Tales Most Marvellous & Strange

Tales of the Marvellous, News of the StrangeToday I took myself off to Salisbury to learn more about one of the most significant short story anthologies to be published last year. It is significant because it is over 1,000 years old, and this is the first time it has been published in English. The event at the Salisbury Arts Festival featured Turkish writer, Elif Şafak, and the noted scholar of all things Arabic, Robert Irwin, who also wrote the introduction to the English edition of the book.

The history of the book is a tale in itself. Irwin revealed some of it in The Independent last year. We got a bit more information today. Hopefully I have remembered it correctly.

As I noted above, the book is believed to have been written down in the 10th Century, either in Syria or Egypt. That judgement comes from analysis of the content. The handwriting in the copy that we have suggests that it was made in the 14th Century, but even that is older than the oldest surviving copy of The 1001 Nights that we have, which dates from the late 15th Century.

Irwin believes that the manuscript came to Istanbul in 1517 when the Ottoman Sultan, Selim the Grim, defeated the Mamluks in battle and conquered Egypt. Large numbers of documents are known to have been shipped from Cairo to Istanbul at the time.

Our manuscript was discovered in the early 20th Century by a young German scholar, Hellmut Ritter. He was living in Istanbul in disgrace because he had been outed as gay. His professor died in 1933 and an emboldened Ritter announced the discovery to his academic colleagues, but shortly thereafter Hitler seized power in Germany and Ritter wisely decided to stay put in Istanbul.

Translating early Arabic documents is a specialist task, and although Irwin had known about this book for many years it had, up until last year, been available only in German and Arabic. Eventually the noted translator, Malcolm Lyons, who had earlier produced a new translation of the The 1001 Nights, began work on this book, and an English version was the result.

The manuscript that we have is not the whole book. We have the Table of Contents, which says that there are 42 chapters. We only have 18 chapters, containing some 26 stories, not all of which are complete. We don’t even have the title. The one used for the English edition — Tales of the Marvellous, News of the Strange — is taken from the opening line of the introduction which says we will be treated to al-hikayat al-‘ajiba wa’l-akhbar al-ghariba. The title is a straight translation.

There is some possibility that, somewhere in Istanbul, there is a complete copy of the book. I hope so, because like Irwin I want to read “The Story of the Serving Girl Who Swallowed a Piece of Paper”. Tantalizingly Irwin suggested that there may even be an older edition of The 1001 Nights waiting to be discovered.

Unlike The 1001 Nights, Tales of the Marvellous, News of the Strange does not have an over-arching framing story to compare with that of the murderous Sultan Shahryar and his clever bride, Scheherazade. It does, however, have two tales in common, proving a common thread of storytelling in the Arabic world. It also boasts a story, “The Story of ‘Arus al-‘Ara’is and Her Deceit, As Well As the Wonders of the Seas and Islands”, that is almost as complicated and nested as Cat Valente’s The Orphan’s Tale, as well as having a truly remarkable anti-heroine.

I’ve not had a chance to read all of the stories yet, but Irwin says that they are even more fantastical than those in The 1001 Nights. Interestingly from my point of view, there is quite a lot of mention of automata of various sorts. This is partly, as Irwin noted today, because in the stories no statue is ever a piece of art. It is either someone who used to be alive, or it is something that has been made to come alive and, like Chekov’s gun, has to perform its function at some point during the tale.

In addition, however, the Islamic kingdoms were somewhat in awe of the achievements of their predecessors, in particular Egypt. As Irwin notes in his Independent article, the 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”. When I questioned him about automata he added that some books on their manufacture did exist in Arabic — unusually they were even illustrated, because the authors wanted to show how their designs should be made — but there is no evidence that any of these machines were ever built.

Not that this in any way puts a stop to the idea of Arabic Steampunk that we came up with at the Arabic SF panel at Worldcon last year.

Most of the discussion today was about issues surrounding the book, rather than the content. Irwin spent some time as a Sufi disciple in his youth and Şafak also has a keen interest in Sufism, so we got rather sidetracked for a while even though there are no Sufis in the book. (Sufism had not become popular in the Islamic world when the book was written.)

This does remind us, however, that this is a collection of medieval stories written in the Islamic world, and the stories are therefore suffused with Islamic sensibility. The writer of the tales appears to have been a Shi’ite because several of the characters make religious references that only Shi’ites would make. However, the Sultans in the book would have been Sunni, and they are treated with all due deference. Even the many Christian characters in the stories are treated (with a few exceptions) with respect. Irwin notes that a lot of wine drinking happens in the stories. The Islamic world of the stories is a very different one to the Islamic world that modern Western media paints for us.

Herein lies some of the value of the book. Politics is all about narratives, these days, and we desperately need some narratives to counter the scare-mongering about Islam to which we are subjected on a daily basis. Quite how much can be done by Irwin and his colleagues, however, is debatable.

One of the most interesting conversations of the day was on the subject of Orientalism and Edward Said’s famous book (which Irwin strongly dislikes). One the one hand, as Şafak made clear, the points about Western scholars interpreting other cultures through a Western gaze are well made. No matter how hard we study other cultures, and how lovingly we write about them, we are no substitute for people from those cultures writing about themselves. On the other hand, Irwin says that Said has grossly misrepresented the writing, actions and motivations of many early Orientalists in order to make his point. And Şafak added that the mere suggestion of Orientalism can now act to close down the possibility of discussion between the West and other cultures because all interest by Western scholars is deemed suspect.

This brought to mind all sorts of interesting thoughts about balancing authenticity with the need to tell stories about ourselves in a way that others will understand and accept them. As a result, you’ll be getting a new post about Caitlyn Jenner tomorrow or at the weekend.

That is another sidetrack, though. The point here is that there is this amazing book out there full of remarkable fantastic stories, some of which deserve to be as famous as those of Sinbad the Sailor, or Aladdin and his Magic Lamp. Check out Irwin’s article for more details about some of the stories. There’s a whole world of fantasy out there waiting to be read,