Significantly less than a Thousand and One Nights

Tales from the Thousand and One NightsTales from the Thousand and One Nights by Anonymous (translated by NJ Dawood)

Over the years, several of the names and stories from Arabian Nights have become engrained in our collective memory: Sinbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba. It’s inspired everyone from Patti Smith (who namechecks it in Just Kids) to Voltaire to John Barth.

But it’s not always the most accessible book. It’s not that it’s dense or hard to read – depending on the translation, it’s pretty easy to read – but the sheer size of the work can make it daunting for the average reader. After all, the complete edition published by Penguin runs to over 2,500 pages in three large volumes. So as much as I’m loath to recommend an abridgement, a collection like this comes in handy.

This older Penguin translation by NJ Dawood collects several of the best known stories – Aladdin and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad – and a few others, for about a dozen stories, depending on how you look at it: stories often fold into other tales, sometimes with stories inside stories. Some, like Sinbad, are fairly lengthy and take several twists and turns. Others are over in a couple pages, like The Historic Fart, about an ill-timed blast of gas. Think of it as a greatest hits collection.

While it includes Aladdin, arguably one of the most famous stories of all time, the tale of Sinbad’s seven voyages really stood out to me: it’s seven tales about the sailor getting shipwrecked, slowly working his way back to civilization and getting rich in the process. It has an interesting echo to The Odyssey, too, in the third voyage: Sinbad and his crew are trapped in the house of a giant monster who starts eating his crew. The crew escapes by blinding the giant and sailing away, rather like Odysseus gets away from Polyphemus. But the other journeys are wild too: giant birds, a valley of giant snakes and diamonds, The Old Man of the Sea (who rides around on Sinbad’s shoulders). By and large, the stories make for fun and lighthearted reading, even though there’s often a bit of a moral to them.

Still, it’s a brief collection and is unabashedly a choice picking by Dawood: he’s dispensed with the framing device of one story per night and dropped any of the verses. It’s also missing one of the most famous stories of all: Ali Baba. That’s a striking omission and Dawood makes no explanation for it’s absence.

I didn’t care for his editorial work  either. He offers only the briefest of introductions, with barely a paragraph for each story. I would’ve appreciated some more context on the stories, not to mention the compilation itself. He spends more time complaining about older translations than he does explaining the work itself. More to the point is Dawood’s translation, which while somewhat casual, is often wooden and repetitive: every character yells the same lines, each story ends with a similar remark. It’s not a bad translation – certainly better than his version of The Koran – but it’s dated and it shows. I’m not familiar with other editions, but I’m intrigued by Husain Haddawy’s translation, published by WW Norton. Penguin’s new, unabridged edition, looks good too.

Rating: 7/10. Nitpicks aside, there’s a lot to like here. If you’re curious about the Thousand and One Nights or just want to read the original stories of Aladdin, Sinbad or the Barber and his six brothers, this is a fun read. Be warned if you’re like me: this only whetted my appetite to tackle the entire thing.


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