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“Woe to people under a ruler without a sense of shame.”

Last night I finished reading Naguib Mahfouz’s book Arabian Nights & Days. It’s a beautiful, brilliant work, a set of interlocking stories about the habitues of the Cafe of the Emirs and what happens to them when stories are set loose among them. The sultan’s wife Sharzhad has just finished telling her famous tales only to find that her life has been spared, that her husband Shahriyar has lost his desire to wed and kill the city’s virgins. But the tales’ lives are not over, as Sindbad suddenly feels an urge to go to sea. And there are treasures and genies and magical rings and plenty of thievery. And assassination and regime change.

In some sense, regime change is at the core of almost all the stories. Various men get various kinds of power and, while thinking themselves good men in good standing with God, they decide (or are coerced) to use their power to bring about what they see as right, which typically results in the death of the governor of the Quarter, not to mention other people involved. Several men serve as police chiefs, and widows and daughters are married off. At the center of this tumult and change are some genies and even an angel, Shahriyar and his immediate family, and the implacable Sheikh Abdullah al-Balkhi. And yes, there’s plenty of creation of self, and self-characterization and self-delusion. It’s not that power corrupts but that people who aren’t used to it don’t know how to wield it, and those who have it can’t survive without.

This is a book they ought to be using in those everybody-reads-the-same-book programs, because the power of an open metaphor is constantly evident. It would be a hit with the antiwar folks because of quotes like the one in my title, though Shariyar’s shame drives him through the looking glass to madness and love. And there are more than enough corrupt officials to be compared to the modern set of the reader’s choosing. There are also men killing for the sake of their understanding of Islam and men who refuse to kill or refuse to die. Women are a subtle, subversive undercurrent, despised and desired but incomprehensible. They know and tell and understand different, hidden stories. There’s romance and violence and magic and religion, and it’s all packed into precise and simple prose. I had to force myself to put it down and go to sleep, or I’d have read it in a night.

Arabian Nights & Days is more than a fairy tale revision, if it’s that at all. It’s an explosion of stories into reality, a picture of the way narratives move and stories change and people change. It’s not clear that Sindbad knew of Sinbad’s adventures when he embarked on his own, but he figured out how to deal with rocs nonetheless. We all know how our stories will end, but this is a clear reminder of the numberless ways to get there, the unexpected jolts in life, out own character development. And after any story ends, another takes its place, but perhaps that means it doesn’t end at all.