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The Arabian Nights by Muhsin Mahdi
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The Arabian Nights

by Muhsin Mahdi, Scheherazade

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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There are many versions of The Arabian Nights that have floated about over the centuries; this one is a translation of the Mahdi edition, based on the oldest known copy from 14th century Syria. It has 271 “nights”, tales that were collected from Persia, Arabia, and India and containing stories within stories (and sometimes within stories, and so on). The collection was expanded over the centuries to reach the well-known 1,001 nights, including “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp", "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor", and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" – none of this later content is present in this version.

With that said, it’s an enjoyable read, and there is plenty of 700 year old sex and violence from the Middle East to hold one’s interest. :)

The stage is set in the prologue in a way that certainly opens the eyes. There are two kings, one named Shahrayar, the other Shahzaman, who are brothers. Shahzaman is sent for by his brother to visit, but before leaving, discovers his wife in the arms of one of the kitchen boys. Naturally, he strikes them with his sword, drags them by their heels, and throws them from the top of the palace to the trench below. He then arrives in Shahrayar’s domain in a dejected mood. As he’s agonizing over his sorrow, he finds himself a witness to an interracial orgy involving Shahrayar’s wife, ten white slave girls, ten black slaves who had been dressed as girls, and Mas’ud, another black slave who, upon being summoned, jumps out of a tree to have his way with the Queen. Yeah, wow.

Shahrayar can’t believe his ears when he hears of this, and so the two of them have to watch a repeat performance to convince him. They are so disheartened that they decide to take to the road and leave the palace. That night they see what seems to be a giant pillar, one that grows to touch the clouds, emerging from the sea. They flee in terror and hide in a tree, and when they look again discover that the pillar is actually a mighty demon, who approaches without seeing them, carrying a large glass chest with four locks. He sets it down in the meadow beneath them and unlocks it, and what emerges is a beautiful woman, with a face “like the full moon, and a lovely smile.” The demon then proceeds to fall asleep, whereupon the woman notices Shahrayar and Shahzaman in the tree, and asks them to come down and make love to her, otherwise she’ll wake her husband the demon and have him kill them. They comply, one after the other, and she then asks for a ring as a souvenir from each; she’s collected one from each of her lovers and has now reached a full hundred, despite the demon keeping her locked up. Again, yeah, wow.

The brothers decide to return to their kingdoms and never marry again. Shahrayar has his wife and all her slave girls killed, but then formulates a new plan, to marry a new woman each night and then kill her in the morning to prevent her from cheating on him. After he’s done this for so long that girls in the kingdom are becoming a little scarce, Shahrazad (sometimes spelled Scheherazade), the vizier’s daughter, volunteers to marry the king. She is smart and very well read, and her plan for survival is to tell the king a new story each night, but to not finish it, betting on his curiosity to postpone the execution from night to night.

And thus begin the stories, each ‘tale’ or night of which are generally just a couple pages each, but which are grouped into larger stories, such as The Fisherman and the Demon, The Porter and the Three Ladies, and The Hunchback. The prologue is so classic that frankly it’s a tough act to follow, and I have to say the tales tend to get a bit tedious. If you’re not a fan of misogyny or body parts getting lopped off you may not enjoy them, but they are certainly not dry, and there is something special about reading stories this old that provided entertainment for the medieval Islam world, similar to The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales. I prefer those other books to this one, but wonder if the inclusion of the other stories in the 1,001 Nights version would have upped my rating. ( )
2 vote gbill | Jun 13, 2014 |
The Haddawy translation of the Nights is by far my favorite. It doesn't have every possible story (although many more are covered in the second volume) and it's not a huge 19 volume set or anything but the translation is so readable and enjoyable. The poetry is translated well and in most cases actually is still quite poetic even in translation (and many times those kinds of things don't translate well). There are brief footnotes to explain things the translator doesn't think the reader will automatically know which is helpful in understanding the context of the story. This translation is also fairly concise and doesn't add any extra's to draw out the stories length. Overall it's a great introduction to Alf Layla we Layla for new readers of this fantastic set of stories within stories (probably why this and the 2nd volume tend to be so popular for college literature classes) and it's also a nice read for those already familiar with the Arabian Nights as translated by Lang, Lane, Burton, or any other translator. It does contain some scenes of sexual intercourse and such so it's still not a children's version but it's also not overly excessive graphic content either. If your only going to read one version of the Arabian Nights make it this one. ( )
  CassandraStrand | Jan 2, 2014 |
The ultimate "story within a story" - think How I Met Your Mother, only a few hundred years earlier, and a lot more gruesome. The episodic setup makes it easy to read this book in short bursts, and each little story is interesting in its own way. ( )
  deathbykleenex | Jan 9, 2013 |
While I can't comment on the quality of the translation, The Arabian Nights is a dizzying array of stories within stories within stories, playing with the idea that our narrative impulse is the connective tissue that makes civilization possible. The stories are at their best when they fully indulge in fantasy, recounting tales of demons, transformative magic, and epic romance.

As much as I liked the book, however, I had a few complaints, principally the lack of development in the frame story of Shahrazad and its disappointingly abrupt ending. While her story does exist primarily as a means of telling other stories, I really regretted that after her first night with the king, she becomes nothing more than a chapter break. If The Arabian Nights exists as a tribute to her bravery, skill, wit, and inventiveness as a storyteller, I would have appreciated the chance to see her put to use in other ways. The constant interpolations to remind us that she is narrating for her very survival only serve as a reminder that we're learning nothing else about her.

As with any compendium of stories, some are less interesting than others, and I enjoyed the earlier stories a great deal more than those which ended the book. The introduction made mention of the fact that the book was probably the result of a number of different writers, and reading the stories makes that more than plain. The interlocking stories and cliffhanger endings that I found so interesting disappear entirely as the book goes on, to its detriment.

In addition to the sheer pleasure of the book as an exploration of storytelling, I found it a work of great cultural interest as well. Many of the stories have a decidedly foreign flavor, not just in terms of locale but in what the narrator chooses to emphasize. I found myself thinking on many occasions that I wished the Qur'an had been more like this book, as it seems to provide a much greater insight into a culture about which I know depressingly little. ( )
  jawalter | Nov 18, 2012 |
Stories help make us who we are - it is that simple.

This is a very accessible translation, and a beautiful paperback, which delivers the stories in contemporary language. Not only does the work bring Shadrazad back to life for us but it gives us a glimpse into societies quite remote from our own. The stories show the triumph of humans over adversity, on occasion the succumbing of them to it, and generally the love of the tall tale that helps make us social beings.

Long live Shadrazad and all the storytellers... ( )
  TomMcGreevy | May 5, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (23 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mahdi, Muhsinprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Scheherazademain authorall editionsconfirmed
Andrew LangEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Haddawy, HusainTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Bless thee, Bottom! Bless thee! Thou art translated.
--A Midsummer Night's Dream
Dedication
For Mike, for Myriam, Peter
Christopher, and Mark, and for
Diana and Shahrazad
First words
Introduction
The World of The Arabian Nights
It has been some years now since as a little boy in Baghdad I used to listen to tales from The Thousand and One Nights.
Prologue:
[The Story of King Shahrayar and Shahrazad, His Vizier's Daughter]
It is related -- but God knows and sees best what lies hidden in the old accounts of bygone peoples and times -- that long ago, during the time of the Sasanid dynasty, in the peninsulas of India and Indochina, there lived two kings who were brothers.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679413383, Hardcover)

(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)

These stories (and stories within stories, and stories within stories within stories), told by the Princess Shahrazad under the threat of death if she ceases to amuse, first reached the West around 1700. They fired in the European imagination an appetite for the mysterious and exotic which has never left it. Collected over centuries from India, Persia, and Arabia, and ranging from vivacious erotica, animal fables, and adventure fantasies to pointed Sufi tales, the stories of The Arabian Nights provided the daily entertainment of the medieval Islamic world at the height of its glory.

The present new translation by Husain Haddawy is of the Mahdi edition, the definitive Arabic edition of a fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, which is the oldest surviving version of the tales and is considered to be the most authentic. This early version is without the embellishments and additions that appear in later Indian and Egyptian manuscripts, on which all previous English translations were based.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:36:23 -0400)

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Based on the text of the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript.

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W.W. Norton

Two editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393313670, 0393331660

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