In her latest English-language book, One Thousand and One Nights, the Beirut-born publishing phenomenon Hanan Al-Shaykh offers readers a curiosity and a tour de force. The book is styled as a "retelling" of the iconic massive collection of interconnected stories that arose out of Persian, Indian and Greek oral sources and began finding their way into the bookshops of Aleppo, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad in the mid-15th century. That collection - loosely known as the Alf layla wa layla, One Thousand and One Nights, opens with a world-famous framing device: King Shahrayar is alerted by his brother that his wife is being unfaithful right on the grounds of his own palace. "In my garden?" Al-Shaykh has him ask, in silky disbelief, and when he later sees this with his own eyes, he embarks on an epic backlash against the entire female gender. He orders his Vizier to find him a new wife, and after spending the wedding night with her, he orders her executed - and moves on to the next wife, apparently intent on first deflowering and then depopulating a large proportion of his kingdom.
The Vizier has two daughters, one of whom, the wily and courageous Shahrazad, volunteers to go to the king. When her father panics, she insists; either she'll avoid her own execution and thereby save the young women of the kingdom, or she'll fail and die as one of them. But Shahrazad has no intention of dying; she's thought up a scheme to save herself - her sister Dunyazad will come to her after her bedding with the king and implore her to tell a story before her dawn execution. The king will follow the story to its cliffhanger, and his natural human "and then what happened?" instinct will override his vengeful bloodletting. Shahrazad will stay alive exactly as long as she can keep the stories going - it's like Boccaccio's The Decameron, only performed at sword-point.
And the scheme works. After satisfying the king in his "enormous, terrible bed", Shahrazad, at her sister's urging and with the king's permission, tells her first story - and that story, suspensefully halted at dawn, merges into the next night's story, and so on for three years in a gaudy, unending procession of ifrits and djinn, slave girls and succubi, deceitful shopkeepers and honest thieves, forbidden rooms and cuckolded princes. These stories were first introduced to a European audience in the mid-18th century by the French translator Antoine Galland, who freely elaborated as he went along (one of the many ironies of the text's bizarre history is that some of its most famous stories, such as the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, appear to have been invented wholesale by Galland).
A century later, in 1885, Sir Richard Burton came out with his own monumental 10-volume English-language translation, complete with Victorian circumlocutions and ornamentation.
Other translations, in whole or in part, have followed, and there have been countless adaptations and transformations; writers as different as John Gardner, Salman Rushdie and Naguib Mahfouz have been fascinated by Nights to such a degree that they felt compelled to channel the work in their own prose. It haunted the imaginations of the great Romantic poets; it provided the inspiration for one of Pasolini's greatest films, dozens of other movies, countless comics and children's books; and through the medium of Galland, at any rate, it informed the hugely popular Disney animated movie Aladdin. In 2008, Penguin Classics issued a definitive new English translation by Malcolm Lyons and Ursula Lyons, unabridged in three fat volumes.