Arabian Nights Sir Richard Burton Translation

February 11, 2021

For this reading venture, I chose the controversial translation by Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890). I had to wade through hundreds of pages of old-fashioned language, terminology that are deemed politically incorrect nowadays, some unusual words that Burton coined himself, and content that was considered pornography in Burton’s time. (On a side note, Burton also translated the Kama Sutra and its Tunisian counterpart, The Perfumed Garden. Given those inclinations, this was not one of the watered-down versions we used to find lying around our grandparents’ living rooms.)

This edition has fine and tastefully-colored illustrations that are oases from the antiquated writing style that 21st Century eyes are no longer accustomed to.  A collection of Eastern folk tales and stories compiled during the Islamic Golden Age, I enjoyed coming across real historical figures from that era that were woven alongside the fictional characters.

Haroun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid Caliph who ruled from 786-809 appears in many of the stories along with his Persian vizier Jafar who, by the way, was not a villain.  The Islamic Empire was said to be at its most powerful under this caliph’s reign. They traded and maintained diplomatic ties with China, and because stories were also traded along the Silk Roads, it may not be too surprising that in the Arabian Nights, Aladdin is actually Chinese.

On the year Al-Rashid became caliph, his son Al-Mamun was born, and it would be Al-Mamun’s obsession for knowledge and a large-scale commissioning of translations of ancient texts from Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, and India that would result into the Translation Movement — and perhaps, in addition, this compilation.

As one who finds this region of the world and that period of history intriguing, I still find this worthy of any book-lover’s shelf space. However, I now understand why later writers feel compelled to refashion the stories into something more relatable, or make adaptations for younger audiences without the sexual imagery, or modify the individual stories with a more discernible moral aim.

But whether we like it or not, the Arabian Nights in its entirety has revolutionized and influenced storytelling for centuries. After having read it myself, I realized that there is an aspect that is not emphasized enough: Hers was an unselfish act. Scheherazade volunteered herself at the risk of death to prove King Sharyar’s stereotypes wrong. By so doing, she saved not only her life, but other women’s lives as well — and through an unlikely medium!

After all, isn’t there inside each of us a Scheherazade, a being who depends on the magic of stories to survive?

Stephen Kinzer: All the Shah’s Men

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

This quote by Harry Truman launches the book into previously confidential details about the 1953 Iranian coup d’état that had me gasping in shock from beginning to end!

It reads like espionage fiction but it is disquieting for the fact that it is nonfiction. It is by far the most comprehensive book I have read on Iran’s modern history. My notes and thoughts will remain private because I wish for my social media accounts to remain zones of peace haha, but I have to say that reading this reinforced my thoughts on Iran’s significance. It made me realize that many major circumstances around the world are ripples of a pivotal event that occurred in Iran more than half a century ago and that this nation continues to be a crucial piece on the chessboard of world history.

Colin Thubron: The Shadow of the Silk Road

Frankopan’s The Silk Roads was the first book I finished reading this year. By the time a dozen friends sent me messages that Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure on Netflix reminded them of me, the Silk Route had already taken over my neural pathways. Haha! When I was finally able to watch it, I noticed that at the end of the show, Joanna Lumley thanks Peter Frankopan and Colin Thubron. I did not know who the latter was. She led me to this book.

While Frankopan gives the reader a sweeping aerial view, Thubron walks down the roads and creates a more intimate experience. The two would be beautiful to read in succession — Frankopan for the historical details, Thubron for making history felt through intimacy. Aside from his own poetic voice, his writing becomes the voice of places and people who would have otherwise been destined to remain absent or silent in our consciousness.


“Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your finger travels along the map: Yes, here and here… and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world… A hundred reasons clamor for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart.

Yet to follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished, leaving behind the pattern of restlessness: counterfeit borders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices.”

I did not want this book to end, and yet, even the best books do, but only to give us a deeper yearning to continue the journey beyond the pages.

Austen Henry Layard: Nineveh and its Remains

The Library of Alexandria was not the first systematically organized library in the world. There was another one that was much older: The great library of Nineveh built circa 668 BCE by Assyrian King Ashurbanipal. Although it shared Alexandria’s fate through destruction by fire, it had another advantage — its clay tablets. Alexandria’s papyrus were reduced to ashes, but Nineveh’s cuneiform clay tablets that exceeded twenty thousand in number were merely baked afresh. Not only did this library preserve the Epic of Gilgamesh for future generations, the Nineveh excavation has become a prime source of information about the Assyrians and the Babylonians whose knowledge and culture they inherited.

We all know Nineveh — this wonder of the ancient world, for a time the largest city in the world — from the Old Testament account of Jonah, but for thousands of years, it could have remained a fictional city for unbelievers until its unearthing. “Without the evidence that these monuments afford, we might almost have doubted that the great city ever existed,” writes Austen Henry Layard.

“Existing ruins show that Nineveh had acquired its greatest extent in the time of the Assyrian kings mentioned in the Old Testament.  It was then that Jonah visited it, and that reports of its size and magnificence were carried to the West, and gave rise to those traditions from which the Greeks mainly derived the information they have handed down to us concerning the city.” On a footnote, Layard adds, “With regard to the connection between the ornaments mentioned in the text and those of Greek architecture, it is now impossible to doubt that all that is Ionic in the arts of Greece is derived from the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates.”

Austen Henry Layard, a name no longer too familiar to our generation, was once a household name in Europe when he discovered Nineveh in the 1840s. Quoting from the introduction, his journals “took Europe by storm and became one of those books that everyone had to read.” It has never gone out of print and is still considered to be among the greatest archaeological books of all time.

Layard being an art historian, a draughtsman, a cuneiformist, and a diplomat, among other things, this book is also so many things at once! The journals have occasional sketches of details from the excavations, he ponders on art, history, religion, civilizations, and takes the reader on his expeditions while painting a vibrant portrait of the time, places, the tribes and people that he encounters on his journeys, and writes vividly of life-threatening experiences.  But the best parts are those moments of discovery that lead to spine-tingling wonder! He can be quite poetic, too: “On all sides, as far as the eye could reach, rose the grass-covered heaps marking the site of ancient habitations. The great tide of civilisation had long since ebbed, leaving these scattered wrecks on the solitary shore. Are those waters to flow again, bearing back the seeds of knowledge and of wealth that they have wafted to the West? We wanderers were seeking what they had left behind, as children gather up the coloured shells on the deserted sands.”

Reading this book recalls and intensifies the question that Jason Elliot posed in his book on Iran: “What will future archaeologists think of us when they find what we’ve left for them?”

Ahdaf Soueif: The Map of Love

This is a story about Egypt. The Egypt that seldom comes to mind when we think of Egypt. The awkward Egypt that won a nominal independence from a fading Ottoman Empire and finds itself ruled by the British. The Egypt in the 1900s and, a hundred years later, the Egypt on the cusp of the Millennium.

This is a scathing commentary about the relationship of East and West where the West is accused of holding one system of values dear to themselves while denying it to their fellows in the East; of foreign intervention; of emasculated natives accused in turn of being unfit to rule themselves; of world powers playing nations and people like chess pieces and waging dishonest wars.

This is about three intelligent women across time, the family that connects them, the men they love, and how they love differently. This is a story written with, and about, beautiful words: “‘Hubb’ is love,
‘ishq’ is love that entwines two people together,
‘shaghaf’ is love that nests in the chambers of the heart,
‘hayam’ is love that wanders the earth,
‘teeh’ is love in which you lose yourself,
‘walah’ is love that carries sorrow within it,
‘sababah’ is love that exudes from your pores,
‘hawa’ is love that shares its name with ‘air’ and with ‘falling’,
‘gharam’ is love that is willing to pay the price.”

But categorizing this as a romance novel would be to miss the point. This is very much a political novel, and Ahdaf Soueif is a gift to those who recognize the power of fiction to embody the intricacies of politics, history, and ethics as painstakingly as a work of nonfiction. Then again, love is a political act. Maybe we can call it a love story, too.

Elif Shafak: Three Daughters of Eve

Peri, the Turkish; Shirin, the Iranian; Mona, the Egyptian; and a philosophy professor. Three women and a man whose lives intersect at the University of Oxford.

Deep into this multi-layered novel, it gradually occurred to me that the characters are actually a microcosm of beliefs, sentiments, and nations: Peri’s father and mother represent both the secular and the religious in Turkey, but despite all their irreconcilable arguments they are bound to coexist; Shirin, the atheist, is the Iranian who believes that the veil stands for the religious fundamentalism that sent her and her family to exile; Mona, the Islam believer, is the Egyptian who is convinced that the veil is her choice and her identity; Peri, the confused, the Turk who always felt somewhere in between (very much like her city, that hinge between Europe and Asia) and whose past is a burden; and the dynamic Professor Azur who challenges not only his students’ beliefs but their unbeliefs, too!

There are too many significant passages to iterate that I have resolved to leave it to the next reader to find and treasure those penetrating lines for themselves.  In the acknowledgements, Elif Shafak writes, “My motherland, Turkey, is a river country, neither solid nor settled. During the course of writing this novel that river changed so many times, flowing with a dizzying speed… Motherlands are beloved, no doubt; sometimes they can also be exasperating and maddening. Yet I have also come to learn that for writers and poets for whom national borders and cultural barriers are there to be questioned, again and again, there is, in truth, only one motherland, perpetual and portable. Storyland.”

And yet this is a story that is not merely a story. It is a peephole into politics, stereotypes, philosophy, and life. The dialogues are a source of profound thought and it touches on relevant issues that are painfully ignored by the higher powers in government. But perhaps what I should be saying is that, nevermind my qualms with some metaphors, this is how stories should be — the kind that challenges the idea of what readers should be looking for in a book.

Zeynab Joukhadar: The Map of Salt and Stars

“People don’t get lost on the outside. They get lost on the inside. Why are there no maps of that?”

“If you don’t know the tale of where you come from, the words of others can overwhelm and drown out your own. So, you see, you must keep careful track of the borders of your stories, where your voice ends and another’s begins.”

“Things change too much. We’ve always got to fix the maps, repaint the borders of ourselves.”

“He motioned to the shelves of books, their spines polished gold, tawny brown, and russet leather. “Anyone who wants companionship and knowledge will find what they seek here,” he said. “We are among friends.”

“People think that stories can be walled off, kept outside and separate. They can’t. Stories are inside of you.”

“Then stories map the soul,” Rawiya said, “in the guise of words.”

“Don’t forget, stories ease the pain of living, not dying.”

“Their broken places remind me of how contagious pain is.”

“Is pain poisonous?”

“But the top of my head is pulsing, and my fingers are trembling, and in my head I am counting the broken families I have seen. I am counting the missing fathers and the buried brothers, giving form and breath to those who were left behind…”

“Wealth is no substitute for belonging.”

“Is the world nothing more than a collection of senseless hurts waiting to happen, one long cut waiting to bleed?”

* * *

There are books that are intellectually satisfying, and then there are those that pierce your heart to the core and put your anxieties and problems into perspective. These two belong to the latter. Reading Ahdaf Soueif’s and Elif Shafak’s cerebral women prior to this did not make the 12-year-old narrator seem less profound. In true Arabian Nights fashion, which I find brilliant, this has a story within a story; but these books are, indeed, a starting point for empathy and education on the Syrian refugee crisis.

The Iranian’s remark to the Turkish in Three Daughters of Eve kept playing in my mind, “Lucky you! If you are homesick, it means you have a home somewhere.”

Dalia Sofer: Septembers in Shiraz

The Iranian Jewish main character adds a layer of complexity to an already convoluted political terrain, and that is what sets it apart from the few books I have read about the Iranian Revolution.

Isaac Amin, a poet turned wealthy gemologist, is arrested and accused of being an Israeli spy.  His ethnicity and his status incriminates him. He is guilty of the blatant sin of being a wealthy Jew.

But who can hope for a fair trial? “If you think there is going to be a trial you’re going to be very disappointed.” There is only interrogation and torture.

Dalia Sofer writes with a slow burning suspense and unravels difficult matters with a remarkable ease.  From affecting scenes of prisoners reciting poetry to each other, to dialogues that confront social issues, to thoughts about religion and family, she breathes into them beautiful subtleties and realities that are literary pearls.

I judged this book by its cover. There seemed something saccharine about it that it took me a while to pick it up. But because of a long-standing personal intention to piece together a literary tapestry of the Fertile Crescent, I finally read it.

How wrong I was! There is absolutely nothing saccharine about post-Revolution Iran or in the physical and psychological tortures of their prisons.

The novel moves back and forth between Isaac in prison, his wife and daughter who take control of their situation in individual ways in Tehran, and a son studying architecture in New York.  We see almost nothing of Shiraz, and it takes a while to understand that Septembers of Shiraz is a wistful metaphor and allusion to brighter days that have become irredeemable.

Orhan Pamuk: The White Castle

A re-reading.

My initiation to Pamuk was My Name is Red circa 2006. He opened up a whole new world of literature to me. Scouring bookstores for his other works was a natural aftermath.

It goes without saying that I found the writing spectacular, but fifteen years ago The White Castle meant nothing more to me than a tale set in the 17th century about an Italian intellectual who sets sail from Venice to Naples only to be captured by Turks and brought to Constantinople where his master would turn out to be his doppelgänger. I knew it was a novel about identity, but it did not leave a lasting impression back then.

I had even forgotten that this was set during a pandemic wherein people lived in fear of the plague! “Janissaries guarded the entrances to the market-places, the avenues, the boat landings, halting passers-by, interrogating them: ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Where are you coming from?’”

The same questions that each doppelgänger would often ask the other and himself — the same questions that confront the reader.

Through my re-reading, I discovered nuances that were lost to my younger mind; and passages that I previously failed to mark with a pencil leapt up from the pages with intensity.

Over the course of time, the two characters’ lives would become inextricably entwined, they would embark on engineering projects, study astronomy, work on other branches of science, write books and and share a life together. As soon as Pamuk tricks us into thinking that one is inferior to the other, and into making us think we have a good grasp of who is truly master or slave, their roles would be reversed until it becomes difficult to tell them apart. And yet, their likeness is something that they do not acknowledge openly.

By and by, the question of who is superior? fades into oblivion and metamorphoses into who is who?

On one occasion, the Sultan asks them, “Have you two never looked at yourselves in the mirror together?”

And there it was, the very point that I missed hiding in plain sight — East and West personified!

And who else more qualified to write about their tumultuous but inevitable relationship? But of course! A man from that city perched on both East and West!

Naguib Mahfouz: The Day the Leader Was Killed

When Naguib Mahfouz wrote this, he had not been awarded the Nobel yet, but his Adrift on the Nile had already been banned during the term of Anwar Sadat — the leader to whom the title refers. The story is set during Sadat’s Infitah, the policy that would incense Arabs to oppose him and one that would lead to his assassination.

Mahfouz had not known then that after Sadat there would be worse intellectual persecutors, and the future would find him stabbed in the neck in an attack that would tragically impair his writing hand.

Eleven years before the incident, this was published. One should not expect grandeur from this, or a sweeping account of Egypt’s history and politics. Here, Mahfouz intimates to us the lives of three common people, “redundant people,” as one narrator would describe.

The three narrators are Muhtashimi Zayed, the grandfather; Elwan, the grandson; and Randa, Elwan’s fiancée: Characters whose daily lives are affected by the Infitah.

The juxtaposition of their lives and the trajectory of their sentiments with the day the leader is killed is an intelligent tool. Because with momentous events such as the assassination, we think little of these lives, their loves, their troubles. The strength of this book is in the intimacy that Mahfouz beckons us to experience. I like how the title cleverly deceives us like a headline by a Western news network of news in the Middle East: We are tricked into thinking that we already know what the story is about, when in fact, we don’t.