Naguib Mahfouz: Arabian Days and Nights

February 22, 2021

Aladdin asked, “Who are the associates of devils?”
“A prince without learning, a scholar without virtue… the corruption of the world lies in their corruption.”

Twenty pages into this book and it already felt like I was reading Crime and Punishment instead of another variation of the Arabian Nights. Apparently, it is not a retelling of the Arabian Nights but a grim sequel drained of the amusement and is, instead, a disquieting political message and social commentary. It weighs heavily.

Right at the beginning it exposes the false piety and corruption of those who are in power when a man of good social standing commits a heinous crime and the poor are arrested, questioned, and accused, whilst the authorities “believe in mercy even when we are chopping necks and cropping heads.”

Characters of the Arabian Nights appear throughout the book, their lives intertwined, but the genies are not the type that fulfill wishes. Some play fateful pranks and some act like consciences, testing the human capacity for good and evil, or calling out the faults of those in power, “If you are called upon to do good, you claim you are incapable; and if you are called upon to do evil, you set about it in the name of duty.” And those in power justify their deeds by saying, “He who’s too decent goes hungry in this city.”

As Scheherazade intimates to Sultan Shahryar, “The fact that stories repeat themselves is an indication of their truth, Your Majesty.” True enough. We see these stories repeated outside of fiction and right smack in the middle of our lives. 

This novel is, indeed, a ratification of Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize.

“Wisdom is a difficult requirement — it is not inherited as a throne is.”

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