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ARABIAN NIGHTS AND DAYS by Naguib Mahfouz Kirkus Star


by Naguib Mahfouz

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-385-46888-1
Publisher: Doubleday

An austerely modern reworking of The Thousand and One Nights — the most magical work yet set into English by Egyptian Nobel laureate Mahfouz (The Harafish, 1994, etc.). Although these intertwined fables are, like the volume that inspired them, set in the past, they deal with all-too-modern consequences of fairy-tale adventures. In "Nur Al-Din and Dunyazad," peerless storyteller Shahrzad's sister dreams of the perfume seller and wakens to find herself pregnant by him, with all the contemporary burdens of unwanted pregnancy. In "Sanaan al-Gamali," a merchant, purchasing his life from a genie he has crossed, is ordered to kill the corrupt governor; but when Sanaan goes to see him, the governor, every inch the modern wheeler-dealer, asks if he can marry Sanaan's daughter, offers his own daughter as a bride for Sanaan's son, and announces his plan to sign an enormous contract with one of Sanaan's relatives. In "The Cap of Invisibility," a righteous man accepts a magical gift on the condition that he be allowed to do "anything except what [his] conscience dictates"; he then faces moral dilemmas the original Arabian Nights never dreamed of. This is a world of endless transformations: A buried girl is brought back to life; after being executed, a governor is reincarnated as a porter and finds himself wooing his own wife; a sultan passes into an otherworldly domain of love and bliss in which he can't remain. The only certainties are the cruel whims of the genies ("The best would be if she were to be killed, and her father were to commit suicide," muses one of them) and the ritual executions of corrupt governors, private secretaries, chiefs of police. The obvious comparison in English is John Barth's Chimera — but Mahfouz's greater faith in old-fashioned narrative allows him to weave modernist psychology and legendary rhetoric, making his Arabian Nights both disturbing and spellbinding.