There are many books I’ve been enchanted by, but if I had to choose one I would say A Thousand and One Nights. When I read it recently, I was struck by the prodigious unknown imagination that stands behind this work – the first text created that relies on magical realism. Many stories in the book also contain a surreal narrative texture – a surrealism with deep roots in folk customs and traditions. It embraces a typology of kings and princes, people and jinn and how they behave, as well as stories of markets and methods of government. Out of these elements spring imaginings, reconstructions of reality and blends of the ordinary with fantasies, nightmares and dreams. Credit for all that goes to the writer’s, or writers’, ability to penetrate the layers of social life with features that are traditional relative to today, and that have preserved a specifically Islamic heritage, providing a “roof” for the story and psychological depth for the characters.
Similarly one can deduce from the text itself that the author had a deep knowledge of Arab history in general and had a striking acquaintance with the relationships between Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the origins of the three religions. He, she or they had a special interest in Solomon’s relationship with the jinn, and wide knowledge of chemistry, geography, warfare, how to measure the distance between cities by the hour, the day or the month, fashion, material culture, precious stones, varieties of charlatanry, cuisine, seas, birds and other animals. Whether the text was originally written in Arabic or translated from Farsi, it shows signs of linguistic experimentation, especially through its inclusion of colloquialisms (especially Egyptian), which are then incorporated into standard Arabic. This embellishes the style and makes A Thousand and One Nights a narrative reference for anyone who is drawn to experimentation in writing.
The stories in A Thousand and One Nights mostly flow into one from another, which creates a unity. That unity demonstrates the mental and stylistic abilities of the writer/s as he/she/they create a balance between the power of each derived story on the one hand and the main source story on the other. This sets the imagination free. It is almost automatic writing – completely receptive to adventure. I fell in love with A Thousand and One Nights. It is a masterpiece of imagination and a valuable source for the possibilities of human relationships both good and bad, expressed in the form of dreams and disappointments, in all their violence and their vigor.
Photograph © dynamosquito