The Nahḍa’s First Stirrings of Interest
in Alf Layla
On 3 September 1948, Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (1889–1973) published in al-Ahrām an article titled ‘Šahrazād’. It was one of the regular pieces he contributed to the newspaper even while vacationing in France. It seems to have been occasioned by accounts in the French press of two plays sharing that title.1 But it is his broader observations which reveal, by what is said or by what is implied, the cultural climate in which he and his contemporaries reacted to Alf Layla. So let me give you the gist of the article in Ṭāhā Ḥusayn’s own words:
Was I on a tryst with Šahrazād? I do not know, but when embarking on my summer
trip I asked my companion [i.e., his amanuensis] to include Alf Layla wa Layla in his
luggage, I made this request with some embarrassment, for it is clear that Alf Layla
wa Layla is a book that it is improper for older men who put on an appearance of
venerability to read. I recall that I read this book with some of my brothers when I
was twenty or a little older. And I remember the unforgettable, shameful day when
our aged father discovered that his sons were poring over the booklore neither of the
[State] schools nor of the Azhar, but over this hateful, ill-starred book that never enters
a house without bringing it adversity, and that engages the attention only of idlers who
are of no avail to others or to themselves.
No sooner had I dealt with matters that awaited me in Paris… than I asked my
companion to bring the book out of his bags. I turned to it, delving into it and scarcely
leaving it except to read the newspapers very quickly before returning to it.
Thinking about Šahrazād has been constant in the West since the sixteenth century
when Kitāb Alf Layla wa Layla was first translated. Interest in Šahrazād grew from
the early eighteenth century when Galland’s magnificent translation was published,
extensively and deeply affecting all European literatures.
While the Europeans’ interest in Šahrazād was growing, that of the Easterners was
steadily waning. There is no doubt that what eclipsed Šahrazād in the East was the
printing press, for the storytellers used to treasure manuscripts of Alf Layla wa Layla,
passing them on by inheritance or gift, reading them to the multitudes who came to
listen at nightfall, adding, subtracting, or altering as occasion demanded, seeking in
all this to please the listeners and rouse their simple, immediate emotions. Once the
printing press was established in the East and this book among others was printed,
many got hold of it. Reading it substituted for listening, and one version of it became
The printing press’s offence to Šahrazād did not stop there. It made available to
Easterners other books than Šahrazād’s. It published translations of modern European
narratives that did not conform with older Oriental storytelling.