The Arabian Nights

Introduction

written in 1994

For those who just want to read the stories without any spoilers, please consult the uncommented index.

This is an extract of one of the earliest translations of the "Arabian Nights" into English, made by Sir Richard Francis Burton. I first got interested in the Nights when they were mentioned en passant by Arno Schmidt; some time later, the person of Richard Francis Burton was driven into my consciousness by being resurrected in P.J. Farmer`s ``Riverworld''. A few years ago, I worked myself through the first two volumes of Burton's n+k-volume edition of the Nights (published in Madras or some such place). It was an arduous reading experience (of course the surroundings didn't help; the Staatsbibliothek doesn't like rare books to leave the reading hall ;-). To my knowledge, there is no edition of Burton's translation in print right now. I was therefore delighted to lay my hands on the original flat ASCII text (you can get it from a gopher server [long since expired]). I have HTML'ed the text and split it up to make it better readable.

[Update 2009: thousandnightsandone.com offers a re-print]

I got the "flat" ASCII text from a gopher server that has been unavailable for some years now. I have no idea who scanned/typed the text.

This extract is not nearly complete. The "arabian nighs" form a huge text corpus, and in translating them, Burton performed a gargantuan work. At ca. 350 pages per volume and 16 volumes, the full text corpus will contain some 11MByte. I have no idea whether it has been digitized in its totality (books.google.com seems to contain some scanned volumes, but the content is not visible). This present extract (of about 1.2 MByte) contains an estimated 10% of Burton's work. In an appendix to volume 10, Burton enumerates 262 "top level" stories, some of them with up to 28 sub-stories!

In 1996, I HTML'ed the text and split it up to make it better readable. For those who don't mind spoilers, there is also (partially) annotated table of contents.

Before diving into the universe of the Nights, you should take heed of this Warning! These texts might not be suitable for children (or PC-challenged adults); they contain racist and sexist language and contents. Burton's translation is not unchallenged -- quite to the contrary, modern translators consider it very opinionated and tinted by his prejudices.

To get an impression of Burton's style and mind-set, as well of Arabian culture a century ago, you might want to read his ``Travel to Mecca and Medina''. Burton was one of the first Englishmen to make the hadj and report about it. (I have read the Dover edition years ago. Anyone knows whether there is a online edition of this travelogue?)

The Encyclopedia Britannica contains a good article on him, which notes: He also published openly, but privately, an unexpurgated 16-volume edition of the Arabian Nights (1885-88), the translation of which was so exceptional for its fidelity, masculine vigour, and literary skill that it has frightened away all competitors. [...] His Nights were praised by some for their robustness and honesty but attacked by others as "garbage of the brothels," "an appalling collection of degrading customs and statistics of vice.".

Tim Spalding's Burton site with some excellent links can be found here.

The Nights have a deeply nested structure; they are often stories within stories within stories. The different sections are of greatly varying length; the smallest one is just above 700 words, the largest is nearly 40,000 words. (In case your connection is slow (or our connection has been cancelled due to too many people reading this page ;-), that translates to byte counts between 3k and 214k, for a total 1.2 Mbyte.) I plan to re-arrange this index so as to reflect this nested structure. Also, there will be a short synopsis for each story.

This version of the text omits some material. The different nights (i.e., the cliff hangers) are not spelled out explicitly. All footnotes, which, while not strictly being part of the text, make out at least 40 per cent of Burton's translation (they usually fill the lower third of each page, and are set in a much smaller type), are missing. If someone can turn up an electronic version that is more complete, I am more than willing to upgrade to it.


Intro Story
King Shahryar decides that all women are inherently unfaithful, and ("to make sure of his honor") starts murdering each wife after the wedding night. This goes on for three years. The king's wazir has problems getting new women, and tells his plight to his daugher Scheherazade, who offers herself as bride for the night. The wazir recounts a warning story:
The Tale Of The Bull And The Ass
This small story has a happy end that involves the protagonist learning about "family discipline" (i.e., beating a wife that asks too much).
Somehow, this fails to convince Scheherazade that she should obey her father. After some ado she gets married to the king (rather, she is transported into his bedroom; there is not much ceremony involved). After the act, her sister Dunyazade (don't ask how she got into the bedroom ;-) feints sleeplessness (I would be sleepless too, if my sister was scheduled for decapitation in the morn) and asks Scheherazade to tell a story. The king can't sleep either; and so begins the mother of all cliff-hangers, with the story of
The Fisherman And The Jinni
Fisherman finds jar which holds Jinni and frees him; Jinn leads Fisherman to a pond containing magic fish; Fisherman sells a fish to Sultan; Fish exhibits strange properties when being fried; Sultan wants to know the story behind the fish, walks through the desert and finds a palace whose only occupant is a young man that is handicapped: his lower half is transformed to stone. The young man tells the story of his life:
The Tale Of The Ensorceled Prince
Again, a young prince with an unfaithful wife (his cousin, even). Prince nearly slays wife's lover without her knowing it; she mourns for three years under a pretense and builds a tomb wherein she takes her sick and mute-stricken lover. Finally, all comes out; wife curses prince into half-stone-ness and, being into it, transforms the city into a pond and its citizens into fish. From then on, the young prince is tormented daily by his wife.
The sultan kills the sick lover (great deed, that!), removes the body, positions himself in his stead (bad lightning conditions, obviously), tricks the evil wife into re-transforming prince and people, and finally kills her. Happy end, next story:
The Porter And The Three Ladies Of Baghdad
Three ladies throw a party with seven guest, amongst them three one-eyed men (the ``kalandar''s from the next three stories), a porter, and the Caliph Harun Al Rashid (incognito, as usual) with two of his friends. The ladies exhibit some eccentric behaviour that involves some black bitches, the guests are becoming nosy, and everyone tells a tale:
The First Kalandar's Tale
Young prince (aren't they all?) helps his cousin and a mystery woman to disappear in a tomb; the prince is evicted from his place after the new ruler monoculizes him; prince and father of cousin open the tomb, find inhabitants stricken dead; prince has to flee a second time.
The Second Kalandar's Tale
Now here is some action! A prince gets mugged in faraway lands, has to work as a woodcutter. After a year, he finds a hidden entry to an underground cave. In the cave is a woman snapped away by an evil jinn on her wedding night -- 25 years ago (can't be too fresh, that gal). After one night of debauchery, the (now drunken) prince summons the jinn, who (after some ado) kills the woman, transforms the prince into a baboon and abandons him on a distant mountain. In this form, the prince walks to the nearest coast and is picked up by a ship. At the next harbour, the resident king seeks a new scribe, and the baboon/prince manages to get the job. The king's daughter, well-versed in magic, recognizes the prince in the ape, summons the jinn, fights him to the death in an hour-long dramatic magic duel (involving form-changes, the baboon losing one eye, a eunuch his life, and the king half his teeth and his beard), de-polymorphs the prince, then dies herself.
The Third Kalandar's Tale
This sea-piece starts off with nothing less than the sinking of The Magnet Mountain (TM). The sole survivor and teller of the tale (need I say he is a prince?) swims to a small island, in the midst of which is a yet another buried trapdoor that opens to a staircase that leads down to a subterranean hall where a youth resides in luxury. One self-fulfilling prophesy later, the prince leaves the island and reaches the mainland, where he stumbles through a desert ere he reaches a palace. In the palace live ten one-eyed youths. In the course of a story too complicated to tell here (but it should be mentioned that it involves a Roc, 40 princesses, 39 allowed and one forbidden room, and a Pegasus), the prince loses his eye and leaves for Bagdad.
This concludes the group of the three Kalandar's tales. The seven guests of the three ladies leave the house. On the next morning, Harun Al Rashid summons the ladies so as to inquire about their strange behaviour.
The Eldest Lady's Tale
advises us about separation of goods in matrimony, and tells us about the dangers of fire-worship. Also, that it is a good idea to learn to swim. Btw, the bitches are the jealous sisters of the eldest lady, transformed by a thankful djinn.
The Tale Of The Three Apples
Again, a story of crime, blood and gore! One night, Caliph Harun al-Rashid finds a chest containing the dead body of a girl, cut into no less than 19 pieces. The murderer is found and tells his story: Mislead by a slave, he killed the girl (his wife) in a fit of rage over her alleged unfaithfulness, which he later finds out to be groundless. There is also a nice subplot on how "sitting out" problems is fine if Allah is with you. (This story is interesting in how it depicts the legendary ``justness'' of Harun al-Rashid. Maybe life was different in a time when ``easy to take offense, easy to forget'' was an accepted behaviour model.) The story ends with the murderer buying his life with - you gess it- a strange story:
Tale of Nur Al-Din Ali and his son Badr Al-Din Hasan
This large tale (20k words) starts off with one of the most bizarre quarrels I'v ever heard of: two brothers contending over the dower of their to-be-married children -- which aren't even conceived yet! The brothers part in anger; one of them stays in Cairo and marries a merchant's daughter, the other leaves for the wide world, but doesn't get beyond Basra, where he marries a Wazir's daughter, and settles down. Of course, the brothers simultaneously sire a matching pair of children. 20 years later, the exiled brother dies, his son falls from the local Sultan's favor, and a pair of djinns carry him to his cousin (who is to be married to a hunchback that very night) and manage to slip him into the wedding bed (this involves a scene of high drama on the loo). Next morning the boy wakes up without clothes in Damascus, and the girl wakes up pregnant, with his gear beside her bed. Her son is born and grows up, fatherless. Ten years pass ere the grandfather of the kid (aka, the surviving brother) takes his daughter and her son on a journey to Basra, to find the father. Of course, they pass through Damascus; of course, the boy meets his father (who now works as a cook) by pure coincidence, but doesn't recognize him as such. In Basra, they pick up the wife of the dead brother, and travel back via Damascus, where said wife finds the lost son by means culinary. The story closes with an extended happy end.
(bookmark)
The City Of Many-Columned Iram And Abdullah Son Of Abi Kilabah
A small and rather bland treasure-city-in-the-desert story, with an end that looks like it has been added from a different story.
The Sweep And The Noble Lady
The Man Who Stole The Dish Of Gold Wherein The Dog Ate
The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through A Dream
The Ebony Horse
The Angel Of Death With The Proud And The Devout Man
Sindbad The Seaman And Sindbad The Landsman
First Voyage Of Sindbad Hight The Seaman
The Second Voyage Of Sindbad The Seaman
The Third Voyage Of Sindbad The Seaman
The Fourth Voyage Of Sindbad The Seaman
The Fifth Voyage Of Sindbad The Seaman
The Sixth Voyage Of Sindbad The Seaman
The Seventh Voyage Of Sindbad The Seaman
The Lady And Her Five Suitors
Khalifah The Fisherman Of Baghdad
Abu Kir The Dyer And Abu Sir The Barber
The Sleeper And The Waker
Story Of The Larrikin And The Cook
Aladdin; Or, The Wonderful Lamp
(a monster of a story, nearly 40,000 words)
Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves
Conclusion

Do Djinns belong to another species than humans (they can interbreed with us, can't they?) or another phylum, or are they throroughly non-organical (they are made from fire, while man was made from earth)? Inquiring minds want to know.

There are also some rather violent scenes, but political correctness does not seem to extend to that area.


Comments and mark-up (c) 1994 mfx@dasburo.com (then: mfx@cs.tu-berlin.de) / last edit: 97-04-20 / Comments and corrections welcome. [Updated 2009-06-03]