The Arabian Nights II, trans. by Husain Haddawy

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After I finished reading Husain Haddawy’s translation of The Arabian Nights (reviewed here), I still felt unfulfilled. I turned to The Arabian Nights II to get Haddawy’s translation of some of the traditional stories. In the end, I now have a better appreciation for the first volume of stories: those first stories were by far superior to these.

Haddawy indicated that his first volume of translation was from one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Nights, and supposedly it was one of the most authentically original manuscripts. And yet, the manuscript omitted some of the traditional (and most commonly recognized) of the tales: “Sinbad the Sailor,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “Ala al-din” (Aladdin), “Qamar al-Zaman.” Haddawy, then, went back to various other manuscripts to translate these other four stories in The Arabian Nights II.

I came to these stories, then, with a few expectations and some questions. I expected the stories (at least the first three) to be familiar stories, but I also wondered how they compared to the previous volume of stories. Do these stories seem “authentic” as compared to the older translation? Do they seem to be written by the same or a similar anonymous author?

The first three stories were somewhat familiar to me. In the first, Sinbad is a sailor telling his story to Sinbad the porter. His seven sea voyages are certainly fantastic and entertaining. In the second story, Ali Baba overhears thieves entering a magic cave full of treasure, and ends up outwitting them (with lots of murder in the meantime). In “Ala al-din,” a poor young man finds a magic lamp and wishes to become a prince to win the princess’s hand, while a wicked magician attempts to steal the lamp back from Aladdin.

As for the tone, I have to say, these first three stories felt completely different from the first volume of the Nights. They were interesting stories, but nothing spectacular (although reading the “original” Aladdin was lots of fun). Rather than being a story within a story, each almost felt like a stand-alone adventure story. Shahrazad was not present, and so there was no “nightly” breaks to the stories. Each story was told with lots of action (this happened and then this did too) and little detail. The gorgeous princesses were not described with poetry (an aspect I didn’t realize how much I loved until it was gone), and even when a beautiful palace is created by magic, the details of its beauty are glossed over. In other words, the stories felt like abridgements of something that could be so much better.

The fourth story, “Qamar al-Zaman,” on the other hand, had those writing aspects that made it reminiscent of the first volume of stories that I read. While Shahrazad still didn’t narrate, it did feel “official.” Once again, the character’s attractive rosy cheeks and “hips that quiver while they move or rest” (page 168) are described in poetry when characters are introduced. But unfortunately, I didn’t like this story that much. It was bawdy and erotic and all that; it just was a bit too weird, especially when it got to the incestuous step-mothers. Eck.

I’m glad I also visited this volume, particularly for the first three stories; I’m just surprised to see that in the end, the first volume I read felt most “authentic,” or at least more delightfully literary.

A Short Note about Disney’s Aladdin

I rewatched Disney’s Aladdin this week too, just so I could see how they interpreted the story. I’m not too picky about Disney adaptations being “faithful” to the original (at least I wasn’t for this one and I only half-watched it), but one major changed bothered me. In Haddawy’s translation, it is clear that the events happen in a Muslim country. The princess is a veiled beauty, and Aladdin is only intrigued by her when he spies her face when she takes off her veil (a forbidden thing for him to see). The only woman’s face Aladdin had ever seen before had been his mother’s face.

In the Disney version, on the other hand, despite the fact that this story occurred in a Muslim country, the princess wears a scanty outfit that reveals far more than her face (or it would if she wasn’t a cartoon). Now, I agree that Disney didn’t need to veil the princess’s face for the movie. But was the scanty outfit really necessary? That really bothered me, and I felt it completely detracted from the Muslim country setting.

One other difference: I liked how in the story, the master of the lamp got as many wishes as he wanted, not just three. It made it much more interesting.

Does Disney’s lack of modest clothing for the princess bother you, or am I the only one bothered by this?

If you have reviewed The Arabian Nights II (trans. by Husain Haddawy) on your blog, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on August 13, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • You’d think the well known ones would be t he best of them – I mean, isn’t that what makes them well known? That’s interesting that they didn’t end up being as good.

    As for Disney, I saw Aladdin back when I was young and completely ignorant of geography and Muslim culture. I didn’t even notice that princess’s clothes. Now that you mention it, though, it does seem fairly…I can’t even find the word (it’s too early…). I mean, Disney not only stripped away the culture from the story, but they turned what was left into an exotic stereotype. I guess I shouldn’t expect anything better from Disney, but I’m still a little disappointed that they would play on our ignorance for entertainment.

  • I know you have struggled with The Arabian Nights here and there, but your reviews of it have really made me interested in possibly giving it a go one of these days! But maybe not this version of it! 😉

    As for Aladdin, I think the Disney crew just took liberties on the locale, and made the princess look like a belly dancer (what with the harem pants and what not). I never thought about the outfit when I was growing up and watched the movie, but then again, I wasn’t really an Aladdin girl. I was all about Belle from Beauty and the Beast (little wonder, since her nose was always in a book!).

  • Amanda, well, the well-known ones are the most plot/action driven. The other ones were more magical, fairy tale like. I can see how they are the most well-remembered. They also are the least erotic, so therefore most adaptable to children’s tales 🙂

    I do think Disney made Jasmine into an “exotic stereotype” as you say. As I said in the previous Arabian Nights post, the Nights, despite being from a Muslim country, were pretty risqué (lots of scandalous women and men both, drinking and sleeping around to say the least) In this volume, though, the story of Aladdin was completely tame and the princess Badr al Budur (or whatever her name was) was a veiled beauty. It just seemed they chose the wrong story if they wanted to opposite stereotype.

    Steph, Once I gave myself the proper time and frame of mine to read the stories, it wasn’t so bad reading. I do hope you give it a chance. This volume was much easier to read than the other volume, simply because the stories were plot-based. But, as I said, I didn’t think it was written as beautifully.

    I don’t really remember watching Aladdin much; I too liked Belle! But Mary Poppins was my absolute favorite. I always wanted to go flying into chalk pavement pictures…

  • Now that you mention it, Jasmine’s outfit IS scanty. Like Steph, I never really thought about it when it came out and I watched it several times. Like Steph, too, I’m very into Belle, more than any Disney character (except Aurora, who was my childhood fave).

    I remember especially enjoying Ali Baba’s story in the Arabian Nights, but that book I read many years ago was the Richard Burton translation.

  • But like what you said, she’s a cartoon so it’s not very noticeable (her head seems bigger than her torso). In any ways, all the characters in Aladdin feel very American, so you kinda just forgive everything anyway.

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