Mawsouaat Alf Leila weLeila (The Arabian Nights Encyclopaedia – the Arabic Version – Volumes I&II) (Cairo, the National Centre for Translation – 2018)
“It was only in 1941, upon the encouragement of no other than Taha Hussein, that Cairo University scholar Sahair Al-Qalamawi wrote her PhD thesis on the text of One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights). And this was perhaps one of the earliest profound studies dedicated to this incredible manuscript,” wrote prominent scholar and translator Sayed Imam in his introduction to the Arabic version of the Arabian Nights Encyclopaedia.
In 2004 the General Assembly of UNESCO voted to include The Arabian Nights on the list of commemorative events it celebrated. It was also in the same year that Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen, two leading European scholars who had worked extensively on the text of The Arabian Nights, put out this encyclopaedia in English.
In 2018, in one of its most ambitious projects, the National Centre for Translation worked with Imam to provide an Arabic version, in two volumes about 700 pages each, of this fascinating encyclopaedia that offers not just a detailed index of who is who and what is what in the legendary text of The Arabian Nights, but also puts all of this "index" in a comprehensive cultural and historic context to make it possible for the reader to stroll leisurely and confidently in the worlds of the One Thousand and One Nights.
There is no consensus on the origin of this text – Arab, Persian or Indian. There is no consensus either on how it evolved and how much of the complete manuscript that is at hand today is original and how much was incorporated within different contexts upon different translations.
However, there is certainly consensus that an 18th century French translation of The Arabian Nights created an incredible mystique in the West about the East – be it Arab, Indian or Persian. And there is also consent that as of then the understanding in the West of the East was never fully separated from the images offered in The Arabian Nights.
And it is through a sequel of articles included in the first volume of this encyclopaedia that the reader gets to see the evolution of the perception of this manuscript and its impact on literature in a cross-culture fashion.
As the authors of the explanatory articles, included in the first part of the first volume, remind, "The Arabian Nights was there centuries before Romanticism and longer centuries before Magical Realism.
The fascinating impact of this amazing text on cinema production, including Disney Productions, is also explained in these ambitious volumes.
Moreover, this encyclopaedia is there to remind readers that it was the early decades of the Arab/Muslim civilisaiton that saw the pursuit of "social equality", which allows for slaves to have love affairs with the royals even if so secretively, and the quest for "feminism to face up to patriarchal hegemony", as Sheherzad and Qout El-Qoloub took the lead in managing relations.
The One Thousand and One Nights offered the Orientalists endless inspiration for their work; it prompted, and continues to prompt, the fears of Arab patriarchy and it inspired, and continues to inspire, the fantasies of artists and readers, argued Imam.
The two volumes of the encyclopaedia in Arabic may seem to have a dominating academic purpose for researchers, but in fact for any connoisseur of history or literature they offer a fascinating read – in parts or in full.