One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling by Hanan al-Shaykh (Translator),

Way back in July I was looking for books to load up on my Kindle to read on vacation.  In an attempt to keep my book spending to a minimum, I frequently use Overdrive to check out books from the local library to read on my Kindle.

I remember want to read Hanan al-Shaykh‘s retelling of One Thousand and One Nights when it came out last year. I think I even checked it out from the library in hardcover but never ended up reading it.

One Thousand and One NightsGathered and passed down over the centuries from India, Persia, and across the Arab world, the mesmerizing stories of One Thousand and One Nights tell of the real and the supernatural, love and marriage, power and punishment, wealth and poverty, and the endless trials and uncertainties of fate. They are related by the beautiful, wise, young Shahrazad, who gives herself up to murderous King Shahrayar. The king has vowed to deflower and then kill a virgin every night—but Shahrazad will not be defeated by the king’s appetites. To save herself, she cunningly spins a web of tales, leaving the king in suspense each morning, and thus prolonging her life for another day.

Acclaimed Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh has selected nineteen of these stories, retold them in modern English, and knitted them together into an utterly intoxicating collection. In al-Shaykh’s hands, Shahrazad’s tales are lush and evocative, rich with humor, and utterly captivating.

Well, this year I managed to complete the task but forgot to post a review. This is my attempt to rectify that omission.

I found it fascinating. At times sophisticated and subtle at others bawdy and blunt; full of magic and supernatural events but also dealing with the basic human emotions and the highs and lows of life.

Having read a decent amount of folklore and fairy tale there was much that was familiar in style and structure but knowing almost nothing about the originals (if you can call the various collections that) I don’t feel particularly well positioned to judge this retelling.

There was clearly a feminist or female slant which gave the stories a unique angle. But I think I would have to read a more traditional version to see the contrast more clearly.

Here is the Library Journal:

Gone are Aladdin, Ali Baba, and even much of Sinbad, but what remains is a haunting collection of stories about women who, if not always heroic, are resilient, funny, sexual, and, above all, smart. Anchored by two central framing narratives, the tales lead into one another like a set of matryoshka dolls. The beautiful language is deceptively simple: readers are in danger of being lulled into marathon reading sessions.

Publisher’s Weekly:

These stories pulse with sex, magic, and moral ambiguities; while terrible violence underscores moments of pure beauty. Guests are invited into a home only to encounter terrible cruelty; a woman becomes king so she can be a beacon for her lost love; a man plucks his eye for the pain he caused his family. Why retread such well-worn territory? In her foreword al-Shaykh (Women of Sand and Myrrh) speaks of rediscovering her own Arab roots while recognizing the power these ancient women held. Suprising and delightful, al-Shaykh’s masterful work has restored the tale to contemporary relevance. 

In the end I am glad I found time to read this retelling. It is an entertaining and eye-opening exploration of a classic of literature and storytelling through a unique lens.

Maybe I will finally make time to explore the traditional versions of these famous stories.  Seems like a natural path for my occasional dive into myths, legends, folk stories and fairy tales.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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