The original, authentic, real Ur-text of the Arabian Nights (aka Alf Layla wa-Layla, or the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, or just the Nights) is a mythical beast. There are far more than a thousand and one nights, for the thirty-four-and-a-half stories in the fourteenth or fifteenth century “core” body of the Nights were soon supplemented by other tales in Arabic and Persian, from the culture of medieval Baghdad and Cairo, and then in Hindi and Urdu and Turkish, tales carried by pilgrims and crusaders, merchants and raiders, back and forth by land and sea. And then came the narratives added by European translators, as well as the adaptations (in paintings and films) and retellings by modern novelists and poets. There is no agreed-upon table of contents. As Marina Warner points out, at the start of this enchanting book, “the stories themselves are shape-shifters”, and the Arabian Nights, like “one of the genies who stream out of a jar in a pillar of smoke”, took on new forms under new masters. The corpus lacks not only parents but a birthplace; Persia, Iraq, India, Syria and Egypt all claim to have spawned it. So the Thousand and One Arabian Nights are not only not a thousand and one but not (just) Arabian.
The chronological and cultural strata of the Nights are like the layers of a nested Russian doll: you pull off the twentieth century (Salman Rushdie in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Walt Disney, Errol Flynn) and then the nineteenth and eighteenth century (Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Jean Antoine Galland, Richard Francis Burton, Edward W. Lane); and finally you get to the Arabic sources, and you think you’ve hit pay dirt. But then you sense, behind the Arabic, Homer and the Mahabharata, and the Bible, and you see that there is no there there. It’s not an artichoke – peel away the leaves of the later, accreted, interpolated layers until you find the original centre – but an onion: peel away the leaves and at the centre you find – nothing. Or, perhaps, everything; lacking a birthplace, the Nights also lack a grave: “The book cannot ever be read to its conclusion”, says Warner: “it is still being written”.
Scholars who could not cure themselves of the nineteenth-century obsession of searching for the source (of the Nights, of the Nile, of the human race . . .) were soon disappointed to discover that many of the most popular tales – including “Sinbad”, “Aladdin and his lamp”, and “Ali Baba and the forty thieves” – were arrivistes, with no legitimate Arab parents. Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay on “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights”, credits Hanna Diab, the Christian Arab colleague of Galland, with the invention of several of these “orphan tales”. Aditya Behl (in Love’s Subtle Magic, 2012) traces Sinbad back to Sanskrit tales of Sanudasa the merchant. Like the beast fables and mirrors for princes that travelled from India to Europe, so too these sailors’ yarns about the marvels of the Indies circulated in the Islamic and pre-Islamic world of the Indian Ocean. (There is also a thirteenth-century Hebrew text of the Sinbad story). But for many people, the Arabian Nights without “Sinbad” or “Aladdin” is like Hamlet without Hamlet, and purists who produced “authentic” editions without these tales met with such backlash from the reading public that they quickly published supplementary volumes including the beloved bastards. Warner’s subtle unravelling of the rich history of this tradition, from the earliest Arabic traces to present-day interpretations, demonstrates that each of the many versions has a claim to its own authenticity.
Yet, within the Arabic tradition, the tales of the Nights were discounted as popular trash, pulp fiction; despite numerous allusions to the Prophet, and quotations and echoes of the Qur’an, they were “too much fun, often transgressive or amoral fun, to be orthodox or respectable . . .”. Galland cleaned out the homosexual...