July 5th 2013: It was when we were making museums in Cairo that I first discovered Middle Eastern history. The discovery of this strange new world, full of caliphs and Sufis and scholars and travellers, was exhilarating, like falling into very deep water. I began to haunt Diwan, the bookshop behind the Marriott on Zamalek Island, and it was there that I found Robert Irwin’s books.
The first one I read was on the Arabian Nights. It traces a giddy path through the history of this labyrinth of stories – and sometimes stories inside stories – with sorcerers, magicians, storytellers, adulterers, jinns, princesses, treasure hunters, the daughters of merchants and Death itself all leaking out across the pages and escaping from one story into another. Over them all presides Sheherazade, one of the great heroines of all time, a nimble, fast-talking woman, spinning stories to save her life.
I read Irwin’s book – which is witty and scholarly, grumpy and sardonic – stretched out on my bed in a hotel room looking out on to Cairo. By the end of Chapter One I was hooked. By the end of Chapter Two I decided I had led a shamefully sheltered life. How come I had only just discovered all these things? I kept getting up and going across to the window to listen to the Call to Prayer and to watch the city’s golden lights, the threads of which were wriggling and squirming through the vast darkness. The stories are saturated with the personality of medieval Cairo, the same Cairo that lay sprawled beyond my hotel room. In its time it was one of the biggest cities in the world, and the most legendary.
Cairo days are hard but Cairo nights are blue and green, and light and springy. One night we drove into the Moqattam Hills, climbing past the city’s rubbish dumps, looking for the model makers who were building a museum model for us. We found them squatting with their families in an abandoned block of flats high up in the Moqattam Hills. They led us in past huge, empty rooms where children slept lined up on the floor in sleeping bags, took us to their work room where they brought us glasses of mint tea and let us admire their handiwork. It was just before the Revolution and the city simmered but held on to its patience by a thread.
Robert Irwin’s book led me on to ‘Stranger Magic’, Marina Warner’s book on the Arabian Nights. By this time we were no longer working in Cairo and so I read it in green and rainy North London. Once again I was hooked. She’s more psychoanalytical than Irwin, more interested in the ways of thinking behind the stories, their fabulous twists and turns and why exactly they exert such a magic over us. She loves the bravura displays of storytelling, the way that one story is nestled inside another and another – sometimes up to seven of them. Many of my favourite writers appear on her pages – Borges, Calvino, Angela Carter. It was like being invited to a party only to discover all the friends you have in common. (‘But I didn’t know you knew each other’.)
By now I was no longer haunting Diwan but the bookshop of the London Review of Books, which is behind the British Museum. Next I discovered Irwin’s book, ‘Sufis, Mysticism and the Sixties’ in which he hitchhikes to Algeria in the 1960’s and converts to Sufi-ism – more revelations of worlds about which I knew nothing – and from there I jumped to John Barthes’ witty and beautiful short story about Sheherazade (the ‘Dunyazadiad’).
It is an admiring tribute to a character who, in this version, is beautiful, stroppy, sexy, highly intelligent – in fact just about everything except a storyteller. That last attribute belongs to the peculiar-looking genie – smooth-shaven and bald as a roc’s egg – (aka the Writer) – who turns up from some future world (ours) and, seeing the plight that she’s in, feeds Sheherazade the stories that will save her. Pretty soon Sheherazade is an equal devotee of storytelling and the two indulge in some delighted exploration of storytelling techniques. Never has a story been so saturated with such wishfulfilment as well as with the admiring, competitive, I-bet-I could-have-done-that-betterness of a couple of professional storytellers.
And now I have just zigzagged back to Robert Irwin’s novel on 12th century Cairo, ‘The Arabian Nightmare’ in which the city is a labyrinth and the hero is the naively optimistic Balian, who comes from Norwich.
These are book-trails, where one book leads you on to the next and the next, and where each one is as satisfying as the last. Sometimes they go on for months. There’s nothing better.
Illustrations for the Arabian Nightmare are by Isabel Greenberg
Next time we’ll post on how stories work – or don’t – in museum-making.
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