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Reviewed by:
  • Eastern Dreams: How the Arabian Nights Came to the World
  • Bonnie D. Irwin (bio)
Eastern Dreams: How the Arabian Nights Came to the World. By Paul McMichael Nurse. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2010. 242 pp.

For years, scholars have grappled with the questions of which stories actually constitute the 1001 "Arabian" Nights and where they originated. In Eastern Dreams, Paul McMichael Nurse follows in the footsteps of British scholar Robert Irwin and tries to untangle these mysteries for a lay audience, translating decades of scholarship into readable, jargon-free prose. Scholars will find little new in this book, but for the general reader and fan of the Nights, Nurse tells a compelling story.

Because the questions of origin and provenance of the Nights remain unanswered to this day, despite centuries of speculation, Nurse makes choices about which theories to highlight and which to identify as untenable, but overall his approach is evenhanded. This tactic means, of course, that readers finish the book with no more answers than they started with, but at least the rich context of the mystery has been laid out before them in generous detail. Nurse also embeds synopses of the frame story as well as some of the tales to remind us of the general plot lines.

One of the greatest values of this book for the general reader is Nurse's discussion of the many analogs to the tales as well as the many sequels, re-imaginings, and paths of influence of the 1001 Nights. More than twenty years after Peter Caracciolo's excellent Arabian Nights in English Literature (Macmillan, 1988), Nurse adds many more contemporary authors and texts to the vast list of those influenced by the Nights. He also provides brief discussions of postcolonial descendants of the work, such as Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days and Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. [End Page 117]

Because the sphere of influence of the 1001 Nights has become so broad, Nurse convincingly makes the case that the work, although clearly "Arab" in many ways, has also become a classic of "world" literature. So many literary traditions have taken ownership of some version of the text in one way or another, "parented by multinational sires and a Muslim mother—literally, in Scheherazade's case—[that] the Nights may owe at least part of its longevity to its development at a time and a place acting as a crossroads between cultures" (49). Nurse maintains, however, that most of this cultural exchange took place in the form of written texts passed back and forth, and he largely discounts the possible oral provenance and dissemination of the stories.

And, what indeed, constitutes the 1001 Nights? Although Nurse holds out a note of optimism at the end that we may one day know, the idea of a single, authentic text remains a folly. Nurse clearly prefers the more comprehensive collections based on the Calcutta II manuscript to the more limited ones based on the medieval Syrian manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi (1984). Nurse's argument is that the identity of the 1001 Nights lies in, at least partly, all the tales that have been attached to it over the years. Translator Husain Haddawy, recognizing this same situation, followed his excellent translation of Mahdi's edition (1990) with a second volume, The Arabian Nights II: Sindbad and Other Popular Tales (1995).

For an Arabian Nights scholar, the more intriguing parts of Eastern Dreams might very well be where Nurse wanders away from explaining provenance and goes into more creative directions, such as drawing parallels between the Nights and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

Or perhaps as literary works, the Arabian Nights and Gibbon's Decline and Fall are not as far apart as we might suppose. If scholars can view the secular nature of the Nights as a legitimate window onto the social dynamics of classical Islam, then this work, fusing the visionary with the recognizable socio-historical times, is perhaps a dim, distant cousin to the professional historian's attempt to define the structure of a bygone past through researched recreation.


This parallel grows out of the way in which...


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pp. 117-119
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