Egyptian Group Seeks to Ban One Thousand and One Arabian Nights

In the latest effort to censor texts considered to be "offensive to the public good", an Egyptian NGO is attempting to ban the popular book One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

A public row erupted in April when the General Authority for the Centers of Culture, a government body, announced that it had earmarked funds to reprint the book; the first modern Arabic version appeared in 1984 and is based on a 14th century Syrian manuscript currently housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale in France.

The tales, whose origins have been lost in time, first appeared in writing in 800 CE and are believed to be the literary compendium of oral tradition and myth passed down through the generations in Arabia, China, Ancient Egypt, India, and Persia.

The Egyptian group, Lawyers Without Restrictions, wants at the very least to censor the text, which it claims is immoral and threatens family values. They filed legal proceedings with the public prosecutor's office against the General Authority.

Lawyers Without Restrictions, which labels itself as a "cultural, political, national, and social awareness group affiliated with the Lawyer's Syndicate," says that vivid descriptions of erotic situations run in direct opposition to strict social codes in Islamic countries.

Ayman Abdel-Hakim, spokesman for the group, also called for the prosecution of the culture minister for wasting public funds on republication of "depravity."

While lawyers and legal bodies have filed legal proceedings of the same "conservative" nature before, whether for publicity or due to a chauvinistic approach to Islam or religion as restrictive discourses, the cases usually dissipate with time.

Sarah El Sirgany, a deputy news editor at the Cairo-based Daily News Egypt, believes that neither Arab culture nor heritage are at risk from such calls for a ban.

"This is after all merely a complaint filed to the public prosecutor that has been instantly condemned and rejected by many influential and popular intellectuals. Probably this publicized opposition [to the ban] is what gave this complaint weight," she says.

Sirgany, who also writes a blog that tackles socio-religious issues, believes that "one simple and obvious solution is to fix the education system and encourage critical thinking".

"Not only would that uproot extremism, but it would also build a strong base of popular opposition that stands in the face of any calls of censorship or protectionism," she says.

The Arabian Nights were first translated into French in the early 1700s, but the most enduring and conclusive English-language version was translated and compiled by orientalist and linguist Sir Richard Burton in 1850. Burton's version was criticized for exaggerating some of the erotic imagery in the original Arabic texts. However, to his credit, Burton did not "censor for the public good" any of the passages containing sexual references, as many of his contemporaries chose to do at the time.

Despite the eroticism, the folk stories of genies, flying carpets, mysterious sea creatures, teleportation, and time travel have endured to become the inspiration for Western fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Known to contain adages and morals, they have been the Eastern equivalent to Aesop's Fables and have provided rich material for Arab, European, and Hollywood science-fiction and fantasy cinema, music, and opera.

Since the 1920s there have been dozens of feature and animated films and radio specials based on the Arabian Nights. Who could forget Disney's Aladdin (1992); The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958); Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944); and Thief of Bagdad (sic; 1924; 1940)?

Even the plot of the upcoming Prince of Persia will have in one way or another drawn from the popular lore of the Arabian Nights -- evil viziers thwarted by the young princely hero.

The Arabian Nights have provided such unending entertainment over the centuries that Warner Bros. is rumored to have contracted Marc Guggenheim to direct a remake based on the Thief of Bagdad.

The Arabian Nights have also employed diverse literary devices later used by European authors: the format of storytelling within a story (Scheherazade recounts a set of fairy tales to the King Shahrayar over many nights in a bit to forestall her execution) was later used by Boccacio and Geoffrey Chaucer, the latter having produced The Canterbury Tales.

The Arabian Nights also draw on Arabic poetry -- comparing the beauty of women to the eyes of oxen and gazelles -- and is rich in prose. For example, in The Porter and The Three Women of Baghdad (Burton translation), sublime feminine beauty is described thus:

Her eyes were those of the wild heifer or the gazelle, with eyebrows like the crescent moon which ends Sha'aban and begins Ramadan. Her mouth was the ring of Solomon, her lips coral-red, and her teeth like a line of strung pearls or of camomile petals. Her throat recalled the antelope's, and her breasts, like two pomegranates of even size, stood at bay as it were. Her body rose and fell in waves below her dress like the rolls of a piece of brocade, and her navel would hold an ounce of benzoin ointment.

From another verse in the same story:

And she took up the wine flagon and poured out the first cup and drank it off, and likewise a second and a third. After this she filled a fourth cup, which she handed to one of her sisters, and lastly, she crowned a goblet and passed it to the porter, saying:

"Drink the dear draught, drink free and fain

What healeth every grief and pain."

It is this rich and very vivid imagery, as well as the exaltation of wine, that appears to have offended the sensitivities of Abdel-Hakim and his group.

But a call for banning or even censoring the Arabian Nights is nothing short of an example of the ignorance that has swept through the Arab World, an ignorance that is borne in the failings of socialist-run education systems that have all but eradicated culture in the face of religious fanaticism.

Any ban of literature and art on the grounds of moral indecency must also encompass the thousands of Arabic textbooks and poems that date back to the early Islamic period and beyond.

If rich and diverse Arabic literature can so come under attack for "moral indecency", could the destruction of the extravagant motifs -- some of which contain sexual depictions -- etched on the walls of hundreds of Ancient Egyptian temples, burial chambers, papyrus, and pottery be next?

Such a ban would also have to include the Mu'allaqat, the writings of seven pre-Islamic Arab poets; their poems were suspended from atop the Kaaba in Mecca in the sixth century and are considered to be among the richest in Arabic literature, covering various topics of love, lust, spirituality, commerce, and tribal war. In one such poem, Amr bin Kulthum compares wine to a mystical nectar.

During the rise of Islam, the Mu'allaqat were not censored or destroyed but rather used as templates for later poets.

Missing from Abdel-Hakim's Fahrenheit 451 epiphany of censorship is the fact that one of the greatest classical Arab poets in Islamic times, the ninth century's Abu Nawas, routinely wrote about wine and intoxication.

Omar Khayyam, a Persian poet who is also known for his scholarly work in mathematics and astronomy, also wrote of wine:

When once you hear the roses are in bloom,

Then is the time, my love, to pour the wine;

Houris and palaces and Heaven and Hell-

These are but fairy-tales, forget them all.

It is unlikely that this cultural row will be forgotten anytime soon, unfortunately, as the artistic censorship is now elevated to the level where Arabs are being coerced under the name of religious sensitivities to rewrite their own history.

The controversy is slowly gaining momentum and is being covered by local Egyptian press. The daily Egyptian Gazette quoted Ahmed Megahid, the head of the General Authority, as saying that any censorship of the Arabian Nights is comparable to the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha's statues in Bamyan, Afghanistan in May 2001.

In an online response to public criticism of the attempt to ban the Arabian Nights, Ayman Imam, a member of the Lawyers Without Restrictions group, called his critics "Marxists" and reminded the public prosecutor that he is a Muslim, a father, and a husband before being a civil servant.

Rasheed el-Enany, a professor of modern Arabic literature, believes that censorship inspired by religious conservativism is more of a threat because it does not play by the rules.

In statements made to the Egyptian daily AlMasry AlYoum in December 2009 about the general state of censorship in the country, Enany said that government-imposed censorship is calculable and that authors would be banned for a while and then resume writing.

With religious conservatism, however, Enany believes that "the censorship enforced now is the one that killed Farag Foda [human rights activist critical of Islamic fundamentalists who was assassinated by extremists] and almost killed Nagib Mahfouz. It's real terror."

But the Daily News Egypt's Sirgany believes it is unlikely that the government will cave in to the call for a ban.

"My expectation is for this case to end after a media hype with the reprint of the book," she said. "It's very unlikely that the government would try to appease the conservative or religious communities by censoring the Arabian Nights."

Sirgany partially faults the government for allowing such a radical ban to be raised in the first place.

She says that the Egyptian government staggers between conservatism and secularism with no clear vision. She believes that many of its actions in fact fuel extremism and the polarization of society.