Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange - The earliest known Arabic short stories in the world. Crocodiles have pearls in their ears; statues move and speak

  Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, Trans. by Malcolm C. Lyons, Intro. by Robert Irwin. Penguin Classics, 2015.

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On the shrouded corpse hung a tablet of green topaz with the inscription: 'I am Shaddad the Great. I conquered a thousand cities; a thousand white elephants were collected for me; I lived for a thousand years and my kingdom covered both east and west, but when death came to me nothing of all that I had gathered was of any avail. You who see me take heed: for Time is not to be trusted.' Dating from at least a millennium ago, these are the earliest known Arabic short stories, surviving in a single, ragged manuscript in a library in Istanbul. Some found their way into The Arabian Nights but most have never been read in English before. Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange has monsters, lost princes, jewels beyond price, a princess turned into a gazelle, sword-wielding statues and shocking reversals of fortune.

THIS must be one of the most curious books I have ever reviewed. It is the first English translation of a manuscript found in a library in Istanbul in 1933. Or rather half a manuscript: the contents page promises 42 stories and we have 18, and its title given here is the subtitle, the actual title page also having been lost.
It claims to be derived from “a well-known book”, and although the manuscript might be dated from anywhere between the 14th and 16th centuries, internal evidence from the stories has led those who have studied such matters to claim they might date back to the 10th century. It is tempting to concur with Salah al-Din al-Munajjid that this might be the lost book of 380 stories put together by al-Jahshiyari; but that irksome detail that it was “taken from a well-known book” might mean this is someone else’s redaction of al-Jahshiyari’s still lost book. What is clear is that it influenced the One Thousand And One Nights, and that it is a good contender for being the earliest Arabic story collection we have.
It is a profound oddity, but an absolutely intriguing one. You cannot read these stories expecting them to be akin to Children’s And Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm or Pu Songling’s Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio or Somadeva’s Ocean Of The Stream Of Stories. The tales here have an odd roughness, a making-it-up-as-you-go-along quality – in one, Talha, The Son Of The Qadi Of Fustat, the hero of the story sleeps with the sorceress at the beginning of his quest, then sleeps with her 39 accomplices, then with the sorceress again, only to find she is still a virgin. I suppose sorceresses might be able to accomplish such things. But in others, such as The Story Of Sul And Shumul or The Story Of Miqdad And Mayasa, the tale is interwoven with poetry, suggesting a more literary audience.
The stories do have a common set of linguistic markers. Many begin “They say – and God knows best – that…”, an equivalent of our “Once upon a time”. As the narrative switches between characters, the phrase “so much for them, but for” introduces the new part of the yarn. Beautiful faces are usually moonlike in their radiance, and some of the similes will surprise the reader – a good singing voice is like almond paste, for example. Many of the stories have a frame in which a caliph is unsettled and insomniac, and demands of his vizier that a person be brought to entertain him, usually with tales of far-off lands, women in glass boxes, djinns, ifrits, moving statues and tales of unexpected coincidence. They often have a melancholy edge, with the treasure seeker or prince being reduced to penury, and the fear of the “Destroyer of Delights and Divider of Unions”; in other words, Death. The treasure-seekers find vast wealth tempered with melancholy admonitions about its transitory value.
Some radically challenge our moral and literary norms. In The Six Men: The Hunchbacked, The One-Eyed, The Blind, The Crippled, The Man Whose Lips Had Been Cut Off And The Seller Of Glassware – and, by the way, it isn’t just his lips they had cut off – a typically ennui-ridden caliph calls for stories, and the variously maimed are brought to him. At the end of each of their stories of humiliation, in which getting a sound thrashing is customary, 
the caliph laughs and rewards them. One can’t help thinking of Simon Cowell.
The Story Of ’Arus al-’Ara’is is a sustained piece of misogyny, predicated on the idea of a caliph so distraught at the death of his infant daughter he requires a late night jackanory about how all women are intrinsically wicked and duplicitous.
Literature from outside the Arabic tradition also has its moments which might make a modern reader squeamish. Chaucer has scenes of degraded, lovelorn fools; the Icelandic sagas are full of sordid and silly antics. Objectionable depictions are not the preserve of any one culture. Sadly, they are ubiquitous.
That said, this weirdly compelling book also contains a precursor to Idries Shah’s Mulla Nasrudin stories, with holy fools who outwit the sanctimonious, and one bizarre piece about how Hatim al-Bahili met a monk, Simeon, who had been a friend of the prophet Daniel and a disciple of Jesus, and who begged Allah to let him live to see the coming of Muhammad. It includes an early piece of Islamic paranoia – that Jews and Christians conspired to keep the name of the Prophet out of the Old and New Testaments. Did a theological proposition become embroiled in a folk tale about faraway lands, or did theology retool an old tale for its own ends?
This book is an astonishment, and I can only commend Penguin for their ongoing work of introducing non-European literature to a wider audience. Long may it continue. - STUART KELLY

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange contains 18 stories from the Arab world, originating in the 10th century, which have survived in a single manuscript in a library in Istanbul. While a German volume appeared in 1933, this elegant, block-bound Penguin edition is the first English version of these tales, in a delightfully unstuffy translation by Malcolm C Lyons and with a sensitive introduction to their cultural and literary context by the Arabist Robert Irwin.
Six of these stories were later included in the Arabian Nights, but the rest are new to us. Composed to fascinate and titillate, they are neither folk tales nor morality tales but early and enjoyable examples of pulp fiction, and should, Irwin contends, properly be classed as literature. And make no mistake, they are both marvellous and very, very strange. Featuring monsters, jinn, feckless princes, capricious princesses, wily viziers, concealed treasure and dramatic reversals of fortune, they offer a glimpse of a world whose oddness has simply been accentuated by the passing of the centuries.
The variety of the tales – a mix of comedy, fantasy and derring-do – is instantly appealing, as is their headlong narrative drive. Unlike the stories of the Arabian Nights (in which Scheherazade’s talking for her life is the thread on which the collection is hung) they have no unifying frame, and profess no didactic purpose. If there is a common element to them it is that they are almost all concerned to a greater or lesser degree with sexual or romantic love. They seem sensual, capriciously violent and more than a touch repetitive, rather like a medieval Fifty Shades of Grey.
Take “The Story of the Forty Girls and What Happened to Them with the Prince”, in which a Persian prince stumbles across an enchanted castle run by a sorceress and her troop of warlike female cousins. Divested of their armour, the girls prove to be “more beautiful than the houris of Paradise”, and queue up to enjoy his favours (naturally they are all virgins). Finally the sorceress offers herself to him, forbidding the prince – who is impressively not yet exhausted – from approaching any of the others again on pain of being imprisoned, tortured and loaded with iron chains; conditions to which he cheerfully agrees. That’s 40 couplings, and then some, since the sorceress, having miraculously regained her virginity, presents herself for a second deflowering.
“The Story of Sul and Shumul” is more idealistic but has a similar Groundhog Day quality. Here the lovers, two teenage cousins, are fiercely chaste, preferring “to talk and recite poetry” all night, after which they part “with no suspicion of indecency attaching to them”. They are, of course, star-crossed, for no more obvious reason than that Sul seems incapable of pulling himself together and proposing to Shumul. Whenever he receives a letter from her (and there are many, written in the high-flown poetic style to which both are partial) he falls down in a faint. In fact Sul spends so much of the narrative wheeling between tears and verse that Shumul’s exasperated father exclaims: “I don’t know whether he wants this marriage or not.”
We look in vain for the signs of an early modern psychology in the actions of the vacillating, fainting Sul: his behaviour, like that of the priapic Persian prince, is the product of an erotic literary convention. This is also true of the book’s many beautiful but scheming female characters, for Tales of the Marvellous is undeniably misogynistic. As a character in AS Byatt’s story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” (1994) observes, the sad fact remains that for the most part women in such pre-modern Arabic stories “are portrayed as deceitful, unreliable, greedy, inordinate in their desires, unprincipled and dangerous, operating powerfully (apart from sorceresses and female ghouls and ogres) through structures of powerlessness”.
In other words, women who are judged by their bodies must live and die by their bodies. Perhaps the best example here is the gloriously psychopathic Arus al-‘Ara’is, the antiheroine of “The Story of Arus al-‘Ara’is and her Deceit”, who meets a gory end after a vicious career as a femme fatale. Arus uses sex as a deadly weapon, copulating with mortals and jinn alike, and killing her lovers when the occasion demands. Yet she sets herself up as a seductress only because, as a young girl, she is herself tricked and seduced by a man, and she remains remarkably frank throughout about her propensity for dishonesty. At the beginning of the story we meet one of her former victims, a jailbird who has been imprisoned for assaulting a woman and attempting to rape his own mother. Tellingly, Arus is still presented, within the tale’s moral framework, as the more wicked of the two.
Equally terrifying is the monomaniacal Mahliya in “The Story of Mahliya and Maubub”. A Christian Egyptian princess, Mahliya goes to mass and displays conventionally demure forms of piety. But no sooner has she set eyes on the dishy Maubub in church than she begins to pursue him obsessively, insinuating herself into his tent disguised as her own vizier, and later becoming so jealous when she suspects him (wrongly, as it happens) of infidelity that she crucifies his messengers. In what must count as a particularly unfortunate instance of a lovers’ quarrel, the two finally confront each other on the battlefield, where Maubub prepares to attack his beloved with an army that includes lions and elephants, while Mahliya has mustered “4,000 buffaloes with their horns covered in iron and their necks protected by collars of Chinese steel” – and, aptly, 5,000 wildcats. Unsurprisingly, Mahliya wins.
In spite of such over-the-top passions, there is often a mournful countercurrent to these baroque tales. It is especially evident in those stories that involve a search for hidden treasure (matalib, the “science” of treasure hunting, was an established genre of writing, and there was even a guild of medieval Egyptian treasure-hunters, motivated by a wish to discover what had happened to the fabled wealth of the ancient Greeks and Romans). In Tales of the Marvellous the treasure hunter typically has to grapple with cryptic clues, magic spells, guardian monsters and death-dealing automata. We might well wonder, like the 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, why anyone who “hoards his money and seals it with magical operations, thus making extraordinary efforts to keep it concealed”, would also “set up hints and clues as to how it may be found by anyone who cares to” – nevertheless, the stories are rollicking illustrations of the principle that who dares, wins.
“The Story of the Four Hidden Treasures” is fairly typical in being an Indiana Jones-like romp, in four quests, for fabulous riches guarded, among other grotesques, by a bird with a body bigger than an elephant’s, lascivious mermaids and moving statues that function in every way like robots. As well as boasting some eerily convincing details – on spending the night with the mermaids, the treasure hunters find that “the only difference between them and our own women was that their skins had the roughness of small shells” – the tale gives us a poignant insight into the medieval Arab obsession with a lost past. As those robotic statues suggest, medieval storytellers thought of advanced technology not as something that might be realised in the future, but as one of the secrets that vanished with the ancients.
As a result, these perky quest stories finally leave us with an uncomfortable sense of the transience of human achievement. The point is driven home when the treasure hunters on the Second Quest come across a corpse with a tablet of green topaz at its head, bearing the inscription “I am Shaddad the Great. I conquered a thousand cities; a thousand white elephants were collected for me; I lived for a thousand years and my kingdom covered both east and west, but when death came to me nothing of all that I had gathered was of any avail. You who see me take heed, for Time is not to be trusted.” The tale concludes with this pitiful vision of human life as brief, frail and hopelessly invested in ephemera.
Like all pulp fiction, however, the stories in this collection are, above all, fun, and when approaching them, in order to avoid what the social historian EP Thompson has called “the enormous condescension of posterity”, it is as well to suspend both our contemporary sensitivities and our disbelief. Here Irwin shows us the way. His introduction alludes matter-of-factly to an incident in which, as a young man visiting a Sufi shrine in Algeria, he “once encountered a jinni in the form of a cat”. What a pity that tale isn’t included here. - Elizabeth Lowry

The Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim – having defeated the Mamluks in two major battles in Syria and Egypt – entered Cairo in 1517.
He celebrated his victory by watching the crucifixion of the last Mamluk sultan at the Zuwayla Gate. Then he presided over the systematic looting of Cairo’s cultural treasures. Among that loot was the content of most of Cairo’s great libraries. Arabic manuscripts were shipped to Istanbul and distributed among the city’s mosques. This is probably how the manuscript of Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange ended up in the library of the great mosque of Ayasofya.
There it lay unread and gathering dust, a ragged manuscript that no one even knew existed, until 1933 when Hellmut Ritter, a German orientalist, stumbled across it and translated it into his mother tongue. An Arabic edition was belatedly printed in 1956.
In the 1990s, when I was working on my book The Arabian Nights: A Companion, I came across references to this story collection and, since it sounded very like The Arabian Nights (or, to give it its correct title, The Thousand and One Nights), I thought I ought to have a look at it. The stories in Tales of the Marvellous were indeed as fantastic and exotic as those in the Nights, and I felt as other scholars might feel if they had come across a missing part of The Canterbury Tales or a lost play by Shakespeare.
The stories are very old, more than 1,000 years old, yet most of them are quite new to us. Some years later, I suggested to Malcolm Lyons, the translator of a recent edition of the Nights, that having completed that mighty task, he might consider translating Tales of the Marvellous. He sounded unenthusiastic and I thought no more about it. Then, last summer, he emailed to let me know that he had completed the translation. Now it has been published, meaning these stories can be read in English for the first time. 
Although the title page of this medieval Arab story collection has been lost (as have more than half the original stories), the opening sentence of its introduction declares that these are al-hikayat al-‘ajiba wa’l-akhbar al-ghariba, or Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange. “Ajiba is an adjective which means ‘marvellous’ or ‘amazing’ and its cognate plural noun, aja’ib, or marvels, is the term used to designate an important genre of medieval Arabic literature that dealt with all things that challenged human understanding, including magic, the realms of the jinn, marvels of the sea, strange fauna and flora, great monuments of the past, automatons, hidden treasures, grotesqueries and uncanny coincidences.
The Qur’an frequently calls on believers to marvel at the wonders of God’s creation, for they are filled with clear signs for “those who will reflect”. And, of course, the Qur’an itself is one of God’s marvels. Extraordinary things were signs of God’s creative power. To marvel at God’s creation was then a pious act.
Several of the stories in Tales of the Marvellous are explicit about the hunger to see or hear about amazing things. The story of Said Son of Hatim al-Bahili begins with the Umayyad Caliph telling his vizier: “I want you to bring me an Arab seafarer who can tell me about the wonders and perils of the sea and do it now. It may be that it will cure my sleeplessness.”
In the third of the four stories devoted to treasure hunting, the leader of the expedition says to the narrator: “I am a man who searches for marvels as you do.” Later, when a centaur tries to bribe the leader not to demand to see the magical crown, he replies: “We only want to look at marvels and to see what we have never seen before, and if we see the crown we can put it back in its place.” In The Story of the King of the two Rivers one of the things that recommends a maidservant to the princess is the servant’s fondness for the unusual. 
This means that the text we have is older than the oldest substantially surviving manuscript of The Thousand and One Nights (from the late 15th century), which Antoine Galland took as the basis for his translation of the Nights in the 18th century. The authors and compilers of both Tales of the Marvellous and The Thousand and One Nights are anonymous.
Not only do the two-story collections resemble one another in the variety of their contents, but they have a handful of stories in common including the intriguingly titled The Story of Abu Muhammad the Idle and the Marvels He Encountered with the Ape As Well As the Marvels of the Seas and Islands. However, the chronological priority of the versions in Tales of the Marvellous is important, since it will provide future researchers with insights into the ways that the compilers of The Thousand and One Nights worked with older materials and elaborated on or condensed what they had before them.
Tales of the Marvellous differs from The Thousand and One Nights in all sorts of odd ways. The author(s) of Tales of the Marvellous had a special devotion for the Prophet’s cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and at the same time respect for the Umayyad caliphs of the 7th and 8th centuries. Several times in Tales of the Marvellous Allah intervenes directly to rescue a hero or heroine in peril. Christian monks feature frequently in Tales of the Marvellous and a historical figure, Muhammad ibn Suleiman, plays a leading role in three of the stories. Why, I do not yet know.
More generally, the fantastic is even wilder and more prominent in Tales of the Marvellous than it is in the Nights. The sheer mad inventiveness of The Story of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle, with its jumbling of Muslim, Christian and pagan beliefs and rituals would take some beating. Here we have a mechanical vulture, visionary dreams, conversation with a pagan god, magical transformations, thrones of wrath and of mercy, an enchanted gazelle, a herder of giant ostriches, lustful jinn, speaking idols, a queen of the crows, a weeping lion, a fortress guarded by talismans, a crocodile with pearls in its ears, the sacrifice of virgins to the Nile and much else.

The narrative is one long carnival of extravagant fantasy. The Story of ‘Arus al-‘Ara’is and Her Deceit, As Well As the Wonders of the Seas and Islands features an Arab Medea who uses poison and sorcery to slay the men and jinn she sleeps with (and she sleeps around a lot).  In Said Son of Hatim al-Bahili, a jihadi expedition heads out to India where it encounters not only the armies of the pagan Indians, but also a monk who remembers his times with the Prophet Daniel and with Jesus, but who has since converted to Islam, and he utters many cryptic prophecies. Then the Muslim expeditionary force travels on to lands farther east to discover the Valley of the Ants and the Valley of the Apes.
As I have read and reread these stories, I have slowly become convinced that the person who first wrote them down in the 10th century did not just collect them from other sources, but in some cases he or she actually composed them. Several of the stories show signs of having been driven by inspiration and written down in great haste. For example, in The Story of the Talisman Mountain and Its Marvels, only belatedly does the storyteller remember to bestow a name on the savage mamluk.
The Thousand and One Nights contains one long story about a quest for treasure, The City of Brass, in which the governor of Egypt sends an expedition out to find the sealed copper vessels which contain the jinn captured centuries ago by Solomon. Otherwise, treasure hunting does not really feature in the Nights. But Tales of the Marvellous contains four short stories devoted to treasure hunting and in three of those stories the leaders of those quests are professionals.
The fictional treatment of treasure hunting evolved in parallel with non-fictional treatises devoted to the same subject. In medieval Egypt, professional treasure hunters had set themselves up as a guild. Many of the “professional” treasure hunters were really con men who preyed upon the gullible. Additionally, many treasure-hunting manuals are so full of wondrous accounts of magical spells, death-dealing automata and stories about ill-fated earlier seekers that they should really be reassigned to the category of entertaining fiction.

In fiction, as in purported fact, one needed more than a good map and a shovel in order to unearth ancient treasures, for the treasure hunter might expect to encounter guardian monsters, killer statues and magical traps, and that is indeed what the participants in the quests included in Tales of the Marvellous do encounter. These perilous adventures can be compared to those of Indiana Jones, though the supernatural features more prominently in the medieval stories.
The treasure hunting stories bear witness to the awe experienced by the medieval Arabs when they contemplated the wonders of antiquity and asked themselves what had happened to the wealth of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as of the Pharaohs and Persian emperors.
As the stories of dangerous automata suggest, medieval storytellers envisaged advanced technology not as something that would be achieved in the future, but rather as something whose secrets were lost in the distant past. In Tales of the Marvellous, death-dealing automata guarded the treasures sought by the protagonists of the quest stories.
Unusually in The Story of Julnar, the sorceress Queen Lab is mistress of a group of singing automata. Statues were dangerous. In several of the tales in Tales of the Marvellous demons enter the statues and speak through them. Stone monks guard treasure in the first of the four treasure-hunting stories. A statue on the Talisman Mountain has the power to immobilise ships. Such things, neither alive nor dead, are intrinsically uncanny.

Treasure-hunting stories are full of marvels and excitement, but, as with the Nights story The City of Brass, they also carry a lot of moralising about the transience of worldly wealth and the vanity of earthly power. One gets the sense that the treasure hunters are not so much seeking tangible treasures as they are on a quest for adventure and strangeness. The story of a quest for treasure turns out to be the story of the quest for a story. -  Robert Irwin 

We are all familiar with the story of One Thousand And One Nights, the tale in which the beauteous Scheherazade starts a story every night only to leave it at a cliffhanger to forestall her execution at the hands of her husband, the king.
In fact, for most of us, the stories about Aladdin, Sinbad et al are the only experience we have had of the Arabic fairytale, which means that for lovers of the exotic, there is a new treat in store.
A cache of 1,000-year old stories was discovered in a library in Istanbul in 1933 and they are now appearing in English for the first time.
Fantastical, but universal themes: Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange [PH]
Tales Of The Marvellous And News Of The Strange is a collection of 18 stories, six of which appeared in some version in One Thousand And One Nights and all of which are as exotic as the mysterious East.
There are beautiful women who enchant their men and go on to treat them dreadfully, old crones who do likewise (perfidious females feature pretty largely in this collection), slaves, fantastical animals, magicians, viziers, thwarted lovers, mermaids, statues that come to life and much, much more.
Though fantastical, the themes are universal: love lost and found, men reduced from riches to rags and back again and various all-powerful emirs and sultans who grant favours on the one hand and ruin their courtiers without a second thought on the other.
I normally avoid reading the introduction to a book until I have finished it on the grounds that so many give crucial plot twists away, but in this case I would recommend it.
The stories are so alien to the modern Brit that the reader needs a little guidance. 
There are also missing patches in the manuscript which the introduction tries to explain and the one gripe I have is that the first tale, The Story Of The King Of The Two Rivers, has so much missing it made no sense to me.
However if you want to read stories that have such lines as: “Master, take and keep this unique pearl, who has no equal on the face of the earth.
No one who can see her can look at her enough.
All the kings of the sea have asked for her hand but she did not find any of them acceptable,” then curl up with a box of Turkish delight and enjoy. This book is for you. - Virginia Blackburn
“I’m longing to be back in the Middle East and specifically the Emirates,” says Robert Irwin, the British Arabist and author of six novels. “I’ve been several times from the 60s, when it was part of the Trucial States, and I’ve always loved it. I’m beginning to feel almost homesick.”
He’s speaking a couple of days ahead of his series of lectures that start on February 7 at the Dubai International Writers’ Centre, a part of the Emirates Literature Foundation.
A renowned authority on the Arabian Nights, Irwin will also be talking about his latest Orientalist discovery, Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, just published in the UK by Penguin Classics. As befits its title, the extraordinary story of how this ancient manuscript finally saw the light of day is a marvel in its own right. It is now being heralded as the oldest collection of fictional stories from the Arab world, predating the infinitely better-known Nights.
Irwin says it is quite likely that the manuscript, whose collection of stories appears to date back to the 10th century, was looted from Cairo in 1517, when the Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim, victorious over the Mamluks in Syria and Egypt, seized Cairo and proceeded to ransack the city’s prodigious intellectual treasures. Libraries were emptied and their contents despatched to Istanbul, where in 1933 the German orientalist Hellmut Ritter discovered the manuscript in the library of the great Ayasofya.
“Frankly nobody knew about it in Britain,” says Irwin. “I mentioned it in The Arabian Nights: A Companion in the 90s and thought it would be interesting. I said to Malcolm Lyons [with whom Irwin collaborated on the landmark 2008 edition of the Nights], we should do Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange. Malcolm said no, he had other things on, and I forgot all about it. Then suddenly I got an email from him a couple of years ago saying: I’ve translated all 500 pages of it, what are you going to do about it?”
The answer was a handsome new edition, which has attracted serious interest and considerable coverage. “In some ways it’s a major event,” he says. It brings an ancient yet entirely new title to the reading public and simultaneously deepens our understanding of how the ocasionally overlapping stories of the Arabian Nights were stitched together.
To say Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange is not a title for conservative tastes would be an understatement. One reviewer likened it to a medieval Fifty Shades of Grey. If there is one unifying theme within its lurid, fantastical world, it is surely sex – alternately romantic, capricious and frequently deadly. Princes prowl through the pages, hungry for trysts with insatiable seductresses and wanton sorceresses. Irwin summarises the collection as “pulp fiction”.
Might it all be a bit too racy for his Dubai audience, I wonder? This will be the first time he has discussed the stories in the Arab world. “My problem is I don’t know what the audience will be like,” he confesses. “When I last spoke at the Dubai literary festival five or six years ago, most of the audience were expats rather than Arabs, despite the fact I was speaking about the camel.”
The eponymous marvels are broadly envisioned. Here are mischievous djinn, powerful magic, perilous quests, surreal seafaring adventures, hidden treasures and otherworldly animals. Beyond the fantasy, the sexual scrapes and the female stereotypes – and bursts of what will strike the modern reader as downright racism – the cultural atmosphere of this world is decidedly enlightened, a telling contrast to the prevailing climate in much of the Middle East today. For this reader it recalls the astonishingly risqué, homoerotic verse of Abu Nuwas, who was writing in Baghdad during the eighth and ninth centuries.
“I think it reflects the remarkable tolerance of the time,” says Irwin. “In Baghdad you have a Sunni Muslim caliph being bossed around by Shia Buyid rulers. In Egypt it’s the other way round, with a Shia Fatimid caliph employing Sunni Muslims and Armenian Christians. It speaks of a time when people could be Sunni in some respects and Shia in others. And the stories demonstrate a remarkable interest in Christianity. With the exception of one story, there’s no marked prejudice against Christians, rather a fascination with them.”
Again there’s an obvious parallel with the Arabian Nights, which Irwin will be speaking about on February 7, examining its social commentary on the time. His interest in the text goes back many years. He says he was spurred on by the desire to understand something that was “doubly alien”, in terms of both language and religion, and also as distant history: it is thought the earliest stories, from Persia and India, date back to the early eighth century. “Its history is so dramatic, complicated and frankly still romantic, though that’s not a word that is fashionable at the moment.”
One of the more curious aspects of its history is how relatively long it took for this seminal text to be taken seriously as a work of literature within the region that engendered it.
“The Nights really languished for centuries in the Arab world. I don’t know when it ever really flourished,” Irwin says. “It wasn’t rated as a fine work of literature until the early 20th century – and even that was responding to the European enthusiasm.”
For Irwin the Nights has had possibly the most influence on western literature since the 18th century with the single exception of the Bible. Within the Arab world it was modern Egyptian writers who led the way in taking up the Nights, first through Tawfiq Al Hakim and Taha Hussein in the early part of the 20th century, later with the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. “Novelists and playwrights could see what was good about it but it still faced hostility from much of the intelligentsia, first of all because some of it was bawdy and it had a scurrilous approach to religion – leading to attempts to ban it. Secondly, because the Arabic is so poor. It’s not great fusha.”
In recent decades the intellectual climate has become more conducive to its proper recognition. Irwin himself played a major part in opening up the stories for critical appreciation with his Companion, published in 1994. The 2008 edition, which Irwin worked on with Malcolm Lyons, was the first English translation since Sir Richard Burton’s inevitably dated edition of 1885-88. “It’s really a wonderful subject to have been involved in. When I think of all the deadbeat things I could have done, I’m really lucky.”
You can sense the influence again on Irwin’s latest projects. Returning to fiction, he is working on two novels. One is about the German cinema industry in the 1930s and 1940s, with the rise of Nazism and propaganda to the fore, the other is set during the Wars of the Roses in 15th-century England. “It’s about western storytelling, Arthur, Chanson de Roland, the relationship between storytelling and propaganda and lying.”
In his final talk in Dubai, on February 9 – sit up and listen, all aspiring writers – Irwin will be offering advice on that thorniest of problems: how to get published.
“I will give what advice I can,” he says, trying not to sound too pessimistic. “It’s so difficult to get published these days. It’s never been easy and it’s got harder and harder. It’s a little like [the Noël Coward song] Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington.”
Irwin generally prefers not to be drawn on the contemporary turmoil in the Middle East. “I’m desperately trying not to be a pundit. I always say I speak as an expert on the old manuscripts of the Arabian Nights.” When pushed, he admits he finds it “intensely depressing”, likening the current crisis to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. “I think things will settle down – it’ll just take decades.”
Then, as if to provide a caveat to his own analysis, he says he’s currently working on a talk about all the people who have got it wrong on the Middle East since 1945, from those who prophesied “Islam would wither and become secular and socialist” to those who forecast the domino democratisation of the Arab Spring. Pundits, you have been warned. - Justin Marozzi

review by Alex Buxton
There once was a king afflicted by a terrible sadness. His name was Shahriyar. “He had a hundred concubines, but none had given him a son. He had sent agents to buy him slave girls but whether he stayed with them a day, a night or a year, not one of them would conceive. The wide world shrank in his eyes as, whatever greatness he had achieved, he had no son.”
So begins the English version of Julnar of the Sea and the Marvels of the Sea Encountered by Her, the sixth of 18 stories contained in a collection of Arab medieval fantasy called Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange. Translated into English for the first time, and newly available to millions of readers, the tales open a window on to the enduring preoccupations and wild imaginings of the medieval mind.
Translation is an art, a question of stepping lightly between accuracy and context, tuned to the slightest nuances of meaning and association. When Malcolm Lyons, former Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Pembroke College, embarked on the task of bringing these age-old stories to life for the modern reader, he had behind him some six decades of scholarship as an academic deeply interested in the interconnections between civilisations and cultures.
The process of taking an Arabic text and transforming it into accessible English did not daunt Lyons. In his retirement from teaching at the Faculty of Classics and later at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, he has continued working. With his wife Ursula Lyons (Emeritus Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College), he produced a translation of The Thousand and One Nights (published by Penguin Classics in 2008). He is currently working on translations of early Arab tribal epics.
The process of translating Tales of the Marvellous took Lyons 18 months of intensive work at his desk at home in a thatched cottage just outside Cambridge. How difficult was it? “As a student, you’re taught to translate each word with precision. But if you set about translating a story word by word, the resulting text would be dull or demented, or both. As I’ve got older, I’ve become more flexible. The purpose of stories is to speak to the reader so you need to bring them alive while remaining faithful to the spirit of the story,” says Lyons.
The backstory of Tales of the Marvellous is suitably exotic: there is just one copy in the original Arabic, a fabulously precious but battered volume of some 600 handwritten pages held by the mosque of Aya Sofya in Istanbul. The book was discovered in 1933 on the shelves of the mosque’s library by Hellmut Ritter, a German Arabist. Ritter brought its existence to the attention of the academic world but he never translated the stories contained within its fragile and worm-eaten pages.
Scholars following the clues contained in the text believe that Tales of the Marvellous were compiled in the 10th century. Many of the stories in the collection have yet earlier origins. The manuscript itself, imperfectly transcribed in 'vulgar style' in Egypt or Syria, is likely to date from the 14th century or later.  When the book was discovered 80 years ago, it was incomplete: it has no cover and its contents page suggests that there were originally many more stories.
Tales of the Marvellous is thought to be the work of Muslim authors. But its ebb and flow of stories – and stories within stories – mix themes found in Islam, Christianity and paganism. With no boundaries between fact and fiction, reality is suspended. A virgin sleeps with a prince but, when he encounters her again, she is still a virgin; crocodiles have pearls in their ears; bronze statues move and speak. Many of the themes known to storytellers and modern film-makers are found in these pages: love unrequited, the jealousy of siblings, the search for novelty and lust for luxury, the blindness that comes with greed, whether for sex or power.
These are tales brimming with superlatives - jewels, camels and slaves are measured in hundreds and thousands. Yet just when the reader is dizzy with excess the narrative skids to a halt with words of wisdom that travel down the centuries. In Julnar and the Sea, Shahriyar gets the son he has longed for and realises that he will have to cede this throne. He quotes from the poet: “When something is completed, its decline begins;/Say “it is finished” and it starts to fade.” Life is fragile, nothing is permanent.
The cast of players who feature in Tales of the Marvellous takes in the full gamut of the medieval world, both real and imagined – from kings to slaves, from mermaids to shape-shifting jinn. Craftsmen make frequent appearances: among them tailors, cooks, barbers and greengrocers. Stereotypes abound (women are duplicitous; strangers are ugly and wicked; black men are as big as buffalos) and the text is liberally splattered with blood and gore (heads are lopped off, women are raped).
Many of these characters would have been familiar to early audiences and some of the same stories (including Julnar and the Sea) feature in The Thousand and One Nights, a later and much better known compilation. But there are some surprises too. “My favourite among novel characters is the devil in The Story of Shul and Shumul who, uniquely for the devil as far as I know, offers to do a good deed and restore a kidnapped bride back to her prospective husband. The would-be astrologer, helped at one point by a little bird and a locust, in The Story of Abu Disa is also unknown elsewhere,” says Lyons.
Quests are tried-and-tested narratives that bring with them ample possibility for transformations, strange encounters, extraordinary happenings, and travel to exotic islands and beyond. Lyons says: “The notion of transformation was a familiar one – as shown in stories told by the writers Ovid and Apuleius. The sea is a key to wonderment: you can’t see what might be on the other side of it and you can’t take your camels there to find out. So the imagination can run wild.”
The narrative of Julnar and the Sea unfolds in a roller-coaster of twists and turns. Shahriyar gets his girl and Julnar, a sea princess of stunning beauty, gives him a splendid son named Badr.  When Badr grows up, he too needs a bride. Who is good enough for an invincible rider and dangerous fighter, a man destined to succeed as leader?  The quest for a bride takes Badr over land and sea, a tumultuous journey in which he is turned into a red-legged stork and a scheming queen becomes a mule. The happy-ever-after ending comes when Badr weds Jauhara, daughter of the supreme king of the sea, after which “they all lived the best, most pleasant, comfortable and untroubled of lives”.
Tales of the Marvellous benefits from an excellent introduction by Robert Irwin, the historian who quietly persuaded Lyons to undertake the translation. In his references to the craft of story-making, Irvin skips nimbly from other Arab stories to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and a cartoon series in the New York Evening Post called Ripley Believe It or Not. Discussing classic tricks of the story teller’s trade, he alludes to Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in which Peter’s mother says: “You may go into the field or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr McGregor’s garden.” The reader wants, and doesn’t want, Peter to disobey his mother.
What should we make of Tales of the Marvellous, now that six centuries have passed since a scribe sat down with a sharpened quill and ink pot to copy them out on to sheets of parchment? Irwin concludes that the collection is not simply one of folklore; the stories do not read as if they come solely from an oral tradition.  He argues that Tales of the Marvellous should be regarded as an early example of literature – perhaps the very first case of pulp fiction.
Does the translator agree with this description? “I have to admit that I’m not an expert on pulp fiction as I haven’t read any. As a boy I was brought up on stories of fairy mounds and water horses in the Scottish Highlands as well as the Grey Man who follows climbers on the slopes of Ben Macdhui in the Cairngorms,” says Lyons. “It’s certainly true that Tales of the Marvellous wouldn’t get any prizes for literature but nor were they designed to. They are entertainment for audiences of all ages and transport us to places where anything can happen.”
- See more at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/a-book-of-strange-and-wonderful-tales-and-its-eminent-translator#sthash.DhOlVA53.dpuf