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Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz (thoughts)

January 23, 2013

Arabian Nights and Days
I began reading Naguib Mahfouz, one of Egypt’s best known authors, in college and have returned to him on and off ever since. So when I was browsing my library’s shelves and noticed his novel Arabian Nights and Days, I couldn’t resist. Especially since awhile back I read and loved The Arabian Nights! The Mahfouz is certainly a tribute to its classic inspiration: it begins the day after Shahrazad tells her last tale, with the sultan deciding whether to keep her as a wife or execute her as was his habit. It then moves into the sultan’s city, a medieval Middle Eastern capital, and follows various residents of the city as their lives intersect with djinns, usually for the worse. The structure is somewhere between a novel and interlinked short story collection, as the reader keeps getting glimpses of the same characters and city landmarks. The perspective almost has a cinematic quality to it, with the action moving from man to man usually after they’ve met one another, and the straightforward prose supports it. I felt as if I’d gone on a trip and was an invisible traveller getting to know the city, which is certainly a tribute to Mahfouz’ skill. Arabian Nights and Days is less dense and more lively than a lot of his earlier fiction, and thus on a practical level more easily readable.

That being said, this is also a satire that philosophically explores corruption while making pointed political comments that I’m sure Mahfouz’ Egyptian contemporaries instantly understood. It’s a deep novel and not something you’d pick up for a light afternoon read. There’s a strange dichotomy between the liveliness of the setting and the pessimism of the plots: almost everyone ends up committing horrible acts and corrupting themselves. And yet, I still ended up fascinated and truly enjoyed myself while reading it. In fact, I can imagine picking up Arabian Nights and Days again to reread in a few years time. I’m honestly not entirely sure what about the novel worked so well (perhaps my love for magical realism helped?) and how it can be read as both a satire and just magical epilogue to The Arabian Nights, but Mahfouz is clearly a master to have managed it. I’m also indebted to the translator, Denys Johnson-Davies, as I don’t read Arabic.

Before I close, I will make a brief note on gender in the book. Shahrazad is the only woman with any agency (except arguably her sister who is a main character in one the tales); while her struggle between hope that the sultan can change and revulsion at his past is fascinating, it occurs largely in the background. All of the other main characters are men and the minor female ones exist only as beautiful virgins or as equally beautiful loose women or as harping old wives. This made me sigh and lessened the reading experience a bit (from five to four stars), but it didn’t certainly ruin the novel for me. Stefanie wrote an interesting post last month about encountering morally offensive attitudes like sexism, racism, etc. in books and what to do about it as a reader. For myself, it seems to require a case-by-case evaluation, and in some ways is more of a challenge for me as a blogger than as a reader. Because how do I acknowledge the sexism of a book, like this one, and still make it clear that I found it valuable and well worth spending time with? I certainly don’t have any answers.

Back to Arabian Nights and Days: I definitely recommend this to readers who enjoy Middle Eastern lit, magical realism or modern takes on classic stories. This is also an excellent book when you’re in the mood for something intellectually challenging but not a slog to read.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić : part of the Canongate Myth series, which I can see Arabian Nights and Days fitting well into, this Croatian novel plays with a traditional native folk character, that of Baba Yaga. It’s far more experimental than Mahfouz’s work, but it has the same combination of supernatural players in regular lives with a bit of political commentary on corruption, in this case in post-Cold War Eastern Europe.
  • Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith : a fascinating, if at times a bit dry, travelogue by an Oxford Arabist about his journeys in the Maghreb and Middle East. He’s following in the footsteps of Ibn Battutah, who as a medieval Muslim lived around the time Arabian Nights and Days is set in.
  • The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox : if the aspect of the djinns joining in mortal life appealed to you, this novel about a love affair between an angel and mortal will let you explore more in that vein. For me, Knox’s writing style didn’t mesh with my reading style, but I know many bloggers who loved it and so I’m happy to recommend it to others.
  • No God but God by Reza Aslan : knowing a bit about Islam will help in appreciating most Middle Eastern literature, I think! This is the best popular introduction I’ve read. However, it doesn’t focus a lot on the mystical aspects that appear in Arabian Nights and Days, so now I’m on the hunt for a nonfiction book written by a Muslim that includes a lot of information about djinns. suggestions?
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5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2013 5:07 pm

    Eva,
    I’m thankful for the time to visit your blog late this afternoon and evening. I have never read The Arabian Nights, which I must! But I have read one Mahfouz–that is, Palace Walk, and I loved it. I have always intended to read more. I simply must. So multi-faceted. I especially enjoyed your commentary about gender in your post!

    Thank you!
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  2. Steve permalink
    January 23, 2013 9:58 pm

    Eva, Your blog and Reading Matters have become my two favourite book blogs. Keep it up

  3. January 24, 2013 3:39 am

    Many years ago I thought about reading the Cairo trilogy, but I never quite got around to it. I think it used to be at the library but last time I checked they didn’t have it now.

  4. January 24, 2013 8:42 am

    I’m facing the same question in my re-reading of Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now.” Of course, it’s a biting satire on “the way things were” in society, and Trollope wrote it as a highly critical commentary on the grasping, corrupt way in which the upper classes conducted their lives. Still, it’s so hard to read about women’s limited choices — often no choices at all — in negotiating the “marriage market.” It breaks my heart that they were, in essence, property transferred from father to husband. And then to think of these young women, probably ignorant about sex, who would have to endure physical relations with a man they hardly knew, and probably did not love. We’ve moved past this for the most part in Western cultures, but not in all parts of the world.

    The way I reconcile it is to just say “That was how it was at the time — that was the accepted situation — now, is this good literature ABOUT that situation?”

    I’ve enjoyed Mahfouz, too, though as you say, the sexism is pervasive. Do we, simply by reading, endorse those attitudes? I don;’ think so. We can read literary depictions to learn about how things were (and, often, still are), so that we can continue to work toward enlightenment.

    Your blog is an inspiration. I read read read read! but I’m trying to find the time and discipline to write about my reading.

  5. January 24, 2013 7:57 pm

    there is so much to consider when evaluating sexism or racism in a book- historical context, how it’s used in the book, etc. so it’s hard to make general statements. it’s not even a good idea to, in my opinion. that said, it very much depends on your response. sometimes you can overlook it, sometimes not. sometimes books that are overly politically correct can be just as annoying! :-)

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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