For centuries, the tales recounted in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights have provided readers around the world with a source of endless fascination, delight and wonder. Today in Egypt, however, these same stories are inspiring a series of petty legal battles.
In recent months the book, as well as novelist and editor of literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab, Gamal el-Ghitany, have come under heavy criticism from a band of independent Egyptian lawyers attempting to take el-Ghitany to court for his decision to republish what they deem “offensive trash.”
Likeminded litigators previously tried to ban the book for similar reasons in 1985 and 1998—unsuccessful in each attempt. This time around, the conservative lawyers are calling for immediate action to be taken against el-Ghitany for facilitating “the distribution of material that is clearly obscene, satirical, and blasphemous.”
El-Ghitany maintains that One Thousand and One Arabian Nights represents a supreme cultural heritage and is a “necessity” in any public, or even personal, library. The novelist has even described recent efforts at banning the collection of stories as “an attempt to humiliate the government and impose narrow-mindedness upon people’s sensibilities.”
Meanwhile, researchers from Al-Azhar University have contributed to the lawyers’ chorus of complaints, saying the ancient texts are offensive due to their “negligent treatment of Islam,” as the stories omit several essential teachings and values while incorporating others for reasons of plot and convenience. Representatives of Al-Azhar have also denounced the Egyptian government for not only “wasting its money” on the publication and subsequent distribution of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and other similarly “smut-driven” texts, but also for selling them at exceptionally low prices.
Al-Azhar’s researchers have also gone so far as to claim that the availability of similar inexpensive texts is directly the reason for the majority of contemporary society’s problems, particularly drug addiction, incest, rape, general fornication, and devil worship.
The objections of the Al-Azhar researchers and conservative lawyers have not found much support within Egyptian literary circles, with several prominent writers, scholars, and academics publically refuting what they see as unfounded claims.
Gamal Eid of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information firmly believes in the presence of an ulterior motive behind the complaints. “Profiteering,” he explains, “is what the lawyers are really up to.” Eid likens the lawyers’ actions as a series of charades, a publicity stunt designed to give them recognition and put their names in the papers. “The media has indirectly contributed to this debacle,” Eid says. “The media has also unintentionally incited members of the so-called new morality police to claim this as a struggle of their own. It’s not even just sheikhs and lawyers anymore.”
“One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is a literary landmark, and a cultural and humanitarian legacy that has contributed to the development of imagination worldwide,” Eid says. “It’s obvious that there is no real case here, just what some opportunistic lawyers might recognize as their claim to fame. And this is how they go about it, by spreading fear among the publishers and the people.”
“It’s a tragic loss for the civilians who are finding themselves increasingly surrounded by men of religion and business,” he sighs.