Scholars of Arabic literature were, for a time, obsessed with naming a “first” Arabic novel to stand at the head of an apparently new literary tradition. Was it M. H. Haykal’s 1914 Zaynab? Was it one of the many novels that were serialized in popular magazines that sprouted up in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon in the late 1800s and early 1900s? Or perhaps Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s peripatetic, language-glorifying Leg Over Leg (1855)? Never mind that al-Shidyaq mocked the obsessions of European writing.
On his last visit to Cairo, the German translator Hartmut Fähndrich was despondent about the lack of interest in contemporary Arabic writing, and he offered this interesting explanation of Western reluctance to engage with Arabic literature: “I think [readers] fear that it will destroy TheThousand and One Nights image they have in their minds.” One might argue about the number of potential German book buyers who have the timeless classic lodged in their minds, but even those who do need not worry. No one writing today could possibly live up to the lack of sophistication, unadorned sensuality, and aimless fantasizing found in The Thousand and One Nights.