The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IN the caliph’s palace, a girl is fry­ing mul­ti­coloured fish when a woman with a wand bursts through the wall and de­mands to know of the fish if they are true to their covenant. A young man mounts a fly­ing horse. The horse strikes out one of his eyes with a lash of his tail and lands him on a build­ing where the man will en­counter 10 one-eyed men. The caliph Harun al-Rashid, ven­tur­ing out of his palace, goes to the Tigris from where he watches a barge sail by on which a young man sits en­throned, claim­ing to be Harun al-Rashid . . . It was the wild­ness of the plot­ting and the free­dom from clas­si­cal con­straints that ap­pealed to the ear­li­est West­ern read­ers of The Ara­bian Nights . ‘‘ Read Sin­bad and you will be sick of Ae­neas,’’ 18th-cen­tury nov­el­ist Ho­race Walpole de­clared.

The Ara­bian Nights , also known as The Thou­sand and One Nights , was made fa­mous in the West by its first trans­la­tor, French an­ti­quar­ian An­toine Gal­land. The earnest pur­pose of his trans­la­tion, pub­lished in the years 1704-17, was to in­struct his read­ers in the man­ners and cus­toms of the Ori­ent and use the tales to pro­vide im­prov­ing lessons in moral­ity. Since ladies at the court of Ver­sailles were his tar­get read­er­ship and since the Ara­bic he was trans­lat­ing seemed to him some­what bar­barous, he took pains to ren­der it into pol­ished and courtly French.

The pub­li­ca­tion was an in­stant suc­cess and his French was rapidly trans­lated into English, Ger­man and most Euro­pean lan­guages. In the first in­stance, it was courtiers and the in­tel­li­gentsia who read the book. The adap­ta­tion of a bowd­lerised se­lec­tion of the sto­ries for chil­dren hap­pened later, most notably in 1791 in The Ori­en­tal Moral­ist; or, The Beau­ties of the Ara­bian Nights En­ter­tain­ments by a hack pre­tend­ing to be ‘‘ the Rev’d Mr Cooper’’.

Gal­land had first pub­lished a trans­la­tion of Sin­bad and this had been well re­ceived. Some­one mis­led him into be­liev­ing that Sin­bad was part of a larger col­lec­tion known as The Thou­sand and One Nights . More by luck than judg­ment, he went on to trans­late the old­est sub­stan­tially sur­viv­ing Ara­bic ver­sion of the Nights .

This prob­a­bly dates from the 15th cen­tury, but there were ear­lier, less elab­o­rate ver­sions of the story col­lec­tion. There is also at least one Turk­ish man­u­script that is older than the Ara­bic one Gal­land trans­lated. Though the sto­ries of the Nights as we have them are thor­oughly Ara­bised and Is­lam­i­cised, many seem to de­rive from much ear­lier In­dian and Per­sian tales.

In the Nights , king Shahryar, sex­u­ally be­trayed by his wife, kills her and re­solves to avoid any fu­ture be­trayal by sleep­ing night af­ter night with a vir­gin and hav­ing her killed in the morn­ing. The slaugh­ter goes on un­til Scheherazade, his vizier’s daugh­ter, vol­un­teers to be the next to be led to Shahryar’s bed. She takes her sis­ter Dun­yazad with her. That night, at the post-coital mo­ment, Dun­yazad ( who has pre­sum­ably been lurk­ing some­where in the shad­ows of the bed­room), prompted by her sis­ter, asks for a story.

Scheherazade starts a story but does not fin­ish it. Shahryar, keen to hear the end, spares her un­til the next night. On fol­low­ing nights, Scheherazade tells story af­ter story, talk­ing for her life and al­ways care­ful to leave a story un­fin­ished be­fore dawn. So the nights are story breaks and there are not 1001 sto­ries in the Nights .

Be­sides trans­lat­ing the man­u­script he had found, Gal­land added sto­ries that, he claimed, he had heard from a Syr­ian vis­it­ing Paris. No orig­i­nal Ara­bic text sur­vives for th­ese ‘‘ or­phan sto­ries’’, which are some of the most fa­mous, in­clud­ing Aladdin and Ali Baba . Some have sus­pected that Gal­land made up th­ese sto­ries, but a Turk­ish orig­i­nal of Ali Baba has been iden­ti­fied.

In the early 19th cen­tury, a se­ries of printed

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