American-Iraqi author Dr Muhsin J. Al-Musawi whose book ‘The Arabian Nights in Contemporary World Cultures: Global Commodification, Translation, and the Culture Industry’ won this year’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award in The Arab Culture in Other Languages category. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: American-Iraqi author Dr Muhsin J. Al-Musawi’s book The Arabian Nights in Contemporary World Cultures: Global Commodification, Translation, and the Culture Industry has won this year’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award in The Arab Culture in Other Languages category.

The academic work, published by Cambridge University Press in 2021, discusses the profound influences the tales of One Thousand and One Nights have had on modern-day global cultures.

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The award-winning book The Arabian Nights in Contemporary World Cultures: Global Commodification, Translation, and the Culture Industry’. Image Credit: Supplied

In an exclusive interview, Al-Musawi provided a deep and ingenious analysis of the intellectual visions in the tales and their authentic narrative techniques for poets, novelists, critics, and intellectuals in the West.

He also addressed the ways the text has been translated and the attempts to reimagine the tales in new cultural contexts. The author’s insightful readings are not limited to the presence of One Thousand and One Nights in traditional genres but go beyond that to analyze its influences in music, paintings, visual arts, films of various kinds, and political and digital spaces.

A distinguished professor and author
Dr. Muhsin Al-Musawi is professor of classical and modern Arabic literature, comparative and cultural studies at Columbia University in New York. A renowned scholar and literary critic, he has research interests that span several periods and genres. He has taught at a number of universities in the Arab region. Al-Musawi is the author of more than 30 books and over sixty scholarly articles. He is also the editor of the Journal of Arabic Literature, the foremost academic journal in the field of Arabic literature, issued by Brill Academic Publishers. He has served as an academic consultant for numerous academic institutions in the US and abroad. Professor Al-Musawi is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including 2002 Owais Award in Literary Criticism, the 2018 Kuwait Prize in Arabic Language and Literature, King Faisal International Prize in Arabic Literature in English (2022), and Zayed Book Award (2022)

Q. Why did you write, The Arabian Nights in World Cultures, after you published four books on the Thousand and One Nights?

A: This book takes a different direction. It is also called for by new needs and demands. As the subtitle indicates, it analyses the nature of developments in a post-industrialist, post-capitalist global order that touches even the Arabian Nights, by commoditising it, as the massive production or reproduction, and manipulation of the collection indicates. The phenomenal production of things related to the Nights in almost every field and discipline should alert us to this radical change in reception and consumption . We are in the presence of visual culture after print and pantomime or theatrical production had the upper hand in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. We are not addressing illustration only and its use in tourist industry or even in elegant abstract modernist or postmodernist art ; nor are we confined to cinematic production. The issue of visual culture is wider and more complicated because it the age of the spectacle where the Nights is fitted there.

Q. You devoted a chapter to decolonising the Arabian Nights? What do you mean by it?

A: There are many sides to this issue: we need first to emancipate the text from a paraphernalia that has been accumulating for ages. Especially in the nineteenth century the Thousand and One Nights was turned into a document, meaning that tales were retranslated in order to be rewritten as an excuse to write long treatises on what was thought of as life in the Arab East. That effort culminated in Edward William Lane’ s famous edition of the Nights, which is a unique work as it is one of the landmarks of the Empire. It sat well in the the so called ‘societies of useful knowledge’, which the empire needs to reach the very corners of its domain. Sir Richard Burton would add more, but Lane won the day. It was written in a scriptural style, documented , and made available to the Victorian family. It was a precious gift and the empire took it as one of its major documents on the so called east.

Now, we know the tales were recited as tales, pure and simple. We need to retain that quality to the collection by liberating it from a documentary paraphernalia.

The second point relates to narratology, the theory of fiction. It is time to generate a chorus of powerful voices to accentuate a theory of fiction that deconstructs a western rationality referent. The novel is no longer a Eurocentric phenomenon: it is growing very strongly in the Global South and sets new horizons for growth . The Arabian Nights offers norms and tropes and techniques. This is why I speak of decolonising the Arabian Nights.

Q. Translating the Arabian Nights has been an issue, and you addressed that in your 1982 book, Scheherazade in England – to be reprinted in June by Peter Lang. What did you devote a chapter to translations in your new book?

A: The brilliant critic and writer Borges spoke about a hostile dynasty , meaning how each acclaimed translator tried to eliminate a predecessor . An anxiety, more than the one Harold Bloom addressed in relation to poets, is a marker of the popularity of the tales, and the increasing demand for them among different publics. But, if this applies to eighteenth and nineteenth century cultures, why now? Why a translation or edition continues to appear every now and then, to the extent that young people with no mastery of the field decided to be among the players to claim translation and authenticity?

Again, one reason is the increasing demand and the interest of the academy and the field of cinema and art. This is not enough as an explanation, however. There is a need to understand drastic changes in consciousness , shifts in expectations that signal an epistemic change whereby the translator would like to underline a role of authorship . As Borges argues in relation to accusations against Galland that he was unfaithful to the original. Borges argues that he has the write to invent. The translator has to be a double author. So, the mania we are witnessing among people claiming translation is as keen as the one we notice among the thousands of people in the Arab world and the diaspora to write novels, to get publicity through a prize like Booker.

Q. But, isn’t this only being vogue and popular?

A: It is, but we are beyond matters of approval or rejection. We are to analyse a situation whereby Arabian Nights appears in a multitude of shredded and reified images, not only to meet demand, but also to generate more consumption .Writers, editors, publishers, illustrators, designers, architects , and artists find themselves in a massive system of supply and demand. The reader has the right to ask why Chagall got involved in illustrating the Nights, or why the famed British novelist Byatt reproduces selections from Burton’s edition? Why does the academy switch course and has the Arabian Nights among its popular syllabi? Questions like these multiply . They should lead us to the subtitle of the book, its emphasis on commoditisation, translation as a transaction, and cultural industry.

- Shakir Noori is a writer and journalist based in Dubai.