A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Censorship and Stupidity: Egyptian Lawyers Want to Ban 1001 Nights

This is a rant about trying to censor classical literature. If you have no time for a rant you may skip it, but I intend to have my say.

There's an anecdote about Dr. Samuel Johnson and his dictionary (perhaps from Boswell?) that I can't Google precisely but that goes something like this: a well-bred lady complained to Dr. Johnson that she was shocked (shocked!) to discover the number of vulgar words that appeared in his dictionary. Dr. Johnson, to whom critics, women, and critical women ranked only a notch above the Scots and two notches above Americans in his hierarchy of contempt, said something to the effect of, "You must have spent a great deal of time looking for them." This story suggests the anecdote, even if I don't have it exactly right.

Hisba, roughly "supervision" or "oversight", is a traditional Muslim principle that relates to enforcement of shari‘a and other elements of Islamic practice. In the classical period, there was public official called the muhtasib, the enforcer of hisba, whose role, while it may have had some elements of the Saudi religious police of today, also included things like making sure that weights and measures in the marketplaces were legitimate.

Today, the concept of hisba is being employed by some Islamists to bring legal cases against things and practices which they consider violate Islamic requirements. They've generally had mixed success.

But, as Bikya Masr notes, the latest incident of such an approach in Egypt is particularly attention-getting: a group of lawyers wants to ban the publication in Egypt of the 1001 Nights.

Now, Alf Layla wa Layla is probably the Arabic work best known, for the longest time, in the West, and still revered in some circles in the East (coffeehouse storytellers, folklorists), though it was never considered high literature. Although it sets many of its stories in the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid (and some, like Aladdin, in China or other far places), it has long been recognized that this is Mamluk Egypt in its overall environment: this is the Cairo of Baybars, not the Baghdad of Abu Nuwas. Though the stories originate in India, Iran, and some of the Sindbad stories are direct steals from the Odyssey, in many ways it is a particularly Egyptian work, and the old Bulaq edition remains a standard.

Now, could 1001 Nights be published in Egypt today? Probably not. It contains vulgar language, some (rather sophomoric) sex scenes, a fair amount of immoral activity of one kind or another, because it is a portrait (perhaps an irreplaceable portrait) of life as it was lived by those the storytellers in the coffeehouses actually knew. Of course there's plenty of mythology, but if you take out all the jinn and the Sinbad stories, you can get a pretty good sense of daily life in some era, probably Mamluk Cairo. (Though al-Mas‘udi, d. 956 AD, well before the Mamluk era mentions the collection by name. Of course the stories evolved over time.)

It's an enormous collection, and Sir Richard Francis Burton's 17 volume collection, while almost unreadable compared to the Lane translation, not only includes all the dirty parts but brings in some that weren't in the original. His notes may help those who come to the work for the first time and are only looking for the "good parts." (Hint: start with The Porter and the Three Women of Baghdad. It might have shocked my grandmother, but since she grew up on a farm perhaps not.)

I would also note that, in a particular Orwellian note, the lawyers' group are called the "Association of Lawyers without Restrictions." I'd hate to meet the Association of Lawyers with Restrictions, but I don't have an Arabic version so I'm not sure what's being translated as "restrictions."

Part of this, of course, is typical of censorship in any language or any culture. Our word "bowdlerize" comes from Thomas Bowdler, who wrote a cleaned-up version of Shakespeare lest the bard lead the young astray. (The "French lesson" in Henry V is, I confess, pretty bawdy, but only funny if you know French, and like most double entendres, only funny if you already know enough to get the joke, and Hamlet's "country matters" pun is just juvenile, but still easily missed. Bowdler wasted his time since the young only read Shakespeare if they're forced to.) Others went on to bowdlerize the Bible, lest the young be led astray by God's suggestive language.

And, of course, there's the fact that language changes, and yesterday's taboos become today's shibboleths, and vice versa. A generation or so ago in America, strong old Anglo-Saxonisms relating to sex and excrement were absolutely taboo except in works by Joyce or D.H. Lawrence, but ethnic slurs were common; today you'll get in far more trouble for what we euphemize as the "n-word" than for the "f-word." (I euphemize not from cowardice but to avoid computer filters.) (And do you realize how many people of my parents' generation read all the way through Ulysses only to discover the bad word's at the very end?: clever of Joyce I think: he made them read a great story.) But our ancestors were not so squeamish. People would read Chaucer more I suspect if the dirty words were easier to recognize in their Middle English incarnation. Thus, words you could not print in the 19th or early 20th century turn up in Robert Burns, when they were probably common in everyday Lallans Scots.

So also I suspect is the case in 1001 Nights. Most of the "dirty" words are in the classical lexicons and, sometimes, even in the shari‘a codifications. I don't think there's a single one I haven't heard in spoken Arabic, even from elite figures.

I mentioned Burton's translation of the Nights. Burton had to make up his own dirty words. It was the Victorian era, but he was determined to relate the tales in all their explicitness. It makes it seem even more artificial.

I cannot imagine Egyptian courts will ban a work of Arabic literature that dates from the late Middle Ages. If so, it's time to get a full Arabic version online.


Anonymous said...

Contrary to all evidence, 1001 Nights is not from Baghdad, but from Egypt, or so you would like us to believe. Maybe your opinion has more to do with yourself being familiar with Cairo, and absolutely clueless on Iraq. Never having been to Iraq, or knowing much about the place, doesn't seem to stop Middle East experts from pontificating on what is owed to Iraq. Sad, really.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


1. It's not my argument. It seems to be the scholarly consensus last time I looked.

2. If it matters, I've been to Iraq. To Baghdad. Just sayin'.

Dinah Bee Menil said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Collins Dunn said...

The deleted comment was a spam posting with a link to a site unconnected with our region (criminal law, allegedly, though I didn't click it). I never delete comments related to the post.