Book Review: The Arabian Nights (Mahdi and Haddawy edition)

Book Review: The Arabian Nights (Mahdi and Haddawy edition) January 28, 2022

It’s been a long time since I wrote about this book for the first time, The Arabian Nights, better known as The 1001 Nights, and one of my readings for 2021. Although it took me some time to be done with this book, which I began in April, to be more specific, I’m in love with it from beginning to end. Like all loves, it is far from perfect, but it gets close enough, so I can be glad I finally gave this timeless classic a chance.

Cover image. Taken From Amazon.

Now as sumptuously packaged as they are critically acclaimed―a new deluxe trade paperback edition of the beloved stories.

The stories of The Arabian Nights (and stories within stories, and stories within stories within stories) are famously told by the Princess Shahrazad, under the threat of death should the king lose interest in her tale. Collected over the centuries from India, Persia, and Arabia, and ranging from adventure fantasies, vivacious erotica, and animal fables, to pointed Sufi tales, these stories provided the daily entertainment of the medieval Islamic world at the height of its glory. No one knows exactly when a given story originated, and many circulated orally for centuries before being written down; but in the process of telling and retelling, they were modified to reflect the general life and customs of the Arab society that adapted them―a distinctive synthesis that marks the cultural and artistic history of Islam.

This translation is of the complete text of the Mahdi edition, the definitive Arabic edition of a fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript, which is the oldest surviving version of the tales and considered to be the most authentic.

All the stories are filled with beautiful characters, entertaining plots, uncountable twists, and magic on every page. I felt teleported to the very sands of Arabia while reading this book, discovering endless morals and teachings, but also more light-hearted messages in all the tales.

One of the things I liked the most was the initial notes before the beginning of the tales, explaining the history behind this manuscript and how this edition came to happen, along with some regarding the edition and translation process. My academic side was really happy to have some background and research to accompany all this fantasy, although not as much as I would like.

You can also expect a good dose of morals and teachings, some of them that could seem contradictory, some stories suggesting one thing and others telling the opposite, but I find this is a part of the charm. It’s better if you never expect anything with The Arabian Nights, for it is full of many twists and surprises in every story.

However, nothing is perfect, and in this case, there are two things I need to mention. First, this is not a deluxe edition as the synopsis claims; some readers have complained about the pages being too thin and the deckle edges, and these are not too bothersome for me, but the quality of the cover and back cover is terrible, losing color with time, especially the back cover, which looks awful at this point.

The second thing I don’t like is in the text as well, and it’s a matter of style and preferences. The antepenultimate tale, “The Story of Nur al-Din Ali ibn-Bakkar and the Slave-Girl Shams al-Nahar”, felt eternal and even tedious. I hated the style, how illogical everything seemed to be even for a fairy tale, even for fantasy literature, and the fact that it was so long made it worse. There are longer, more fantastical, and stranger stories in this book, all of them filled with magic and wonder, but this one, in particular, was the only one I didn’t like at all.

With incomparable charm, a magic of its own, and stories that will surprise all readers, The Arabian Nights will win every heart that dares to venture through its pages. Shahrazad is my favorite character of all times now, with all her knowledge and wit, her creativity and wisdom, she can beat any other protagonist I can think about. I’m sure you will agree with me once you read her story and discover the ones she has learned or created.

For now, I will keep on with my original reading list, the ones I added after, the Orphan tales, and the Satanic Verses. There is an annotated version of The Arabian Nights I want to read as well, but I need a rest after such a heavy book, so I may favor a webcomic adaptation meanwhile; I need to think about reading the original novels at the same time, though.


The Arabian Nights

Print Length: 560 pages

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; New Deluxe edition (May 17, 2008)

Publication Date: May 17, 2008

ISBN-10: 0393331660

ISBN-13: 978-0393331660


About the Editor:

Muḥsin Sayyid Mahdī al-Mashhadani was an Iraqi-American Islamologist and Arabist. He was a leading authority on Arabian history, philology, and philosophy. His best-known work was the first critical edition of the One Thousand and One Nights.

About the Translator:

Husain Haddawy was born and grew up in Baghdad, taught English and comparative literature at various American universities, wrote art criticism, and is now living in retirement in Thailand.

About Bader Saab
I’m an Arabic witch and journalist, also with a master’s degree in digital research. I have worked as a book reviewer and written about pre-Islamic folklore. You can connect with me by Private Message on Instagram: @saab.bader. You can read more about the author here.

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