Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz (thoughts)
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?