Naguib Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days is a bitterly entertaining and compelling read. In medieval age, in some unknown Islamic town, genies pulled a series of escapades that created havoc. The clash between the genies and the townspeople was evocative of inveterate, age-old struggles of virtue, corruption, despotism, injustice, and other practices purged by conscience.
Seized by a pang of guilt that pricked his heart, Sultan Shahriyar repented of his atrocious massacre of virgins and other pious, god-fearing people. Shahrzad, daughter of vizier Dandan, sacrificed her happiness and remained with the sultan in order to stem the torrent of blood.
Merchant Sanaan al-Gamali had a nightmare in which a genie would otherwise punish him if he refused to kill the governor, who had brought about the genie through black magic and made the genie accomplish purposes not approved by conscience. In a state of delirium and crazed fantasies, Sanaan raped and murdered a girl. When Gamali finally summoned his courage, unsheathed the dagger, aimed at the governor's heart and stabbed with a strength drawn from determination and despair, the genie abandoned Gamali to his own fate.
Gamasa al-Bulti, the chief of police, was another man whom the genie chose to be the saving of the quarter from corruption. Gamasa was despondent at the ruin of Gamali's family, which now lived in ignominy. But the chief remained aloof to Gamali's widow for fear of ruining his own position and his standing with the sultan, who regarded the blow directed against his official as being aimed against him personally. The genie confronted Gamasa as one despicable person feeding off ignominy for he protected the elite (who was just as corrupted) by prosecuting the respectable people. In "repentance", Gamasa launched a lethal blow at the neck of the governor, who gave a horrified scream as his blood spurted like a fountain. Unlike the merchant, Gamasa was spared by the genie and was given a new identity Abdullah the porter who then continued the criminal killing spree.
The above tales are just a tasteful sampling of Mahfouz's tour-de-force as a raconteur. Arabian Nights and Days is made up of stories and adventures of 1001 Nights-like characters whose lives Mahfouz deftly and seamlessly woven together and converged at the Café of the Emirs. The café was the central hangout spot of town, where the elite met the ordinary, the rich mingled with the poor. It was where Sinbad parted with the town and returned with serendipitous treasures. It was where every father of a virgin daughter felt reassured relieved and rejoiced over the news of sultan's repentance. It was where the whisperings of people regarding Aladdin's innocence originated and eventually reached the sultan's ears.
The book does not manifest a plot; rather it drifts along and presents the etched characters and their tantalizing but bitter struggles. I have to employ some patience to scrupulously keep track of the exhaustive cast of characters and their intricate relationships (newly adopted identity, remarriage of widows, merry-go-round-like change/succession of governor and police chief). Underlying the thrilling tales are Mahfouz's persistent philosophical overtones and queries. What is the "true path" to salvation? To what extent is a person responsible for his wrongdoings? How does one gauge the extent of repentance, if one is persistently pricked by guilt? To what extent does conscience permit wrongdoings, if the wrongdoing is conducted for a good cause?
The Islamic town is somehow a satirical miniature of the incorrigible society, a world of outward piety and latent corruption. The acts and conduct of the characters bespeak man's weakness that betrays trust, treats generosity with disdain, and plunges recklessly into debauchery and criminal activities. From stealing, stupid pranks to murder; we see the pitiful fall of one of the most morally righteous man in the book. Does his conscience justify his actions?
I am not sure how much I am really absorbing the philosophical message Mahfouz brings about underlying the tale, other than to know I am reading a brilliant satire and a very richly-written novel. Arabian Nights and Days is a delightful departure from Mahfouz's formulaic melancholy works chronicling his times. 4.2 stars.