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Nessim Joseph Dawood
ISBN # : N/A
Publisher: N/A
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This book is a selection of the choicest tales from the Thousand and One Nights. The translator, N.J. Dawood, also translated the Koran for the Penguin Classics series. Dawood explains in the introduction that the first of these tales appeared in a written form around 850 C.E., in a book called, "A Thousand Legends." More tales, of lesser quality, were added over the years until an anonymous editor in Cairo finally codified them in the 18th century. A French version of some of the stories appeared in the 17th century, and was followed by several English versions in the 19th century; the best known adaptation came from Sir Richard Burton, in 10 volumes. The stories are a mix of Arabic, Persian, and Indian tales and appear to have been written in response to classical Arabic literature. The Arabs do not consider them part of the classic canon, and after reading these stories, I can see why. They are aggressive and highly sexualized, and are loaded with sorcery, fantasy, and criticism of authority figures.
Whatever their origins and means of transmission, these are excellent and entertaining stories. I cannot think of one tale in this selection that I did not like. Included in the book is the instantly recognizable Aladdin story, as well as the Sinbad voyages. Other tales are just as interesting: "The Tale of the Hunchback," "The Tale of Judar and his Brothers," "The Porter and the Three Girls of Baghdad," and many others. Many of these stories are cycles; they have stories within stories, as characters in one story tell their own stories. At the end of the cycle, the story is cleverly wrapped up, usually with a happy ending. I do not think I need to go into detail about Aladdin or Sinbad, except to say that I was surprised to see Aladdin described as Chinese. Providing details to these stories would be useless anyway because they are so detailed as to be impervious to summary.

There is no doubt that many of these stories started as oral stories, and retained that shape into the written versions. The best example is the Sinbad cycle. All of the stories in this cycle are framed in the same way. This repetition made it easier to memorize the stories, or at least the basic outline. A good storyteller could take the frame and fill in the blanks with whatever his heart desired. You often see this kind of writing in the Bible.

Social roles and class play a large part in these stories. Women are presented as wily and dangerous, but not always. Several stories show men trying to pull fast ones on the ladies, with the results much to the detriment of the men. Many stories show how the high and mighty come crashing down, or how the lowly are elevated to great status. These movements are attributed to the grace or condemnation of Allah, and the characters all act out their movements with Allah close by.

You will not go wrong with this book. These are immensely entertaining stories for both children and adults, although you might want to find a toned down version for the kiddies. Why? I am thinking about the tale where a man and some women play "name that body part." My only criticism of this version is that the tale of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" is absent. I have no idea why it is missing, but the book loses one star for this grave omission.

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