The 'Marvellous Thieves' of the Arabian Nights

Paul Lemos Horta's Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights tells us of the many ways stories from the Arabian Nights have been appropriated, told and retold, over the centuries.

For viewers across the world, images of Aleppo, gripped by the worst humanitarian and refugee crisis in recent history are sadly familiar. The city and its suffering people are a symbol, not just of policy-making gone horribly wrong, but of the seemingly endless divides between regions and religions. But the story was utterly different 300 or so years ago – Aleppo, a city in northern Syria, and once on the Silk Route that connected regions from west Asia on the Mediterranean coast, across the northern reaches of the Himalayas, to China – was a centre for a thriving textile trade.

A vibrant city, it brought together diverse peoples, and was known for its coffee-houses, its gardens, with its variety of entertainers – chief of whom were the city’s storytellers. They came from all classes (and women had their own soirees) and knew the art of telling a story well; of embellishing one based on how the audience reacted and tricks to build suspense, such as leaving a story unfinished at just the right juncture so to finish it the next day.

Paulo Lemos Horta begins Marvellous Thieves with the story of one such storyteller, someone who crossed borders easily and travelled widely – Hanna Diyab. Born in Aleppo, into a family of textile traders, Diyab was of the more restless kind. He tried his hand at various things, even joining a monastery (he was from Syria’s Christian Maronite community) for a bit, before travelling to Paris in 1708 in the company of the French collector, traveller and writer, Paul Lucas.

Diyab was then in his early 20s and Horta recounts Diyab’s story based on the latter’s memoirs recently discovered in the Vatican’s library. The memoir was written several decades later after Diyab’s own return to Aleppo in the 1760s. In Paris, Diyab, after a long, adventurous journey, spent his time recounting stories to Lucas, met Antoine Galland, writer, bibliophile who was on his own mission to translate and write his own version of the Arabian Nights.

From Aleppo to Paris

Paulo Lemos Horta Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian NightsHarvard University Press, 2017

Paulo Lemos Horta
Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights
Harvard University Press, 2017

What followed then, as Horta writes, is a fascinating exercise in story creation, imaginative retelling and literary collaboration. This was born out of Diyab’s own walkabouts in Paris, his visits to Paris’ numerous sights including Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles and of Diyab’s earlier journey with Lucas, that included an encounter with French pirates in the Mediterranean. His memoir was also influenced by having to meet his ‘master’ Lucas’ many demands for a good story to please his patrons in France, and then Diyab’s conversations with Galland.

Some of the stories Diyab narrated went on to make up Galland’s translation of the Arabian Nights. Galland did not elaborate Diyab’s exact role but two of these stories, the one of Alladin and his lamp, and Ali Baba and the forty thieves were clearly ‘orphan tales’, that is, they had no clear original Arabian source texts. Evidently, as Horta pieces the strands together like a detective story, these were Diyab’s own creations, built with allusions, metaphors and symbols of all that he had seen, heard and retold.

Diyab is just one of the many storytellers – unknown, forgotten and now resurrected through Horta’s work – of the Arabian Nights, a work first believed to have been translated into Arabic from the original Persian, perhaps in the seventh or eight centuries CE.

Making books was of course not entirely an originally European enterprise. The historian Chase Robinson quotes Ecclesiastes (chapter 12) in his Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives: The First Thousand Years: ‘Of making many books there is no end’ – an allusion to the variety and scale of learning in Islamic civilisation and the problem that learned Muslims would face throughout their history – “for all that books, might be condensed, summarised, knowledge never stopped growing”.

For instance, Ibn al-Muqaffa, who lived around the second half the 8th century, was one of the earliest writers and collector of stories, especially those that travelled. He was other things too, and known for his outspokenness toward the ruling elite of the times. Al-Muqaffa wrote the Kalila wa-Dimna, a work in Arabic that drew on tales written earlier in Middle Persian, and which included those that made up the original kernel of the Panchatantra.

The Marvellous Thieves in Horta’s title could allude to, of course, the Ali Baba story itself – but it denotes all those who helped themselves to the Arabian Nights and its many versions, and with their own notes and commentaries sought to place the work in a new time, a new place, and always in a radically different context.

The Englishmen and their versions

The stories’ many new creators – whether it was Galland in France, and a century later, Englishmen like Henry Torrens, Edward Lane, Richard Burton and John Payne – considered they were always telling a new story, bringing up as in the case of Arabian Nights, ‘new lamps for old’.

Henry Torrens was a civil servant stationed in Calcutta when he came across the Arabian Nights. It was in a private collection and perhaps had travelled from Arabia, but it came to Torrens’ attention in the mid-1830s, the time the debate raged between Anglicists vs. the Orientalists over the kind of education that must be funded for the East India Company’s Asian subjects. Torrens’ very poetical and unfinished version of the Arabian Nights, included the story of the prince Sharkan and the princess Abrizza, that tells of love and conflict in the time of the Crusades.

Unlike Galland’s tales translated into English over the course of the century,  which always had a fable and moral, Torrens insisted on translating as accurately as possible, the original poetry in the verses of the Arabian Nights. He was a skilled scholar in Arabic like his mentor William Macnaghten, and both would come to grief at the end of that decade, at the time of the first Anglo-Afghan war (1838-39).

Torrens’ rival in his literary endeavour was Edward Lane – an ethnographer, a struggling writer seeking a commission – who was then in Cairo. Lane’s own visits to Egypt – three over a period between the 1830s and 1850s – were marked by an increased British interest in the region as a reaction to French presence around the Mediterranean. Lane’s first work, Modern Egyptians, described a place of charm, mystic and splendour for his English readers but it was his rewriting of the Arabian Nights that proved more challenging.

Horta’s more detailed analysis pertains to Lane’s methods and how the latter came to write these stories. It is an analysis and unpeeling, as rigorous, as digressive as the stories of the Arabian Nights themselves. A rationalist, Lane even attempted to give a credible explanation for the magic in the stories – as for example, is evident in the story of Alladin and the djinn summoned by a lamp. Lane did this by a detailed examination of the methods used by a popular seer, al-Tantawi.

The missing collaborators

Paul Lemos Horta. Credit: NYU Abu Dhabi website

Paul Lemos Horta. Credit: NYU Abu Dhabi website

There were some stories Lane focused on, others he rejected, and appended to these stories were extensive notes and commentaries, based on what Lane saw and more what he heard from another of his interlocutors, his bookseller and neighbour, Sheikh Ahmed. Egypt mesmerised Lane in every way, but what appeared to consume him with fascination, as Horta suggests, was what everyday life in Egypt concealed; especially the lives of its women and their interior world. He went by hearsay, fell hook and sinker for the sheikh’s descriptions of women, as deviant and secretive; always conspiring to entice and entrap by a veiled look, a suggestive remark.

But the most celebrated instance of collaboration and borrowing, editing and addition was that of the British officer and traveller Richard Burton in the late 1880s. Burton had been in Sindh soon after the disastrous Anglo-Afghan war. He wrote of his travels, talked of ‘immersion’ and yet, the contradictory need to remain an outsider always, so to understand a different culture. Which is why the dervish disguise so suited Burton – as he moved from being the Persian Mirza Abdullah to Sheikh Abdullah, an Afghan from Bombay, during his secret peregrinations to Mecca and Medina.

Burton was as much adept in covering up his tracks especially when it came to crediting collaborators. He had a necessary knowledge of several languages, thanks to the munshis he worked with, (very few of whom he later credited). His version of the Arabian Nights that relied on translations done by the munshis, as well as the annotated editions of John Payne’s work (that preceded Burton’s by only a few years) and even Lane’s Arabian Nights. Burton’s edition was an attempt at ‘foreignising’ the translation, using invented archaic works to emphasise the distance from the work and imbue it with a certain exotic appeal.

Burton’s emphasis on translation, i.e., for one culture and language to reach out to another language, was what made for ‘cosmopolitanism’. Baghdad, in his interpretation, was the most cosmopolitan city of the world, and its caliph, Harun al-Rashid, was wise and tolerant and yet not above indulging in a night’s revelry and companionship.

But Burton’s other motive, as Horta suggests, was to bring up the sexual freedom inherent in these stories. An aspect shared by John Payne, who wrote an earlier version – borrowed from translations into English of the original Arabic– of the Arabian Nights and whose work Burton helped himself to, with, as Horta establishes, the full consent of Payne himself.

The women who read and wrote

The women who make up, in very many instances, the collaborators of these stories and more importantly its readers, are largely absent in Horta’s wide-ranging book. He mentions Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), the pre-Raphaelite poet and whose retold version of Three Women and a Porter (from the Arabian Nights), as a story of sexual discovery proved quite a revelation for Payne as he began work on his own text of these stories.

As Nina Auerbach and U.C. Knoepflamcher write in their edited collection Forbidden Journeys, women writers in Victorian Britain, including Rossetti, rewrote familiar tales or well-known children’s stories to give these a new twist, even in macabre, surreal directions.

For instance, Rossetti wrote ‘Nick’ a retelling of Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol, where the spirits who wreak vengeance on the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, are of a particularly deviant and malignant kind. It was also around this time that English folktale hunters, especially in South Asia, mined their domestic helpers for stories: Flora Annie Steele had her household help tell her stories that became part of her folk tales collected from the Punjab, and Mary Frere had the help of her ayah, a lingayat convert to Christianity, Anna Liberata d’Souza, when writing her Deccan Tales.

The preferences of Mughal India

It also remains to be asked why the Arabian Nights never became quite as popular in South Asia. In the early 19th century, as Horta suggests, an Arabic version of the Arabian Nights came to the attention of William Macnaghten and Henry Torrens: the one he based his translation on. There were also versions of the work in Pashto and Sindhi. But as Margrit Pernau has written in her work on the Delhi college in the early 19th century, the Arabian Nights wasn’t quite approved of (for its sexual and rather colourful overtones) by translators at work then, who preferred working on scientific and other analytical texts in English for translation into Urdu at the Delhi college.

Even in Mughal India, it appears, it was the Dastaan-e-Amir Hamza (or the Hamzanamah) that was more popular. It was Akbar who commissioned paintings based on the work; an endeavour that took nearly fourteen years (1564-1577), and comprised several volumes. The stories were based on heroic travels of Hamza, who shared his name with an uncle of the Prophet Mohammad. The stories were traditionally narrated by storytellers, more than just written down. As the noted Urdu scholar and translator, Frances Pritchet, has written, more than 200 years after Akbar, the Urdu poet, Ghalib too, had his own favourite version of the Hamzanamah.

Perhaps Hamzanamah avoided the more sexual overtones of Arabian Nights or its free-spirited women characters. But then again, several of the themes of the Arabian nights especially as seen in Burton’s version, such as the stories relating to Harun al-Rashid and his drinking companion for a night, Abul al-Hasan, seem replicated in some stories featuring the Mughal emperors themselves. The caliph, for instance, was fond of roaming the streets of Baghdad at night, dispensing justice and hearing tales of grievance; an aspect associated with some Akbar and Birbal stories. The caliph had also rewarded his friend with the promise that he would be ruler for a day; a story that shares some similarity with a popular story associated with Humayun, Akbar’s father.

But then, stories have lives of their own and travel freely. Stories will exist despite attempts to suppress them, and will flourish, especially when efforts are made to dress them up. The best stories, as Horta demonstrates with the Arabian Nights, thrive when their creators prove elusive or when such stories have one too many creators, narrators, storytellers, and translators. The best stories are those that can always be rewritten and interpreted anew.

Anu Kumar is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA programme in writing. Her most recent book is Emperor Chandragupta.