Let me whisk you away: sail you down the Tigris to Bagdad, show you the hallowed academia of the windy city, park you in a London writing pit in the 18th century.
And bind them all together with an Arabian princess.
Allez. The year was 1948: the place, the windy city.
The tale of the woman who made the discovery which concerns us tonight started far, far away from Chicago.
Born in Turkey, her father was an Arab merchant. As a child she travelled in a covered wagon with nomad horsemen, sailed down the Tigris to Baghdad, and through the Persian Gulf and Arabian sea to Bombay.
Much, much later, just after she turned 50, a growing authority on oriental manuscripts, Nabia Abbott sat at the Chicago Oriental Institute, poring over a scrap of mediaeval paper which originated from Syria.
And she became aware that the words she was reading were strangely familiar.
To describe the paper as busy would be an understatement. Six different hands were evident on both sides of the paper, each piece seemingly random: a personal letter, a preamble to a legal contract, a doodle of a human figure.
But there it was in the margin, clear as day: a fragment from the riotous carnival of story known as The Arabian Nights.
It proved the story’s protagonist, Scheherazade, dated from at least the early ninth century. She had been telling her tales for approximately 1,100 years.
Not all versions of the tales are the same: some are short, some are long, there’s the purist ones from the Syrian tradition which only include early stories, or the Egyptian tradition which even uses folk tales from the 18th and 19th centuries.
One frame binds them all together: Scheherazade herself. The woman who told 1001 tales so compelling, so entrancing, that she strung along the man who had hitherto been murdering his brides after just one night of bliss.
And there is a description of her, there in the folds of the pages:
- “[Scheherazade] had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of bygone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.”
All the more surprising, then, that she should make her way to England by alighting at Grub Street.
The place doesn’t exist any more.
It ran from Fore Street in London, east of St Giles-without-Cripplegate, north to Chiswell Street. It was a sorry stretch of London disreputability. Dr Johnson used it to define mediocrity: “much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called grub street”
The impoverished storytellers of Grub Street were a world away from the Arabian queen. But they could recognise a best seller when they saw one.
The first French translation of One Thousand And One Nights was a lofty affair by the French orientalist Antoine Galland, who stumbled upon a manuscript while wandering through Constantinople. It was published in 1704 onwards.
But two years later a dodgy anonymous English translation began circulating. Someone had seen fit, Sinbad-style, to pirate the French translation and make a fast buck.
And they did. The translation sold so widely that Scheherazade became a household name. It has gone down in history as The Grub Street manuscript, and it coined the English title the stories go by these days: The Arabian Night’s Entertainment.
So there it is: a string of stories, linked by the woman who told them best of all.