 1,001 Nights. But for much of the 20th century, interest in the Nights waned, and people got more concerned with religion. Until the 1990s, there wasn’t much interest in the Nights, with a few notable exceptions.

Many of these were manuscripts were cataloged a hundred years ago, but there hasn’t been that much attention to them since.

It’s interesting to consider the changing image of the Islamic world. In the late 1800s, early 1900s, both in academe and in popular culture, the Nights were much more influential, and you’d have this clichéd Orientalist version of the Islamic world—a place of unbridled sensuality and unspeakable cruelty, with eunuchs wielding scimitars guarding the harem, that kind of thing. The popularity of the Nights was a major factor in creating this kind of image. Today, you go to an academic conference or read the news and it’s mostly religion and Islamic law and so on, and you have the impression that everyone in the region prays five times a day without fail. Obviously thing have changed in the past century but still it is telling how our own perspective determines what we would like to see.

Did the Arabic edition of A Hundred and One Nights, printed in the 1970s, circulate much?

At the end of 2009, I was living in Morocco. I went around to see if I could find a copy of A Hundred and OneNights, since I knew it had been edited in Tunis, so I thought it was a possibility. Every bookstore I went into, somebody would say, “You mean the 1,001 Nights.”

Eventually, I found it. It’s not that uncommon. I’m told that in Tunisia it features on some literature syllabuses. (The editor of the first Arabic edition claimed it as an explicitly Tunisian work.)

So what do you particularly enjoy about the Nights—both the 101 and the 1,001?

If I had pick one thing, overall, it would be the incredible pace of these stories. One is never bored. There is always something to keep you hooked. It’s very plot-oriented—not in the sense of having a complex plot, but in its relentless motion. There’s not much pause for reflection. Sometimes, the narrative pauses to insert a poem, or for a long description of a palace or a beautiful girl or a lovely gazelle. But, for the most part, those are just so we can catch our breath, and then we’re off and running again.

I love the creation of a world that, despite all these different genres, we are there in a medieval world of warriors and giant snakes and strange creatures. It’s a spectacular combination of simplicity and imagination. Anything can happen, and there will always be a happy ending.

What do we know about the audience for these sorts of tales?

We know very little, but we can say a few things. We know from Cairo Geniza documents that somebody was lending out a section of the 1,001 Nights in installments, so it was something that people would borrow to read.

We know that the earliest mentions of the collection called 1,001 Nights were usually framed in disparaging terms, as something that people wasted their time in reading when they should’ve been doing something that was good for them or morally beneficial. They also sometimes cite its poor literary style.

Almost all of what we have, in the record of this period, was written by people who had a similar religious or religiously oriented education. These people were aware of the Nights, they seemed to know what was in it, and they professed to dislike it. In other words, it’s much like the genre fiction of today. As is often the case with popular literature or genre fiction, the literati tend to frown on it, and a lot of people really like it, and one suspects that a lot of the literati are enjoying it, too.

Stories like the Nights were a major target of the literati’s complains?

From about the 15th or 16th century, when we have instances of religious scholars complaining about this type of lousy literature, there’s a shift: They don’t mention the 1,001 Nights so much any longer, they mention a genre called the popular epic. These are things like the story of Antar, the Sirat al-Zahir Baybars. From the 15th, 16th, and 17th century, when people criticize popular stories, they usually mention those types of stories much more than the Nights.

How were the epics different from the Nights-esque stories?

The epics had a tradition of being recited orally. The archetypal coffeehouse reciters would often be telling those types of long stories that would continue for thousands and thousands of pages, as opposed to the self-contained Nights-style tales. Some of the popular epics are in language very close to the 1,001 Nights,that is, in literary Arabic and some are entirely in colloquial language. I should say that the two longest tales in the 1,001 Nights are warrior epics of this kind, and three of those in A Hundred and One Nights also fit into this category, although they are obviously much shorter in length.

So, although the boundaries are quite fluid, you have on the one hand this tradition of popular epic. On the other hand, the tradition of written, much shorter, more self-contained stories. Often you’ll hear about the oral transmission of the Nights. That’s not true; this is a written tradition, whether it’s 1,001 or 101.

They may have been read or recited aloud, but the transmission was very much a written one. So what this tells us is that we have a literate audience for the Nights, which narrows it down quite a bit for the premodern world.

So what can we guess about the makeup of this literate audience for the Nights?

There’s a suspicion that it was probably the world of the merchant in which these tales originated and flourished.

There are a couple of reasons for thinking that. One is stories like Sindbad, who was not a sailor at all. He was a merchant, he knew nothing about sailing. Merchants would travel, and they would collect stories, and they would see amazing things that they would come back and tell about. It might also explain the accounts of strange lands and exotic foreign countries.

Also merchants wouldn’t necessarily have had the full academic training, but they would be able to read and write. They might be more to write in this very relaxed style that we find in the Nights.

So scholars suppose that merchants might not only have been the audience for these tales, but also sometimes their authors?

The stories probably have their origins and much of their use in a commercial milieu. About whether merchants composed these, we have no knowledge. I am inclined to think that those who initially wrote or composed these stories belonged to the literate, educated classes, though the stories themselves may have had their origins in a commercial or mercantile milieu. But other than princes and kings and warriors, the only other occupation that has people appearing as heroes is merchants. That’s the same between the 101 and the 1,001. There are a number of other clues, particularly in the 1,001, that this sort of world might be mercantile: It’s literate but not ostentatiously so; well-traveled; and the audience is able to indulge in reading for pleasure, which would indicate some degree of economic prosperity. Somebody had to pay for the copying of all these manuscripts, after all.

The other thing I would say is that, in this type of literature, you find the same tales, themes, and motifs that you find throughout world literature. That’s an indication that there’s some travel element involved. Stories can’t travel all by themselves. Somebody has to take them from Point A to Point B, and merchants are a likely conduit.

Would these merchants be multilingual?

I’m not an expert on Arab merchants or commercial activities, but yes, presumably. If you’re dealing with people in other countries, you are likely able to converse. We have, those of us who study Arabic, a fairly unilingual view of the medieval or pre-modern Arabo-Islamic world, when in fact people were speaking not just different dialects of Arabic but no doubt bits of Persian and Greek or what have you. I don’t think you see this so much in the Nights, but in some manuscripts of the popular epics, al-Zahir Baybars in particular, you find all kinds of Persian and Turkish next to colloquial and classical Arabic. So probably the world was linguistically much more fluid than we conceive of it today.

In your introduction, you make a case for this being part of a global literature, a “vast circulation of narratives and their components,” much more so than other parts of the classical Arabic literary tradition.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that it’s best to read things in the original language and such-and-such is untranslatable, but it’s very much often the case in Arabic. A lot of Arabic literature is dependent on the richness of the language and its elegance.

For this type of literature that I’m working with here, that’s decidedly not the case. The language is very simple and it’s very narrative-driven. The narrator is not showing off his vocabulary.

What do you think the use of a simplified “Middle Arabic”—rather than a colloquial or a high-literary Arabic—tells us about the authors and the audiences?

Even though it’s is a written transmission, there is a sense in which they are very suited to being read aloud. In fact, in Malcolm Lyons’ recent translation of the 1,001, he said as much. They’re fast-paced, yes, but they also have a lot of repetition. There are almost no subordinate clauses, and the rhymed prose also helps people to remember things and to conjure up familiar referents.

Some of the deviations from the correct or proper classical Arabic seem to indicate an oral recitation. It was as if the scribe, or whoever was copying them down, was either writing down what he was hearing or thinking about how this would be pronounced. You see this sometimes in shifts in the lengths of vowels, shifts between emphatic and non-emphatic consonants.

Not all the manuscripts were like this. The one that I used as a base had many more grammatical, morphological, and syntactical “errors” than the others.

It could mean that the writers or scribes were lesser educated and spelling by ear?

That’s possible. This Middle Arabic is a simplified version of literary Arabic, and it used to be thought it was written by people who didn’t know Arabic very well, or didn’t know all the rules.

One of the reasons we thought that was that a lot of classical works were edited in the 19th and early 20thcenturies. As scholars created a version of these texts to be printed, as opposed to the manuscript forms, they corrected a lot of these features to conform to the strict rules of the classical language. So, in fact, these features of Middle Arabic were much more widespread than printed editions lead us to believe.

Now we know that even well-educated scholars also produced works in Middle Arabic. For instance, Usama ibn Munqidh wrote classical poetry and works on adab, but his memoirs are in what we would call Middle Arabic.

Why would someone in the 15th century, for instance, choose to write in Middle Arabic vs. classical?

It’s a lot easier, for one. It’s also probably more oriented towards communication. It would’ve been used by merchants. Arabic documents tend to be written in this way as well, not in dialect but in a simplified version of the classical language.

You also might do it because complex classical Arabic is not necessarily well-suited to fast-paced narratives being recited aloud to a not-necessarily educated community.

 

You can find more about the Library of Arabic Literature at libraryofarabicliterature.org.

 

mlq_headshot_color_smMarcia Lynx Qualey is a Cairo-based writer and freelance cultural journalist for Al Masry Al Youm English edition, World Literature Today, the Guardian, the Believer, as well as other publications. She also writes a blog, Arabic Literature in English

This article was published on her blog.  It has been republished with permission from the author.

 

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