Review: One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling

Most of us are familiar with the premise of One Thousand and One Nights (or the Arabian Nights, as it's often called): King Shahrayar would take a new wife each night, killing her in the morning, until the evening the vizier's daughter Shahrazad started telling him a story, leaving off just before the end so he'd spare her life for another day. Of course, the next night would bring another cliffhanger, and the cycle would repeat anew.

The Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh (Women of Sand and Myrrh) has recast several of Shahrazad's tales in modern English, presenting them in a coherent narrative that is as spellbinding as ever. "The action of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights is dark and full of cruelty," Mary Gaitskill writes in her introduction, "especially toward women, who are constantly accused of adultery and then murdered or beaten up. But the animating spirit here is light and full of play, especially on the part of the female characters who are consistently resourceful and witty. Al-Shaykh's translation has special beauty in that it emphasizes this mischievous aspect alongside the expansive, revelatory and forgiving nature of the tales... rooting her stories in the mysterious underground of male-female relations."

Al-Shaykh has selected 19 of the original stories, knitting them into a single extended narrative. Starting with "The Fisherman and the Jinni," she moves on to the fisherman's brother, the porter and the three ladies, a hunchback, a merchant, three dervishes, a woman and her five lovers, Sinbad the Sailor and then back to the porter and the three ladies.

The age-old conundrum regarding literature's function--is it to tickle or to teach?--is solved here, and the answer is: both. You could make the case that the clever, resourceful Shahrazad is literature's first feminist heroine, and each of her stories is filled with nuggets of simple philosophy. "I wish my story was similar to those of the two dervishes who have gone before me," says the third dervish at the onset of his tale. "But I have learned, as the days have passed, that there is nothing to be gained from regret; it changes nothing, leaves us melancholy and in pain for ever." --Valerie Ryan

Shelf Talker: Hanan al-Shaykh doesn't cover all 1,001 of Shahrazad's stories, but the 19 she has presented are charmingly retold in modern English.

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