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The Arabian Nights in Contemporary World Cultures: Global Commodification, Translation, and the Culture Industry, written by Muhsin Al-Musawi

In: Journal of Arabic Literature
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Moneera Al-Ghadeer Riyadh Saudi Arabia

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Muhsin Al-Musawi. The Arabian Nights in Contemporary World Cultures: Global Commodification, Translation, and the Culture Industry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 344 pages. Paperback: $23.99; Hardback $39.99.

Muhsin Al-Musawi has long been under the spell of One Thousand and One Nights and has devoted numerous books, articles, and courses to it, working to identify the worldly effects and influences of its tales. In fact, he has spent five decades exploring the text, beginning with his Ph.D. dissertation in 1978. His August 2021 book, The Arabian Nights in Contemporary World Cultures: Global Commodification, Translation, and the Culture Industry, offers the most comprehensive examination to date of the text’s continued significance in the contemporary world. The Arabian Nights has been translated, read, and studied for centuries, and in October 1839, poet and essayist Leigh Hunt described it as “the most popular book in the world.”1 Acknowledging Jorge Luis Borges’ 1935 publication “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights” as the inspiration behind his study of the text as a global commodity, al-Musawi deftly examines the complex history of the tales, presenting a thorough account of their reception and manipulation on a global scale and arguing that more so than any other text, the Arabian Nights is global in nature, whether we examine it through the lens of literary theory, globalization, worldism, or cultural clash.

Al-Musawi contends that although the Arabian Nights has long shed the romantic mystique that surrounded it in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, public fascination with the work has remained undiminished, and its transposition into new cultural contexts and artistic forms calls for its reexamination. His study explores the “enormous constellation of knowledge”2 around the Thousand and One Nights that has informed and influenced “cinematic production, theater, painting, music, and other visual sites and spectacles.”3 Al-Musawi delves into the critical and popular receptions of the text through the past decades, framing his argument within postcolonial and comparative analyses as he critiques the emphasis of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century criticism on the literary genesis of Scheherazade’s tales. Recently, he penned a 600-page book in Arabic, Al-Dhākirah al-shaʿbiyyah li-mujtamaʿ⁠āt alf laylah wa-laylah (The Popular Memory of the Societies of the Thousand and One Nights, 2016), which traces the multiple origins of the Nights and explores several thematic concerns relevant to narration, gender, and the wide reception of the tales in the East and the West.

Drawing upon his deep familiarity with Arabic and comparative literary studies, al-Musawi offers new insights into narratology, poetics, and translation in The Arabian Nights in Contemporary World Cultures, especially as he examines the tales’ complex relationship with public taste, the culture and film industries, science fiction, and the educational establishment. Al-Musawi argues that although the text has simultaneously enchanted and confounded European culture since it was first introduced in the nineteenth century—when it was translated into French and English at roughly the same time—the appeal and appropriation of Scheherazade’s intrigues are increasing at an unprecedented rate on the global stage through the incessant development of the culture industry and consumerist economies. By locating his discussion of the text within an analysis of the emergence of the culture industry and media fluidity—tracing the rise of global capital through wars and political upheavals—he posits that Scheherazade’s stories are more captivating and accessible than ever before, whether they are circulated via film and television, political rhetoric, economic transactions, or the tourist industry. His book begins from this premise, addressing the translated text of Arabian Nights and making use of critical responses and cultural criticism to show how the tales have captivated generations of readers and viewers from many cultures through their elemental themes of desire, intrigue, family, and, above all, human triumph and failure. While underscoring the global appeal of the text as a commodity, al-Musawi explores issues of translation, appropriation, addition, and variation among different editions of the Arabian Nights, noting that the transformations of the text have reflected the tastes, preferences, values, and assumptions of the cultures circulating them. Thus, he argues that the Arabian Nights, and some tales in particular, can be read as national, transnational, and global allegories. Al-Musawi incisively demonstrates how the ongoing circulation, appropriation, and translation of the stories are inextricably linked to the political and economic presuppositions of specific instantiations within the culture industry. To support his discussion, he offers original interpretations of numerous examples, including recent appropriations of the tales in the Disney production Aladdin (2019). By interrogating contemporary renditions of the Arabian Nights, al-Musawi presents readers with a new way of understanding not only the ancient tales themselves, but also how their deployment in contemporary culture refracts the complexities of life in our increasingly globalized world.

An especially innovative aspect of the book is its focus on unexpected topics such as artificial intelligence, technological disruption, and other elements of postmodernity in contemporary treatments of the text. Al-Musawi posits that “open sesame” has been used to materialize and extend the limits of the human mind in the global age and argues that Scheherazade’s tales have been reproduced in our multidimensional universe to grapple with the prevalence of “astounding rhetoric as another venue for conflict, rapprochement, cold war, persuasion, and deception.”4 He also delves into how the tales inform current political and cultural spheres as the stories are borrowed and adapted to make use of the Scheherazadean lessons. In a stunning remark on one aspect of this ongoing appropriation, he contends that “[r]aids on the Arabian Nights that are as violent as wars of intervention are in evidence.”5 He also observes that the appropriations of the tales have reproduced and perpetuated stereotypical representations of the Middle East and argues that the renewed fascination with the Arabian Nights is strikingly coupled with a colonialist discourse that subverts the profound morality and wisdom of the tales, transforming them instead into sites of violence against the other. As he contends, “[v]iolent and abusive, these representations surge in times of war and aggression or sweeping reports on terrorism.”6 In interrogating the many global contexts within which the Arabian Nights has been circulated, understood, and misunderstood, al-Musawi deepens our understanding of the text, fundamentally remapping current knowledge in the field.

This book presents a multidimensional discussion in its eight chapters, addressing a range of questions such as Is the Nights a European legacy that continues to infiltrate and influence Western culture? and, How do the frame story’s narrative motifs, such as class, slavery, intrigue, and the fable-like structure of power, lead it to be imitated, recalled, and appropriated as an exciting spectacle in contemporary writing? Chapter 1, “The Stunning Growth of a Constellation,” traces the referential construct of the term “Arabian Nightism” and its European legacy, examining its voyage, incorporation, reception, and appropriation in different cultures. Chapter 2 addresses what John Barth termed “The Scheherazade Factor” (1987), the force of which al-Musawi analyzes as a narrative incentive deployed by nineteenth-century European writers and modern Arab authors alike. The frame story is the focus of an insightful discussion in this chapter, and al-Musawi also points out scholarly gaps in the different historical periods under discussion.

Chapter 3, “Engagements in Narrative,” explores two types of engagement with the Nights; the first relates to how authors have constructed mimetic narratives that draw on the text’s artistic labyrinth, and the second rests on “its generous loans to writers across the globe.”7 The chapter is replete with rich analyses of these forms of engagement found in modern writing by Palestinian-Iraqi novelist Jabrā Ibrāhīm Jabrā, Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Najı̄b Maḥfūẓ, Michel Butor, Marcel Proust, and others. It also examines the never-ending conversation with the tales found in numerous texts that illustrate that “Scheherazade is an ever-welcome guest and host in almost every culture.”8 Chapter 4, “The ‘Hostile Dynasty’: Rewriting the Arabian Nights,” offers an exemplary discussion of translation theory and “translations or their outgrowths.”9 Al-Musawi points out that “[a]ccusations and countercharges leveled over three centuries signify the existence of the Nights in world cultures as a knowledge consortium that invokes theories of translation, cultural interventions, conversations, and discussions among the most prominent intellectuals, artists, and fiction writers.”10 In a fascinating move, he compares the political dynasties of rulers to the textual dynasty of the Nights in Europe that could not be separated from Antoine Galland’s Thousand and One Nights and its unparalleled influence. He also focuses on Borges’ exploration of the Nights and its translation, particularly Borges’ depiction of Galland as the one who “established the canon, incorporating stories that time would render indispensable and that the translators to come—his enemies—would not dare omit.”11 The discussion also extends to Richard Francis Burton, whose work is compared with that of translators who came before him, including Edward William Lane, a renowned Victorian and Orientalist whose 1838–1841 translation was crafted for the educated middle class in Victorian society. Al-Musawi suggests that Lane’s translation gained considerable renown due to its extensive notes coupled with the use of quasi-realistic detail that cast a hazy image of the East that resonated with Victorian representations. He makes use of Borges’ precise conclusion, affirming that each translator “annihilated” his predecessor: “Lane translated against Galland, Burton against Lane; to understand Burton we must understand this hostile dynasty.”12 Al-Musawi also brings his discussion forward to address translations published since the mid-eighties, and he links Chapter 4 with Chapter 5, “The Archaeology of A Thousand and One Nights,” in which he addresses the discursive genealogy of this genre and the productions and migrations of certain tales, especially in the European literary landscape. Chapter 5 also underscores the never-ending question of authorship and its obscurity.

Chapter 6, “Signatures and Affiliates,” contextualizes the discussion with the author’s attempt to understand the Nights as “a major event for all European literature,” as marked by Borges and other commentators.13 Hence, the chapter focuses on the cultural bearings of this event by turning to the work of new authors such as William Beckford, who reproduced the Nights and worked across different cultures, including Arabic, French, English, and Jamaican.

Chapter 7, “Decolonizing the Arabian Nights?” supplements the discussion of the book thus far: Al-Musawi zooms in on what has been classified as the “Oriental mode” and suggests different ways to decolonize the Nights “that cannot be spoken of as one definite text.”14 He engages with the translators of the Nights, probing Lane’s translation and its annotations and examining its orientalist claims, some of which propose that it represents a realistic depiction of life in Egypt as well as the manners and customs of its people. Moving from the print industry and its readerships and publishers, al-Musawi devotes a few sections of this chapter to an analysis of the audiovisual industry and its commodification of the Nights. He poses an important theoretical question: “Does the connotation of the mode signify the anxieties of the pillars of the Enlightenment?”15 According to the author, it does and, indeed, calls for an “emancipatory discourse from a ruling Western rationality” that claims ownership over the theory of the novel and often asserts its Western origins.16 This chapter elaborates on these issues and argues that numerous twentieth-century experimental writings can be read as decolonizing the Nights, since they show the literariness of the tales.

Chapter 8, “Invitation to Discourse,” is the book’s conclusion. It affirms some of the previous points and shows that the Nights continues to invite readings as well as different interpretive approaches. In creating a comparative framework for exploring the Arabian Nights, al-Musawi also examines the text in the context of May 1968 and the period thereafter, when orientalist representations became subject to critique alongside other closed systems of thought. Just as he dismantles the colonialist discourse around the scholarship of the Arabian Nights in previous chapters, al-Musawi here argues that this genre is not merely street-storytelling and comments on some statements about the Nights in Edward Said’s work, especially in Orientalism, Culture, and Imperialism and The World, the Text, and the Critic. Although he acknowledges the point made by the editors of the Arabian Nights in Historical Context—that Said’s Orientalism “has shaped much of the recent and contemporary scholarship on the Nights17—he further adds that Orientalism does not focus on the Arabian Nights as text; its interest is with the text’s translators. The chapter proposes a genealogical lineage of the text and its variations, thereby allowing translators and scholars to be brought into a comparative dialogue. The author leaves us with a final question: “Is there a possible conclusion to this ongoing enterprise?”18

While attending to the aforementioned theoretical topics, al-Musawi draws on 42 texts from Eastern and Western traditions, including documentaries, films, paintings, novels, novellas, poems, and political jargon, which allows him to carry out a nuanced and complex reading of the Arabian Nights and its variegated afterlives. He engages with the enormous archive of material that has sprung from and around the Nights across regions and modalities, writing, “in the end, the Arabian Nights has gathered around it more than a 300-year period of culture industry that reflects epistemic shifts in world knowledge constructions.”19 One of the book’s most significant scholarly contributions is its interrogation of the concepts of popular and critical reception.

The book navigates vast tracts of scholarship and popular reception relating to the Arabian Nights in different cultural and historical contexts. This painstaking research is fully documented and includes references to key figures, publications, theories, and historical sites. It also includes a comprehensive 23-page bibliography of classical and modern references, together with a valuable 26-page index that helps the reader easily locate literary and theoretical terminologies, book titles, writers, philosophers, critics, and historical sites. In a revealing observation, al-Musawi states that “Scheherazade’s art resists closure,” a description which ironically fits The Arabian Nights in Contemporary World Cultures too, as the book turns out to be under the spell of circular writing, whether or not it is intentionally beholding its labyrinth.20 Amusingly, no one can come near the tales without being enchanted, turning infinitely in and around language. In this sense, one will see how the concluding chapter not only reflects the numerous critical and visual productions as constellation of knowledge motivated by the Arabian Nights, but also stages its own predicament, since it opens the gates to infinite conversations. Or, rather, to use al-Musawi’s citation of ibn Qutaybah’s analogy of his book as a feast, the Nights is a “textual banquet,” in this case, it does not satisfy the pangs of hunger( ibid).

This meritorious study teaches us about the protean spectacle of the Arabian Nights in contemporary world culture and proves that even as our cultural dynamics change, in the Arabian Nights we can find constants that speak to our shared humanity. The combination of the author’s sophisticated critical approach and encyclopedic knowledge of classical Arabic and Western sources ensures that the study will be of value to scholars and equally accessible to non-specialists.

1

Leigh Hunt, “New Translations of the Arabian Nights,” Westminster Review, vol. 33, October 1839, pp. 101–37.

2

Muhsin al-Musawi, The Arabian Nights in Contemporary World Cultures: Global Commodification, Translation, and the Culture Industry. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2021, p. 1.

3

Ibid.

4

Ibid., p. 5.

5

Ibid., pp. 6–7.

6

Ibid., p. 14.

7

Ibid, p. 20.

8

Ibid.

9

Ibid., p. 290.

10

Ibid., p. 20.

11

Luis Jorge Borges, “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights,” Selected Nonfictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger, New York, Penguin, 1999, p. 92.

12

An epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges cited by al-Musawi, p. 132.

13

Al-Musawi, p. 21.

14

Ibid., p. 253.

15

Ibid., p. 22.

16

Ibid.

17

Ibid., p. 295.

18

Ibid.

19

Ibid., p. 18.

20

Ibid., p. 322.

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