Wow! What a remarkable book! Aside from Ernest Hemmingway, Naguib Mahfouz is the only Nobel Prize winning author I have read. The idea of reading Mahfouz came to me earlier this year, as I pondered my need to branch out and read more translated fiction. I have always had great interest in Arab culture and tremendous respect for Muslims, so I thought Arab literature would be a pretty good place to start. I have to admit though, I had some preconceived notions going into the book; the Nobel Prize seems very intimidating to me and I have not had a great deal of luck with translated fiction in the past. I was fully expecting a cumbersomely literary read that would be butchered by poor translation. (How open minded am I, right?) I am pleased to report that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Arabian Nights & Days by Naguib Mahfouz, copyright 1982.
Translated by: Denys Johnson-Davies
Publisher: Anchor Books
Source: Personal Collection – Purchased New
Reason for Reading: Expanding my horizons
Arabian Nights & Days is meant to be a sequel or a companion piece to One Thousand and One Nights (more commonly known in English as Arabian Nights) As such, it is written in what amounts to a series of myths or folktales. Each tale does not blend into the next, but is told in chronological order; each of the tales tells its own important part of a larger story. A quartet of misfit genies wreck havoc on a particular quarter of an unknown city. In seeking their own entertainment, the genies play tricks on the villagers, manipulating them into committing all kinds of crimes. The genies aren’t all bad though; they too are believers and claim to be servants of God. Every time a genie manipulates a human or attempts to play a trick, it is intended as a test of faith for the humans, each of whom handles their test in a very different manner. Some of the humans disappoint the genies by finding everlasting happiness and others meet their maker.
While the book is magnificently translated, the beauty of this story is not to be found in its prose, but in the character development. Each character lives his faith in a very different manner and learns something altogether different from his experience with the genies. I developed a great deal of respect for all of Mahfouz’s characters, even the bad ones.
“‘The logic of faith is everlasting and eternal,’ said Fadil. ‘The path is one at first, then it splits inevitably into two. One of these leads to love and to obliteration of self, the other to holy war. As for the people of obliteration of self, they are dedicated to themselves, and as for the people of holy war, they dedicate themselves to God’s servants.’” Arabian Nights & Days, page 165.
At several points, I honestly felt as though I was reading a contemporary Shakespeare and I quickly got the feeling that I was reading a play. Each chapter is broken down into smaller sections that read like individual scenes, not in that there are stage directions or dialogue lines, but that everything feels very concise. Thoughts are expressed, dialogue is spoken; there is no padding; there is no more description than is necessary. Each of the “scenes” is very distinct, is usually short and gets to the point very quickly.
Because everything is short and concise, I was left with a feeling that things were fairly straightforward, but I think this was in fact very deceptive. The messages contained in each tale were often very subtle. Even though I paid close attention while reading the book, I know I missed out on many of the nuances. There is no doubt that this book would benefit from multiple re-reads and it is, in fact, the first book I have read which I immediately wanted to go back and read from the start.
The one small bone of contention I have with Arabian Nights & Days is that there are a lot of characters. Thankfully, only a handful of them tend to appear in each tale and many of them are denoted by their profession (i.e. Ugr, the barber and Bayumi al-Armal, the chief of police) making them somewhat easier to keep track of. This, of course, is such a minor flaw it does nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. There is no question that I will actively seek out more of Mahfouz’s works as well as other Arab literature. You too will enjoy Arabian Nights & Days.