Translated from the Arabic, Layali alf layla, by Denys Johnson-Davies
The American University in Cairo Press, 2005, 229p
I bought this in a charity shop on our October trip down south. I had been wishing to sample Mahfouz’s fiction for some time but was also intrigued by the “EgyptAir Duty Free” sticker on the back! It’s a 2005 reprint of a 1995 translation of a 1979 publication.
It takes as its template the tales of One Thousand and One Nights but begins where that ends as the Sultan Shahriyar decides to marry the Nights’ spinner of stories Shahrzad.
It’s many years since I read the Arabian Nights so I’m not certain how closely this reflects those tales but some incidents seemed familiar. Well-known names do appear, such as Aladdin (who here has no magic lamp) and Sindbad (a several times shipwrecked sailor) and there was a resonance about a call to open a door. Genies – Singam and Qumqam, Sakhrabout and Zarmabaha - ply their trickery on the inhabitants of the city. Not even the Sultan escapes their attentions. Humans dance to their tunes as if free will does not exist. The authorities seem much exercised over the activities of heretics like the Shiites and Kharijites (the second of whom I’d never heard of before. Wiki has this.)
I also don’t have enough knowledge of Egyptian politics of the 1970s to tell whether it’s an oblique comment on them though since the book dwells on corruption in high places it may very well. That’s a timeless (and ubiquitous) failing in any case.
The structure is episodic; it’s really a series of connected short stories – as was One Thousand and One Nights.
There’s a distancing inherent in any translation but especially in tales such as these, steeped in a culture different from the one to which I’m used; there are doubtless many references I missed.
I’ll look out for more by Mahfouz.