The enduring lure of The Arabian Nights

Professor Muhsin Al Musawi goes into the origins of the eternal tales, and why reading the manuscripts provides a context to the text

Muhsin Al Musawi’s latest book looks at the impact of sociopolitical conditions on the storyteller Courtesy: Shakir Noori

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Just how close “The Arabian Nights” is to Professor Muhsin Al Musawi’s heart is evident in the highly informative and intellectually invigorating discussions he has on the topic. Al Musawi, a literary critic and a scholar of classical and modern Arabic literature and comparative cultural studies at the Columbia University, New York, has spent much energy into the study of “The Arabian Nights”, so much so that he’s referred to as the world’s leading authority on “Alf Layla wa-Layla” (A Thousand and One Nights). His books on the subject include “Scheherazade in England: A Study of Nineteenth-Century English Criticism of the Arabian Nights” (1981), “Anglo-Orient: Easterners in Textual Camps” (2000), and “The Islamic Context of the Thousand and One Nights” (2009). He also edited and wrote the introduction to the 2008 Barnes and Nobel edition of “The Arabian Nights” for American readers. Al Musawi also has three books in Arabic to his credit, the latest being “The Popular Memory of the Societies of the Thousand and One Nights”.

Al Musawi spoke to Weekend Review about how his research has inspired works across the world. Excerpts:


Your fascination with “The Arabian Nights” began very early. In 1975 your wrote an article on the reception of “The Arabian Nights” in 18th century England, followed by another, and then you published the groundbreaking “Scheherazade in England”. “The Islamic Context of the Thousand and One Nights” generated an interest in reading and writing about “The Arabian Nights”. Have writers and scholars acknowledged your contributions?

Many did. A great scholar such as Professor Peter Caracciolio of London University wrote many times to express this acknowledgement as an apology for unwittingly overlooking the book when he did his research. Others did, too, in one way or another. Some took leads from them while some did not mention how much they took. This is usual.

The unfortunate thing is a scholar such as Marina Warner, who got a prize for her book “Stranger and Magic”, overlooked all my work. You can tell that she benefited a lot from “Scheherazade in England”, and drew on books and articles that acknowledged the book or reviewed it.

In this field, we have good scholars who are brave enough to express gratitude, and there are others who are too scared and hence suppress the mention of their predecessors.


You set the road for studies on “The Arabian Nights”, its realism, magic, poetry and narrative techniques. Dr Shireen Abu Al Naja recently noted that you brought in the field the power of exploring the minutest details in a complex grid of interrelatedness between texts and contexts. Would you say that you set the road for the growth of interest in narrative in Arabic as well?

Somebody writing on Arabic narrative without mentioning that first contribution would be a joke. Apart from studies of Arabic narrative — medieval and modern — the Arabic translation of “Scheherazade in England”, “Al Wuqu’ fi Da’irat Al Sihr”, was published in Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad. It set the rules of narrative, or what we call narratology.

In Arabic, “The Arabian Nights” was not taken seriously. The late Dr Suhair Al Qalamawy did a doctoral dissertation in 1936-37 under the supervision of Taha Hussain, but the book was unnoticed in comparison with her other contributions. It was a great piece of research into origins and social contexts.

“The Arabian Nights” was largely ignored simply because it was not an elite piece of literature, and it wasn’t until the French (1704-12) and English (1706) translations were published that it was taken seriously. To tell the Arab intelligentsia how it was received by eminent poets, writers and essayists was not an ordinary matter, especially as this intelligentsia suffers from a Western dependency complex.


How do you see “The Popular Memory of the Societies of the Thousand and One Nights” as a new stage in your engagement with “The Arabian Nights”?

I now bring into the argument the reasons behind reading the original manuscripts of “The Arabian Nights” and the ones such as the Bulaq (editions) that later made use of them and incorporated other tales that were not in the 14th century manuscript. By reading the original, we notice first the social and political conditions that impact the storyteller. This why I read the tales in relation to Hisba manuals on Market inspection for these provide us with a historical record of how much freedom storytellers had to meet their audiences in the market place, around the corners of squares, etc.

Restriction or freedom is a powerful and imposing factor that should be taken into consideration when we study narratology: is the storyteller going to repress or to elaborate on this issue? How? What kind of language is used? What variations are used? What tales will have a safe entry?

Language and vernaculars are not ordinary factors in our study of narratology and should be taken seriously. Moreover, a comparative study with historical accounts or tales with the ones in the tales can lead us to the reading of contexts, and to the issue of authorship. I dismissed the argument about authorship, simply because we are addressing a popular memory, a collective gathering and consortium, that necessarily applies a supply-and-demand rule to the tales: only the strong and powerful tale will survive in this struggle of the fittest which the storyteller cannot ignore as long as he makes a living from large and interested audiences.

In this book, I elaborated on what I did in 2000, when a first and short account appeared in a very restricted manner, without reaching writers, readers and critics. I re-addressed the issue and geared it more towards collective memory.


You also addressed the issue of the Frame Tale.

Yes, simply because people remember this frame tale — that of Scheherazade and Shahryar — and talk about it. Even Ibn Al Nadim and Al Masudi referred to this tale with its origins in Indo-Persian cultures. Early Arab modernists also focused on this frame tale as Taha Hussain and Tawfiq Al Hakim did. I explained this in my book on Arabic fiction in 1986.

To me the significance of this strong frame tale is its centripetal and centrifugal power. It draws in a powerful core of tales and chases out the weak one; hence the frame tale is an urban tale that finds it significance in urban centres: a city such as the medieval Baghdad or Cairo draws tales and urban entertainment as much as it draws poets, musicians, singers, writers, scientists. It is another frame tale, but with an urban cartographic mastery. I drew on this comparative framework in “The Islamic Context of the Thousand and One Nights”.


You have a new project, almost ready: “The Arabian Nights: A Source Record”. The preliminary title suggests a lot but also seems to hide more.

I can quote from the introduction as it has not appeared yet, and I hope readers will use it with due acknowledgement to us as well as to the newspaper. This quote introduces the reader to early scholarly discussion of origins:

Aside from Edward William Lane’s (1801-76) enduring contribution to the sociological interest in the tales in its colonial dimension, his endeavour to establish a “sound” text, albeit with scriptural tone and style, still elicits scholarly interest. No less pertinent is the British periodical criticism of the years 1838-41, which, while highly informed by the British imperial quest, was mainly provoked by the latter’s significant achievement. It is only a sign of this encompassing imperial spirit that this criticism took into account German and French contributions to assimilate or debate within a broad colonial spectrum. While the evangelical spirit was bent on replacing Eastern cultures with that of the empire, the Orientalist was keen on preserving local traditions to ensure a better and solid acculturation beyond the vagaries of change. Lane was no minor figure in this encounter, as his lexicon, studies of the “manners” of the Egyptians and translation of “The Thousand and One Nights” elicited further communications and interests. A case in point is the Athenaeum effort to elucidate the involved history of the “Nights”. Although taking into account contemporaneous views of de Sacy, von Hammer, Schlegel and Lane, the Athenaeum critic of the 1830s was fully aware of the pitfalls of basing final judgments regarding the date of composition on scattered references to historical events. No great value must be set on these allusions in a book that passed into many redactions and underwent a number of omissions, changes and interpolations. A “careful and critical examination of the tales,” he postulated, “would convince the reader that they were chiefly composed by illiterate persons, unacquainted with the history of their country; and it is unfair, therefore, to assume the accuracy of some particular date referred to, considering the numberless anachronisms contained in the work, and urge it as an argument either in favour or against opinions respecting the authorship, or age when written.” Disapproving of Lane’s conclusion that the social and cultural setting points to an Egyptian origin, the reviewer observed that Islam regulates and models manners and customs in the whole Muslim East, establishing social conformity to which the “Nights” plainly attests. As for the very distinctive Egyptian traits, the reviewer urged that they be seen in the light of the tendency of copyists and compilers to impose their regional predilections on the text.


But what about the discussion of manuscripts, before Brill’s print of Galland’s Arabic manuscript?

Writing about manuscripts is a challenge, for no matter how authoritative and painstaking the search is, there are two sides to the question. One relates to availability of manuscripts, and the second to orality, transmission and storytelling. While Arabic scholarship was not enthusiastically drawn to popular culture, European scholarship was more interested in reading the tales as both manifestations of culture and life, as they deemed, and as indices of the spirit and language varieties of the region. Hence the interest in origin. The Athenaeum reviewer was not alone; but his recapitulations were in response to an ongoing discussion that received further impetus after the publication of Lane’s annotated edition. Lane was keen on establishing that the work was by one single author who composed it between 1475 and 1525 (preface to “The Arabian Nights Entertainments”, London, 1839-41). Silvestre de Sacy had already dwelt on this issue (as documented by Chauvin and Littmann) in “Journal des savants”, 1817, 678; “Recherches sur l’Origine du Recueil des Contes Intitules les Mille et Une Nuits”, Paris, 1829; and in the “Memoires de l’Academie des Inscriptions & Belles-Lettres”, x, 1833, 30.

In these interventions de Sacy debated both single authorship and connectedness with Persian and Indian collections, dismissing the early reference by Al Masudi (336/947, re-edited in 346/957) as spurious. Just opposite to these views were Joseph von Hammer’s (“Wiener Jahrbücher”, 1819, 236; JA, 1e serie, x; 3e serie, viii; preface to his “Die noch Nicht übersetzten Erzaehlungen”) where he built his argument on Al Masudi, stressing therefore the genuineness of this as evidence of a collection of non-Arab origin.


There is something luring about the Arabian Nights; there is the natural and the supernatural.

I discussed that in “Scheherazade in England”. There was this mixed reception for more than two centuries, the 18th and the 19th. I analysed how it varies according to time and place. The supernatural meets a romantic impulse. I elaborated on that and the tales that make up this element. I referenced “Aja’ib Al Makhluqat” (Wonders of Creation) as an early source on this classification, which went unnoticed in Arabic scholarship. The romantic element appealed for centuries to certain segments and to the Romantic imagination.

Galland’s East was made available to be analysed, investigated, enjoyed, loved and, simultaneously, repelled. While foreshadowing the Enlightenment’s taste for classification and comparison, it evidently met the Romantic aspiration for freedom and change. In both cases, Galland’s “Nights” was not foreign, then, to a dual tendency to study the other and to reach for its exoticism, to view it in relation to a so-called European tradition, and to appropriate its habitat to exercise a sense of self-fulfilment against imaginary failures. Both impulses were not at variance with that growing colonialist discourse which had never been absent since early missionary efforts to convert Muslims or to combat Islam. More importantly, both were bound to provoke philological, anthropological, and cultural studies, which took the “Nights”, along with literary and travel accounts in translation, as their starting point to prepare for the expanding imperial enterprise. The effort was so enormous that Romantics of a sensitive temper such as Leigh Hunt were seriously bothered by this disenchanting endeavour. They insisted, but to no avail, to keep the “Nights” away from dissection and exacting scholarship, a collection of tales to foreword an “Orient of Poets”.

Shakir Noori is a Dubai-based journalist and author.