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My Thousand & One Nights by Raja Alem and Tom McDonough

Fiction Reviews

My Thousand & One Nights by Raja Alem and Tom McDonough

My Thousand & One Nights by Raja Alem and Tom McDonough 1
My Thousand & One Nights: A Novel of Mecca
by Raja Alem and Tom McDonough
Syracuse University Press, 272 pp.
CLR [rating:4]


There is a school of thought that likes to differentiate between female writing and male writing. Male writing is curt, it is short sentences, it is Hemingway grunts, it is sudden violence, it is deathly afraid of adjectives.

In contrast, according to this view, female writing is of the senses, it is inner thoughts and feelings, it is family and relationships and talk, it is magic and mysticism and occasional fluffy bunnies.

On first glance, one might be tempted to slap the “female” label on Raja Alem and Tom McDonough’s collaborative effort, My Thousand & One Nights: A Novel of Mecca. One should be careful, though. This novel might slap back.

Alem is a Saudi Arabian writer, whose intimidating body of Arabic work includes novels, plays, and poems. Seeking a wider readership, she began to translate her works into English and enlisted the help of McDonough to provide an editorial ear and eye.

Their partnership became official with the appearance of Fatma – probably published, as McDonough points out, because its theme conformed to Western expectations of the downtrodden Arabic woman.

Now there is My Thousand & One Nights. Although it is a semi-autobiographical novel focusing on the so-called “women’s world” of the home and the hearth, in a kind of pre-modern Mecca lost to time, it is anything but domestic.

Ostensibly, the plot concerns the narrator’s aunt, an untamable woman named Jummo, who loves and is loved by an ancient dervish named Sidi Wahdana.

What Sidi, a name McDonough loosely translates as “Sir Death,” seems to embody is fate, the inevitability of life and death. He appears to infants at their birth, showing the whites of his eyes, and at bloody wars and accidents, showing only the dark.

To be in love with fate is no easy proposition, and Jummo’s life is complicated by the expectation that she marry and the presence of a persistent childhood sweetheart. This being a book that easily blends the fantastic with the prosaic, the sweetheart Mayjan drowns in a puddle and returns to woo her clouded in the scent of basil.

Jummo is not the only focus. Like her titular inspiration, Alem’s mysterious tale comes in the guise of many stories, songs, and voices.

We learn about the family – the grandfather, Sheik Baikwaly, Sheik of the Zamzam Water Carriers in the Holy Mosque, who wears powerful talismans to ward off the guardian spirits of tunnels and can read the stars for omens.

And about the narrator’s mother, Hannah, who possesses a searchlight eye that sees into geniis’ worlds.

And about a hundred different characters with equally memorable characteristics.

In Alem’s world-view, one might expect to see objects morph into people, animals writhe in henna tattoos, and stones grant bearers restoration or doom. There are no rules of physics in this vision of Mecca and the city springs up like a character itself, imbued with its own sacred significance.

Alongside and over and through these stories runs a flood of vocabulary, much of it concentrated in the senses. This is an author who rejoices in color, in the scent of cardamom and the feel of silk, in the dimples of a man’s cheek dripping warm rubies. While now and again I found myself catching on a cliché, for the most part it was a pleasure to be immersed in such exuberance.

It all results in a heady mixture – snatches of pre-Islamic mythology, echoes from the Koran, paragraphs that ebb and flow like oral narratives. One moment the girl narrator is describing a scene where rabbits drip from the sink faucet (I wasn’t kidding about the bunnies) and the next she is commanding:

“Open to me now, infidel friend, kaffir, faithless reader, as I am opening to you.”

Who is this you? In some ways, it is you, it is anyone who animates the words on the page by the very act of reading them:

“Shape your story, arrange your objets till you find the shape that gives you peace and contentment. Sidi Wahdana seduced you into playing his role. You are tempted, aren’t you, by the thrill of killing, or conferring life, merely by glancing at my words.”

In another sense, however, it is Alem’s literary tradition, it is Hassan al-Basri:

“Why you, Hassan? Why should you be the one I tell my story to? What can I possibly say to Hassan of Basra, the celebrated character from The Thousand and One Nights, the finest goldsmith in all the Seven Heavens, a craftsman so masterful he can coax words from dumb beasts, whole paragraphs from inanimate objects…

How could I tempt you with a story about today? I could rush you, I could swarm all over you with words (maidenly words, of course, weightless as rain). I could attack, I could retreat – who knows?…

I know your name Hassan,; I see you now. You are my rival, my confidante. We are each other’s instruments.”

This focus on the power of storytelling, for me, was the most intriguing and unfathomable thread – and the most satisfying. Alem is fascinated by words, by their symbolic shape, by their ability to alter fate. At one point Jummo argues that a person’s name is the key to the soul, to know the name is to own it. So when she weaves Mayjan’s name into his clothing, she is also asserting her own female power, she is dangerous.

In a similar fashion, for Alem to write, to create a world that her illiterate mother and grandmother cannot access, is to be a mapmaker. She shows us the hidden valleys of Mecca, the landscape as it is seen by a Saudi Arabian woman – a world in which the conventional confines are so narrow that it makes Alem’s fabulous mixture of fact and fiction all the more potent.

In some ways, then, she is Sidi himself, who, as the narrator says, “tried to rewrite Jummo’s life to the tune of The Thousand and One Nights.” Alem tells us in the title that this is My Thousand and One Nights and it is she who ultimately holds the life and death of her characters in her hands.

One should add, however, that she has a companion in the English version. And McDonough is careful to illustrate in his introduction how Alem’s words have been altered. It is he who changes:

“She treasured you, and captured you in this undying image: dedicated rising on a blue mountain, and a china gate…”


“I adore you, Jummo; I always have. I picture you in a single unvarying image: climbing a blue mountain, focused to the point of ferocity, approaching a gate made of shiny red tiles.”

Now this is quite a jump – and I found myself wondering if sometimes McDonough jumps too far towards those aforementioned clichés. Taken out of context, some passages have a slightly over-the-top feel to them, as if the authors’ exuberance had burst a seam.

But then I note McDonough’s warning that one should not read this as a piece of exotica, as a cultural handbook on the Arabic woman, and I am willing to trust that a man who rebels against such labels has not strayed too far from Alem’s intent.

Reviewers like to pretend that they are clinical, that they are able to read a book in an afternoon and dissect its body in an evening. Yet here is a book that still intrigues me, still has me wondering what to make of this unusual collaboration between Middle East and West.

So ignore the facetious Sargent painting of an Arabic woman on the front and see what you think. I think it’s a book of great imaginative intelligence, a celebration of word and story – but the lovely thing about it is, it might metamorphose into something completely different for you.

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Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.

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