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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Arabian Nights and Days

Naguib Mahfouz

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To purchase Arabian Nights and Days

Title: Arabian Nights and Days
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1982 (Eng. 1995)
Length: 228 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Arabian Nights and Days - US
Arabian Nights and Days - UK
Arabian Nights and Days - Canada
Les mille et une nuits - France
Die Nacht der Tausend Nächte - Deutschland
Notti delle mille e una notte - Italia
Las noches de las mil y una noches - España
  • Arabic title: ليالي ألف ليلة
  • Translated By Denys Johnson-Davies

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Our Assessment:

A- : rich but very dark

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Chicago Tribune . 2/4/1995 Penelope Mesic
FAZ . 6/3/1999 Karl-Markus Gauß
San Francisco Chronicle . 5/2/1995 Abbas Milani
Sunday Times . 5/3/1995 Robert Irwin
Sunday Times . 5/5/1996 Trevor Lewis
The Times . 3/8/1995 Giles Coren
TLS . 10/3/1995 Rasheed El-Enany
The Washington Post . 26/2/1995 Robert Irwin

  From the Reviews:
  • "(E)nthralling (.....) So what does Mahfouz contribute ? Delicately, without destroying the magic of the earlier work, which is a composite retold and augmented over six centuries by countless unknown authors, he adds a layer of psychological complexity. His figures have depth and reality far beyond what the original provides. (...) It is a portrait of human beings too broad to fit the confines of religious extremism, particularly because in both their first form and this most recent one, these tales celebrate the human imagination, daring, unbounded and ceaselessly prolific." - Penelope Mesic, Chicago Tribune

  • "Machfus bietet die Gestalten des Volksbuches auf, verändert mitunter ihren Charakter und setzt sie zu von ihm erfundenen Gestalten in Beziehung. Das alles geht erzählerisch zumeist gemächlich, fast könnte man sagen: gemessenen Schritts, voran, bis die Gangart unvermittelt wechselt. Und wenn die Leute dann einem, der lange fort war, berichten, was in der Stadt vorgefallen ist, während er fort war, klingt es, als hätte der junge Brecht eine Ballade verfaßt" - Karl-Markus Gauß, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "If for centuries the ribaldry of many of the tales from A Thousand and One Nights made that book a subversive device in the popular cultural fight against the prudish strictures of orthodox Islam, in Arabian Nights and Days the subversion seems more directly political. The cafe and its imagined city bear striking resemblances to the Egypt of today. Arabian Nights and Days can thus be read in at least two different ways: as a simple retelling of some old, archetypal stories from A Thousand and One Nights or an implicit, daring and biting critique of the corruption of power in the modern Middle East. Either way, it's well worth reading." - Abbas Milani, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This novel tells us more about Egypt two decades ago than it does about Baghdad in the golden days of Harun al-Rashid. (...) This novel, really a series of interlinked politico-religious fables, is fascinating, but British readers new to his work should start elsewhere." - Robert Irwin, Sunday Times

  • "Although the stories are full of Eastern promise and aphoristic charm, the author never lets us forget their allegorical dimension or their role in a political, social and religious debate on the nature of power, the need for moral imperatives and the importance of faith." - Trevor Lewis, Sunday Times

  • "The book is full of the genies and bottles, sheikhs and sultans that became romantic furniture for European Orientalists of the 18th and 19th centuries, but Mahfouz, unlike Beckford and Byron, is true to the culture that generated them, his language full of linguistic convention and Koranic quotation." - Giles Coren, The Times

  • "All these technical, unity-forging factors are further strengthened by the work's thematic cohesion, as another Mahfouzian probing into the problems of social evil, time and the human relationship with the metaphysical. All this is set in a mythical, ahistorical environment: Mahfouz knows that myth works far more potently on our subconscious than realistic representations of what is amiss with us. (...) It is in this way that Naguib Mahfouz has made the Arabian Nights indelibly his own, stamping it with the unmistakable insignia of his craft and vision, forever modifying our awareness of a great relic of the human imagination." - Rasheed El-Enany, Times Literary Supplement

  • "It does not read easily, being written in a strange, proverb-laden, mock-archaic style. The book is certainly much less fun than its medieval prototype, for Mahfouz has used the enchanted creations of Shahrzad's storytelling as props to aid him in his ponderous broodings on life in general and politics in particular. Although the novel's allegories are sometimes obscure, one of the major preoccupations is with the problems posed by the increasingly frequent resort to assassination by religious fanatics in Egypt. (...) Arabian Nights and Days is a gloomy fairy tale, but as Mahfouz (who was born in 1911) contemplates his own future and that of the Egypt he has loved so much, such gloom is understandable." - Robert Irwin, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As the title suggests, Arabian Nights and Days echoes the Arabian classic, The Arabian Nights. Indeed, Mahfouz follows on that classic collection, his novel opening with the morning on which sultan Shahriyar -- to whom "the lady of the stories" Shahrzad has been recounting the fantastic tales, to keep at bay the fate that has awaited all his previous brides -- decides, finally, whether or not to spare Shahrzad's life. If a relief, his change of heart and tradition, allowing her to live, does not make for a traditional happy end, however -- no: 'and they lived happily everafter'; indeed, upon receiving the news from her father, Shahrzad admits that nevertheless: "I am unhappy". Which rather sets the mood for the entire novel, not one of the relief and joy one might have expected, but of the ugly reality of the aftermath of soul-(of himself and his kingdom-) crushing conduct that Shahriyar had indulged in (and forced on those around him) for so long, leaving a dispirited (except for those actual spirits ...) and amoral near-vacuum.
       All along, Shahrzad had only done what she could, and what she had to:

     "I sacrificed myself," she said sorrowfully, "in order to stem the torrent of blood."
       She may have saved her life, but there was much she could not stem in those three years of story-telling; the toll has been terrible -- indeed: "Only hypocrites are left in the kingdom".
       This then is the world Mahfouz sets his story in -- hardly one that has found peace. Strange happenings and violent death are still all too common, and the locals can at best cling to a state of denial:
     "Everything is possible in this crazy city," said Shamloul the hunchback.
     At which Ugr the barber said, "If you want the truth ..."
     "We don't want the truth and we don't like it," Galil interrupted him.
     "Don't remind us of death," called out Shamloul. "That's what the sultan has ordered."
       Supernatural beings appear, but they burden their finders, making terrible demands of them; any powers that they give -- or appear to give --, whether a second life, a cap that makes its wearer invisible, or the powers Solomon's ring bestow, prove to be more of a hardship and challenge than boon. The fate of one -- "From stealing, to committing stupid pranks, to murder. He had fallen into the abyss" -- is just a variation on many others. Several are forced, one way or another, into murder, beginning with Sanaan al-Gamali, who first finds himself driven to a heinous act; he also finds himself, in the initial aftermath: "going about free and large, being treated with esteem" as, typically, the guiltiest are often those who suffer least. He thinks his number may be up when he's invited by the governor Ali al-Salouli -- the kind of invitation one can't refuse -- but instead finds himself welcomed with open arms, the governor practically heaping opportunity on him but the despairing Sanaan driven to yet another horrific act that destroys his and his families hopes.
       Samaan is not the last to one compelled to kill a high-ranking official; the chief of police, Gamasa al-Bulti is as well. He too is beheaded -- a punishment meted out quickly and (all too) easily to a number of the characters in the novel, not all of whom are guilty of the crimes they've been charged with -- but while his head is hung in the doorway to his home as a warning to others, Gamasa in fact lives on, or again, in different corporeal form -- though, mostly, hardly less troubled than in his previous incarnation: "I am entrusted with the killing of evil people", he admits, and it is an obligation he will continue to carry out, in the guise of what is soon widely only considered to be that of a madman.
       The place seems cursed to wallow in its rot:
What an extraordinary sultanate this is, with its people and its genies ! It raises aloft the badge of God and yet plunges itself in dirt.
       Arabian Nights and Days proceeds in loosely linked chapters that recount various episodes and (mis)adventures -- some of them variations on the original Arabian Nights-tales, and involving familiar names (such as Aladdin and Sindbad). Characters come up in various episodes, again and again -- notably Gamasa -- giving some sense of unity to the novel, but it's really somewhat of a mix between story-collection and novel. Shahrzad and Shahriyar are lesser figures here, only rarely figuring significantly; among the few episodes in which Shahriyar is somewhat central is one where he travels disguised as a foreign merchant -- and encounters a fake version of himself, someone passing himself off as Shahriyar -- typical of the novel in which identities (and fates) are often mixed and confused. (It's an inspired little story, Ibrahim the water-carrier having found a treasure and deciding to put it to use by play-acting being Shahriyar and crowning himself sultan on a deserted island, and making a ragtag group of "the bare-footed hungry" his courtiers -- and acting out, night after night, "a tribunal in which justice would take its course after it had been unable to do so in the world", reädjudicating a miscarriage of justice in the 'real' world, again and again and again, as if that could somehow make it right.)
       If Shahrzad is hardly central, a long episode does focus on her sister, Dunyazad -- perfectly matched with Nur al-Din, but long unable to connect with him. When the sultan is in need of money, the wealthy Kareem al-Aseel makes only one demand: the hand of Dunyazad. Dunyazad is meant for another but despairs at disobeying the order to marry Kareem; she's put in an essentially impossible situation -- but with some supernatural assistance (which was also part of the original problem) there is, for once, a just and happy resolution (though for good measure Kareem is conveniently murdered -- Gamasa al-Bulti, in new guise, doing what is necessary).
       Among the other colorful episodes is that involving a mystery woman new to town, Anees al-Galees, whose husband conveniently has not yet joined her. She is: "a fascinating sorceress, loving love, loving wealth, and loving men", and she easily seduces the local men, and impoverishes them by letting them heap gifts on her; amusingly, even when the authorities are onto her, her seductiveness makes it difficult to keep her from quickly restoring her privileged place. She does finally get her due -- a neat scene of complete dissolution -- in what is also a good lesson for the men who succumbed to her.
       Compact in its telling but expansive in the breadth and reach of the tales, Arabian Nights and Days presents a world of indistinct time and place, as Mahfouz clearly means his stories to be commentary on the contemporary world as much as any ancient one. Murder, often gratuitous, of the rich and powerful, and injustice -- in the form of who is punished, and for what crimes (including ones they did not commit) -- make for a world of wrong. It makes for a somewhat dark story -- not quite unremitting, but repeatedly leading to grim outcomes.
       There's a density to the telling of many of the episodes, but a surprising richness, too; Mahfouz shows an expert hand here, and Johnson-Davies renders much of this very well in English (though occasionally the expression can sound very fancy-cryptic). Mahfouz's writing is both tremendously evocative and to the point; some of the most succinct scenes -- as in the horrific early one of child-rape -- barely even describe what happens, yet are no less forceful for that. (Indeed, Mahfouz barely describes the sex in the novel -- there's quite a bit of it -- but most of it is more suggestive than the longest graphic descriptions could be; what is perhaps the most explicit description -- in its entirety: "They dissolved into a burning passion. Mounting the summit of provocation, they withdrew from mere existence" -- is among the few that almost goes too far (though it seems likely that's more an issue of English-word-choice (and limitations)).)
       Arabian Nights and Days is a very strong work of fiction, but not among Mahfouz's most approachable; the (more or less) episodic presentation a bit at odds with the larger novel-concept that doesn't, ultimately, come entirely together. Many of the parts impress greatly, however -- and the way it borrows from, echoes, and counters the original Arabian Nights is fascinating. If not entirely successful in this form, it is nevertheless clearly the work of a master, and well worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 August 2020

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Arabian Nights and Days: Reviews: Naguib Mahfouz: Other books by Naguib Mahfouz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz (نجيب محفوظ, Nagib Machfus) was born in 1911 and died in 2006 He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

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