The First English Translation of a Medieval Arab Fantasy Collection
Published: Penguin Classics, Nov 2014
Hardback, 496 pages
Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons
This is a collection of 18 short stories found in an incomplete manuscript in Istanbul and presented in 1933, it is thought to be dated between the 14th-16th centuries but the authorship of the stories go back as early as the 10th century and the content is sometimes backdated further still or at least referring to earlier times. The title and apparently second half of the anthology are missing so the title of the translation was taken from the first title found within and as such is a book featuring many marvels from moving statues to treasure to a mermaid.
This is not a religious work but the author(s) assume that the reader is so there’s lots of mention of God, the Prophet, relatives of and general praising plus a introductory praise at the beginning of each story. That said, there is also Christian content because this is sufficiently old enough to include Christianity as it is and was, a close relative and part derivative of Islam rather than something different and so the integration of Muslims and Christians is normal and interestingly there is almost no conflict but mostly respect and even crossover. For example Gabriel and the sage Simeon appears and are not out of place to the Muslim cast, they are treated with deference but of course the people of the religions were not equal and as usual society was not anywhere equal either. There is less credit given to the older cultures Islam supplanted and incorporated/morphed into itself but the main areas of the world these stories are based are Western Asia and Northern Africa probably focused on Persia, Syria and Egypt. At times it does read like Islam had always been there and that is typical of world cultures in general especially empires (I have come across many that think of and refer to Ancient Egyptian things as Arabic.)
It’s sounding very religious but even parts of the world that are/were thought of mainly in terms of their main religion(s) still have extensive culture, everything from art to science. Yep science, science and technology have historically been very important even in religious dominated society and that’s because they weren’t seen as opposing or separate like they are today. Bear in mind that the bulk of orthodox scientific theory taught as truth in schools – even if not uniformly believed nor always used as basis for other theories by scientists – was put together, fought for, supported by Christian and Muslim administrators. Society from economy to education was governed by religious bodies so even with the continued Graeco-Roman and flourishing teachings in maths, science and philosophy – those with influence still had to take some form of religious study and/or occupation e.g. cannon law and so both the tools and theories were developed by Christian and Muslim clerics and university tenured/lecturers, many were acting ministers. Yes they weren’t always appreciated, there are always in-house battles especially at regime change times – and the Inquisition – but ultimately what we think of as the pillars or foundations of scientific thought were accepted and not barred by religion and ruling elite akin to the necessity and sometimes conditions of sponsorship and peer support.
My point is that I borrowed this from the local library without prejudice and misconception out of historical interest but I did make an assumption due to the look and sound of the book and now I’m disappointed. I chose this over Mayan, Tibetan and Christian fiction because I thought it’d be an enjoyable and lighter read to those ones that were decidedly crime thriller.
Note – this book is not family or child friendly.
Misogyny, Racism and Classism
Females are definitely objectified and thought of in terms of their sexual value. Rape, incest, blaming and ‘devaluing’ the victim are normal – previously valued females can be deemed worthless/not worth being ‘kept’ and given to their rapists. Even ones that their family were extremely possessive over keeping separate and unknown to society until someone deemed worthy came along and could pay the dowry of course (and in the subverted way of paying it to brides male family instead of them giving her money as a nest egg or backup.) Sometimes the victims are described as not minding being attacked if the male is handsome and others will accept ‘pity marriage’ as an honour. Multiple wives are normal of course and virginity highly prized but chastity and hiding are not expected of males and if one of your females is raped it’s acceptable revenge (I say ‘revenge’ and not ‘retribution’) to rape a female belonging to the enemy in return and that enemy doesn’t have to be an enemy afterwards especially if they become family. In many cases I was reminded of ‘Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded’ by Samuel Richardson (1740) and the section of the Kama Sutra that explains how to rape and marry at the same time.
Love is described aplenty but it’s more like lust and infatuation.
Light skin is better. That is not exclusive to the Muslim culture of that time and place; from the ‘English Rose’ to Japanese White makeup, Eastern Asia has plenty of darker and Brown skin natives but they’re not put on a pedestal and some places equate dark skin to dirtiness and poverty. In modern times if you went by Bollywood and Latin American films you may think dark females don’t exist and that a larger population than realistic has non-Brown eyes, male actors aren’t expected to be light or attractive by default but the heroes and popular ones do tend to fit that bill. With Western Asians I’ve come across many who are adverse to tanning not for health or cultural reasons but purely cosmetic. So basically most of the ‘good’ characters in the book are fair skinned, the females in particular likened to the moon without further symbolic context. Physical beauty also means that a female is either a prize or untrustworthy but is a mark of integrity in a male.
Servants and slavery are normal, typically female servants are just as attractive when youthful as their mistresses and the slaves are Black people (given the later conflicts between Islam, Judaism and Christianity having and trading Black slaves is a mutual point particularly in Muslim and Jewish history). As usual for servants and slaves their masters due not limit their ‘duties’ to domestic and guarding, they are owned entirely in body if not soul.
Many of the stories are devoted to the rich who are generally made even richer to the point of ‘disgustingly/filfthy rich’. They are extremely decadent and it seems more likely to have the ‘finer feelings’ than their poorer counterparts.
Moral of the Stories?
As aforementioned these are not religious stories/parables but they are not fables either that have moral points; some do focus on piety and humility (especially for the poor and the poor have to suffer more to get relief) so you could say “don’t emulate the indulgent rich folk… For it’d be harder for them than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle” but then the rich folk are often the heroes and their masses of wealth a reward… Even if given by demons. It’s not about good and evil either because characters described as heroic (remember nobility are often heroic by default) or criminal and any type of behaviour can lead to a ‘happy ending’ (which is more like relief than happiness for some). These are short tales, though of great variance in shortness, that just tell a story so they could be likened to partial-biographies if the characters were real.
Jinn or in singular form jinni (later and more commonly but incorrectly thought of as ‘genie… In a bottle’) it wouldn’t be accurate to describe them as ghosts or ghouls, perhaps more like spirits bearing in mind that many cultures have spirits that manifest in 3D and hence shape shift. Jinn are a race of beings that live alongside humans and other animals and most noted for guiding or interfering with them – they were not thought of as good or bad as a race like the word ‘daemon’/demon is often used interchangeably with ‘spirit’. Races like or even the same as them are seen in many cultures from fallen angels, nephilim/demi-gods, monsters and aliens. Nowadays the word demon is often interchangeable with ‘devil/s’ as in plural of the Devil (who is also mentioned in this book) but lesser demons can serve that or not, some even serve and are most pious to the one(s) called God(s) – to me that (and other things) explains why despite all the praise and description of God or gods it/they are not omnipotent or omnipresent because its/their enemies can bring a damned tough and even direct fight with masses of suffering and people treat all around unethically.
It is not unusual or seen as undesirable for humans and jinn to interbreed and marry.
The authorship and dates of the stories are unknown, according to the introduction some or parts of some were found in later collections and as always with changing times and editing there are inconsistencies. For example in one story the hero’s nurse is described as being so close that she’s like a mother and then after she’s described as his mother. In another the protagonist meets a sorceress at the beginning and then near the end meets her again for the first time.
This is not uncharacteristic of literature or history in general, bear in mind that what I call ‘modern Hinduism’ shows deviation from original or earlier pre-vedic/diluvian based Hindusim and that modern Hinduism is a collection of scriptures that were translated by Muslim and British scribes, conflict of interest. Similarly early Buddhism is a streamlined version of Hinduism with different names and that makes sense given who started it, but modern Buddism is even more streamlined and has a centralised masculine Buddha (even though some claim genderless). There are many scriptures and literature in India are not transliterated or translated and so in the same line of thought I wonder what the difference is between the language of the manuscript and the English in this book, especially in the poetry which manages to rhyme in places. I’m not doubting or disputing the translator’s ability but there is always room for error or compound errors over time and version.
I’m not going to summarize any of the stories as the titles are already telling.
1. The Story of the King of the Two Rivers, Saihun and Jaihun, his son Kaukab and his experience with the Chamberlain Ghasb. An astonishing tale.
2. The Story of Talha, the Son of the Qadi of Fustat, and What Happened to Him with His Slave Girl Tuhfa and How She Was Taken Away from Him and What Hardships Befell Until There Was Relief After Grief.
3. The Story of the Six Men: The Hunchbacked, the One Eyed, the Blind, the Crippled, the Man Whose Lips Had Been Cut Off and the Seller of Glassware.
4. The Story of the Four Hidden Treasures and the Strange Things That Occurred.
The First Quest.
The Story of the Second Quest, with its Marvels and Terrors.
The Story of the Third Quest, for the Crown.
The Story of the Fourth Quest, for the Golden Tube.
5. The Story of the Forty Girls, and What Happened to Them with the Prince.
6. The Story of Julnar of the Sea and the Marvels of the Sea Encountered by Her.
7. The Story of ‘Arus al-‘Ara’is and Her Deceit, As Well As the Wonders of the Seas and Islands.
8. The Story of Budhur and ‘Umair Son of Jubair al-Shaibani with al-Khali’ the Damascan, with News and Poetry about Them.
9. The Story of Abu Disa, Nikcnamed the Bird, and the Marvels of His Strange and Comical Story.
10. The Story of Sul and Shumul with Reports and Poetry, and How Shumul Was Abducted, As Well As What Ordeals Her Cousin Sul Faced and How the Two Were Reunited. It Is a Marvellous Tale.
11. The Story of Abu Muhammed the Idle and the Marvels He Encountered with the Ape As Well As The Marvels of the Seas and Islands.
12. The Story of Miqdad and Mayasa, Together with Poetry and Reports, and the Conversation of Miqdad and Mayasa at the Hand of ‘Ali Son of Abu Talib, the Exalted by God.
13. The Story of Sakhr and al-Khansa’ and of Miqdam and Haifa’. With Poetry and Prose.
14. The Story of Sa’id Son of Hatim al-Bahili and the Marvels He Encountered at Sea and with the Monk Simeon.
15. The Story of Muhammed the Foundling and Harun al-Rashid.
16. The Story of Ashraf anf Anjab and the Marvellous Things That Happened to Them.
17. The Story of the Talisman Mountain and Its Marvels.
18. The Story of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle. It Contains Strange and Marvellous Things.
For those with an interest in Islamic and Christian history though interestingly enough I’d say not for people into general fantasy and fairytales as these are not as engagingly written, atmospheric or epic feeling as those genres generally are – at times I felt even the poetry a chore. The narration seems detached to me and author(s) don’t really describe the other species as much as I’d like other than that they can do things humans wish they could but are actually very human like in behaviour.
I’d say to definitely read the introduction by Robert Irwin, one of the best reviews/intros to a book I’ve read in a long time and more educational to cultural aspects with lots of references.
There is a glossary at the back for Islamic words but a good English dictionary may also be needed and by that I mean 20+ years old (I’ve found most modern editions almost useless over the years as well as detrimental when playing Scrabble and they certainly wouldn’t help here.)