Literature: A Hundred and One Nights – Scheherazade redux

Seven years ago, the Arabist and translator Bruce Fudge set off in hope rather than expectation when he went in search of the collection of wondrous tales known as A Hundred and One Nights.

Fudge was living in Morocco at the time and as he searched the bookshops of Fez and Meknes for the marvellous tales of love and adventure, hidden treasure, djinns and death, his enquiries were met with the same and all too predictable reply.

“They’d never heard of it,” he says. “I went around all the bookshops and without exception they said, ‘Don’t you mean A Thousand and One Nights?’”

Despite featuring familiar characters such as the story-telling Scheherazade, Harun Al Rashid and the famously cuckolded and homicidal kings Shahryar and Shahzaman, the booksellers’ ignorance came as little surprise to Fudge.

The first printed Arabic edition of A Hundred and One Nights was only published in 1979 and even though the seven surviving manuscripts are all written in a Maghribi script that originate in North Africa, the tales were not widely read, even in the countries of the Maghreb. “It’s not that well known in the Arab world, but then again pre-modern literature isn’t particularly well known in any country,” admits the academic, who is now professor of Arabic at the University of Geneva.

Fudge had never seen any of the manuscripts, two of which are held in Tunis, and three of which now belong to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, but he had read part of a French translation that convinced him that the tales were rather more than a condensed version of A Thousand and One Nights.

Translated as Les Cent et Une Nuits, the very first printed edition of A Hundred and One Nights was published in Paris in 1911 and until the appearance of the first Arabic edition, which was edited by the Tunisian scholar Mahmud Tarshunah in 1979, it was the only printed version of the tales in existence.

Apart from sharing certain characters and stories, such as The Ebony Horse and The Prince and the Seven Viziers with its more illustrious literary cousin, Fudge insists that A Hundred and One Nights also contains important narrative differences that raise interesting questions about how themes and motifs throughout the Night’s corpus may have been developed and transmitted.

For the rest of this story, please visit The National

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