Arabian Nights & Days: A Novel by Naguib Mahfouz; translated by Denys Johnson-Davies (New York: Anchor Books, 1995; originally published in 1982. 240 pp)

Naguib Mahfouz was an author of Arabic fiction. He was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing when he was seventeen. A student of philosophy, he was influenced by many Western writers including Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Proust. He has more than thirty novels to his credit and in 1988, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 2006.

Denys Johnson-Davies studied Arabic at the School of Oriental Studies, London University, and later at Cambridge. He has been described as “the leading Arabic-English translator of our time,” and has published nearly twenty volumes of short stories, novels, and poetry translated from modern Arabic literature. He lives much of the time in Cairo.

Cart Before the Horse

It’s probably not a good idea to read a sequel first. You can gain a certain level of entertainment from such an event, but context will be sorely lacking. Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, Arabian Nights & Days functions as a companion piece to the classic Arabic folk tale, One Thousand and One Nights, a text I haven’t read. While I enjoyed reading Mahfouz’s work, I wonder if my lack of context leaves me in the dark.

Arabian Nights & Days tells stories of the people in a medieval Islamic city. At times fantastical, at times grounded, the stories explore the many moral facets facing culture and it asks big questions about justice, political corruption, and everyone’s role in such a society.

Magic, Violence, Justice

Mahfouz borrows characters from the original story such as Alladin and Shahryar. But the power comes from the personalization of each story. While magical and violent, Arabian Days & Nights talks about people. Consider Gamasa al-Bulti, saved from death by a genie, but left only with suffering:

“They had both passed by him without paying any heed, for he had assumed the form of a slim Ethiopian with crimpy hair and a light beard. His astonishment at his appearance did not cease, neither did his sadness for his family. He would circle round the house and listen to the conflicting comments voiced under the suspended head. The top people, like Karam al-Aseel, the druggist, and the draper would curse him mercilessly, while the common folk would express pity for him” (51).

Mahfouz also doesn’t shy away from the violence inherent in human nature.

“A gasp escaped him and his eyes goggled as he saw the beautiful young slave-girl butchered. Her blood had drained away completely as death lodged itself in her. When? Who? How? Should he flee? How heavy his head was! It was as though he had drunk some narcotic in his wine. The charge lay over his head. He thought quickly, illogically: the garden, burying the corpse, removing the traces of blood” (110).

Even with such vicious sections, Mahfouz seems to end each chapter with swift retributive justice. In other words, heads will roll.

Know the Source Material

With each story, justice is applied swiftly, wrongs are righted, and occasionally, grace surfaces. But I can’t help but think I could find much more depth and meaning had I known the source material. Arabian Nights & Days was worth my time. I just wish I had read it in the right order.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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