Hanan al-Shaykh

One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling by Hanan Al-Shaykh retells 19 stories from the original tales that circulated in the Arab world as long ago as the 14th Century. The work is a delightful, bawdy, rollicking piece of fun in which we are lead by a thread from one story to another. The stories are woven together in an intricate pattern of twists and turns, reminiscent of an elaborate Persian rug, bold and splashed with color. If one thread is pulled out, the whole pattern unravels and the tales falls apart.

The stories obliterate boundaries between the human world and the animal kingdom, the real and the unreal, the natural and supernatural, the mundane and the magical. We drift from one world into another seamlessly, suspending our disbelief as we read of humans metamorphosed into animals and back again, of jinns who fall in love with humans, of a demon who traps a beautiful woman in a glass cage under the sea.

The tales show a proclivity for violence with characters chopping off parts of the human body with relative ease. Sexual organs and sexual activity are described in such a cavalier manner that some may find the tales to be in poor taste. Others may appreciate their unabashedly honest treatment of the human body—including the occasional use of scatological humor thrown in for good measure—as being perfectly natural and not as something to be hidden away in shame. Dotted throughout are lines of poetry bursting on the scene at the most inauspicious times.

In the midst of all this craziness, however, the stories divulge important messages about human behavior: the injustice of collective punishment; honoring one’s word and commitments; the importance of reciprocity; rewarding the just; punishing the wicked; and compassion and forgiveness as precursors for healing. These lessons are as true today as they were several hundred years ago when The Thousand and One Nights first burst on the scene as a collection of tales told by a gifted storyteller.

Highly recommended for those willing to suspend their disbelief and approach the tales with humor and gusto.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review