This is why Hanan al-Shaykh's new edition (with an introduction by Mary Gaitskill, an American master of writing about sexual violence) is such a gift. To prepare it, al-Shaykh read three Arabic editions in full--including the "authoritative" edition, prepared by scholar Muhsin Mahdi, from a 14th-century Syrian source (as well as its English translation). Her goal in trucking through nearly 8,000 pages: to distill the very best into a single, approachable volume. "It took me nearly a year and a half to choose," she told me, "because all the stories are like jewels. It took me a long time to think and to wander."
Ultimately, she chose 19 of her favorite stories to weave together for two editions--one in English and one in Arabic. Though the book is similar in structure to Mahdi's source text, al-Shaykh changes story order and plot details to bring out new thematic resonances. She also brings the modern fiction writer's gift for psychological complexity to the rich-but-streamlined quality of the originals. "The original [tales] are very repetitive," she told me. "They're very imaginative, but they use flat and direct language. I wanted to go deeper into the characters, move beyond the bare details, and give everything more depth. And I just wanted the writing to shine." Though al-Shaykh refers to her version as a "retelling," not a translation, you can read through knowing you're getting the very best of The Arabian Nights.
Hanan al-Shaykh, award-winning journalist and author of the novels The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh, and Beirut Blues, spoke to me by phone from the south of France. She told me why she loves these stories--and how they dramatize the power literature has to make us feel more deeply, think more clearly, and become better people.
Hanan al-Shaykh: I first encountered the One Thousand and One Nights when I was very young, a child growing up in Beirut. They were dramatized on the radio for about one year, I remember, and I loved to hear about the merchants, the traders in the markets, jealous men, and demons, and the wickedness of women like "Delilah the Wily"--I adored her.
Naturally, I wanted to read the stories, but I couldn't get to them. Some men kept the book in their houses, but they locked them up in cupboards. Men didn't want women or children to read One Thousand and One Nights. A friend to me her father kept his edition locked up because if anyone finished all the stories, that person would drop dead. We didn't know then, and I know now, that the book was kept hidden because of the stories' explicit sexuality.
So, though I knew some of the stories, I did not truly read the One Thousand and One Nights until much later. In fact, not many Arabs really know the stories. It's a long book--2,000 pages--and it's not available everywhere. It's seen by some as vulgar, and many are turned away by the archaic language. Like most Arabs, I assumed the text was dated, psychologically simple, and hard to read. But later I discovered the beauty of it: I felt right away it is one of the most important and complex historical origins of literature.