The Arabian Nights (also known as One Thousand and One Nights) is a collection of centuries-old stories originating in the Arab world that has traveled far and wide and had an enduring influence on global literature. The captivating tales tell of merchants, treasures, voyages, and adventure, and of thieves, slavery, lust, and violence, all tied together by the storyteller Scheherazade, the princess who famously uses the power of these narratives to delay her own death sentence. This masterpiece of the Islamic Golden Age has been a pervasive force in the cultural imagination, creating a reference point for “Arabian” storytelling that has endured for generations, and is in many ways still the best-known work of Arabic literature.
Yet in my view, the secret to Arabian Nights’ fame is not only in the interweaving plots, fantasies, and illusions of its narratives but also in the fact of its retelling. These tales passed from storytellers and travelers throughout history and around the world, surfacing in texts from Chaucer to Shakespeare, before being published in French in the 18th century and rewritten by authors and scholars in many languages ever since. When we speak of the Arabian Nights and its success, we are celebrating not only the power of exceptional storytelling but the power of translation.
The Arab world is a mosaic of countries and creativity, yet perceptions from the outside are all too often filtered through the lens of current affairs: discussions of conflict, politics, and natural resources can come together to present a distorted picture of the region. But as the director of a leading prize for Arabic writing, I am acutely aware that the ideas, innovation, and myriad voices coming out of this part of the world are multifaceted, diverse, and deserving of an audience.
Over the four years I have been director of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, I have had the pleasure of witnessing the honoring of some of the finest pieces of modern writing in Arabic literature and the humanities. However, many of the honored authors—such as Hussein Al Mutawwa, Ahmed Al Qarmalawy, Abbas Beydoun—are not known outside the Arab world. This is a loss felt by all: the authors deserving of recognition; the wider public, who are deprived of great works of literature; and the entire world, in missing the opportunity for deeper understanding between cultures.
In recent years, literary prizes have become drivers of translation, recognizing the urgent need to celebrate Arabic literature of quality and ensure it is shared with the world. In 2018, we launched the Sheikh Zayed Book Award Translation Fund, in recognition of the active role of translation in fostering cultural communication and in promoting the diversity of Arabic literature internationally. By providing grants for foreign publishers to translate our winning titles, we are able to share stories that represent the differences in our culture, history, and experience but that transcend cultural differences to locate what is universal.
A fantastic example of how translation can open up productive dialogues between cultures is a wonderful children’s book called The Dinoraf, by Emirati author Hessa Al Muhairi. In this story about crossing borders and finding common ground, the main character is a dinosaur who searches for his closest relatives among the other animals. Along the way, he discovers the value of what makes each creature different and forges a special connection with the giraffe, so ending his journey as a “dinoraf.” Through our grants, The Dinoraf was translated into English, French, and Italian.
I’d encourage more foreign publishers to look to the Arab world, where some of the most exciting work being produced by authors today is deepening and challenging the idea of what it means to write in the Arabic tradition and to live in the glorious many-sidedness of the Middle East. It is the role of literary prizes and institutional bodies to smooth the path for translators and publishers, encouraging them to take risks and challenge audiences with new perspectives.
If the circulation of stories across borders was possible throughout the Byzantine era and the Middle Ages, we shouldn’t be facing barriers to accessing translated texts in a globalized, technologically advanced world with a formal publishing industry. The Arabian Nights has retained its power and preeminence in the cultural consciousness for good reason, but it’s time some new voices had the opportunity to be heard as well.
Mouza Al Shamsi is the director of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award.