Ulrich Marzolph, ed. The Arabian Nights in Transnational Perspective

Ulrich Marzolph, ed. The Arabian Nights in Transnational Perspective. Wayne State University Press, 2007. 348 pages, $31.95 paper.

Fredericka Schmadel
Indiana University

Ulrich Marzolph, editor of Wayne State University Press’s 2007 book, The Arabian Nights in Transnational Perspective, called the Nights a “shape shifter (ix)” and as such, slippery and elusive, especially in view of the torrent of translations, imitations, inclusions, and scholarly and – in the Middle East, ethicist – commentary or even condemnation over the centuries. A transnational perspective is an absolute necessity when one considers that the work in question predates the advent of the modern nation-state. Like the pyramids of Egypt, this collection has lasted untold centuries, but unlike the pyramids, it has moved from its original location to settle into many cultures, many traditions. In this book we glimpse the Nights in a Hawaiian translation, see its reflection in France – the France of long ago and of not so long ago – as well as Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Greece, Baluchistan, India, Japan, Turkey, Persian-influenced countries, Afghanistan, and the international realms of feminist theory, oral performance, psychology, and, of course, politics. We see, in Aboubakr Chraibi’s words, the homage reality pays to this fictional universe, this compilation that has grown and changed over many centuries. It’s clear from the scope and the variety of the contributions that this collection will inspire further research.

After beginning with a new study of Galland’s 1704 translation and those that followed, the collection finds its center, for this reviewer, in the second and third sections, which deal with texts and contexts that place the stories in their conceptual home. All scholars, like the rest of us humans, are interested in story elements like sibling relationships, slavery, including the slavery of love, political dimensions, internal structures such as framing, and the riveting mystery of the manuscripts and their journeys. This reviewer found the light cast on family relationships and politics particularly central; it covers new ground, and because of this will inspire further commentary. The articles detailing the Nights’ reflection in a wide variety of cultures, genres, and historical periods inspire further respect for the universal appeal of the Nights by their very existence. The Nights, like all true classics, transcend intellectual as well as geographic boundaries.

I found this book useful, primarily, because of Hasan El Shamy’s article, the freshest and most fertile contribution in the collection. Arab men love their sisters, with a tender, sentimental, nonsexual love. Their wives resent this, and the brothers of those wives, in turn, who also tenderly love their sisters, resent it, too, in other men, of course, but not in themselves. Home life suffers from the corresponding wife-versus-sister enmity, along with the tender but less forceful tendency of maternal uncles to lavish affection on their nephews. Boys must turn to their paternal uncles upon attaining their majority, however, to forge strong alliances in adult life. Ramifications of these insights are at once political, psychological, and economic, and cast new light – for cultural non-insiders – on Middle Eastern cultures in general. Anyone wanting to understand how the Nights guide outsiders into a better understanding of Arabic-centered and Persian-centered civilization down through the ages, including recent events and times, should read this article. It more than justifies the price of the book.

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