ARABIAN NIGHTS – Alf Layla wa Layla

The lure of Arabia has called to the imagination for thousands of years; mysterious and unfathomable like the Sphinx itself. Now, after the promise of Arab Spring, we watch events unfold and wait. Like the Pyramids, like the Sphinx, like the Libyan Desert – we wait.

Mystery, magic, the supernatural – ‘aja’ib – spells of Orient Arabia have long captivated European minds. King  Solomon – the archetype magi – perhaps, cast the first spell and its taste has lingered since. There is no more formidable evidence of this spell than Alice Coltrane’s 1970 classic album Ptah the El Daoud. She carries on the jazz as mystical search genre that John Coltrane pioneered. With help from Pharoah Sanders this gem is a must for those who experience music as meditation and message. I saw her perform with Carlos Santana, John Mclaughlin and Michael Shrieve in San Francisco. Her over whelming power as an organist and on the harp was unforgettable. She became a student of Swami Satchidananda and Sai Baba and the Swamini of her own Vedanta ashram near Malibu. Much beloved, she died in 2007.

1001 Arabian Nights/Alf  Layla wa Layla remains another classic exemplifier of the lure. Sultan Shahryar, having been betrayed by a faithless wife, is determined to never again fall victim to a woman. So he marries a virgin every day then has her executed the following morning. Over time the empire runs short of acceptable candidates. Shahrazad, daughter of the Grand Vizier begs her father’s permission to marry the Sultan. Finally he relents, and so the plot unfurls.

After making love with the Sultan on her wedding night Shahrazad begs his permission to tell her younger sister, Dunyazade, one final bedtime story. Shahrazad weaves her intricate tales and carefully winds them into a climatic turning point  just as dawn arrives.. And so it goes for 1001 nights, until the Sultan rescinds his terrible decree and Shahrazad lives, as do her stories.

Her stories are white magic. They open up worlds that invite reflection. Naguib Mahfouz

Stranger Magic by Marina Warner is a new, intriquing view into the fabled web of Aladdin, Ali Baba, genies and flying carpets with a special focus on how these archetypes have themselves becomes fused in Western culture and psyche. This  is a very good read with wonderful illustrations from the various Arabian Night editions.

The first known copy of Arabian Nights, in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, dates to Syria and the fourteenth century. The first Western translation was in French by Antoine Galland in 1704.

The most popular and successful was by an Englishman, Edward William Lane, which came out in 1841. Lane also authored a definitive Arabic-English dictionary which is still referred to. What makes Lane’s life story so appealing is the view he offers of an Ottoman Egypt as it was even in the early nineteenth century fading away. The voice of women could still be heard in Cairo. Ghawazzi dancers were learned women who could recite poetry, discuss intelligently and dance seductively. The name ghawazzi means conqueror in Arabic, they conquered the hearts of their audience. They gave rise to the belly-dance art form. Awalim (learned females) were the elite among women entertainers, known for their singing and modest chaste behavior.

Lane was also a scholar and explorer well versed in Egyptology. He made extensive notes and drawings of the ancient Egyptian monuments at the time Jean Francois Champollion’s epic work on the Rosetta Stone was underway.

Edward William Lane, 1801-1876 is the first extensive look at this fascinating man.

I have resided in a land where genii are still firmly believed to obey the summons of the magician or the owner of a talisman, and to act in occurrences of every day; and I have listened to stories of their deeds related as facts by persons of the highest respectability, and by some who would not condescend to read the tales of “one Thousand and One Nights’ , merely because they are fictions, and not written in the usual polished style of literary compositions. Edward Lane

Paul Brunton, born as Hermann Hirsch in London on October 21, 1898, traveled in the East among yogis and mystics in the 1930’s and wrote of his experiences. He is rightly credited as an early popularizer of yoga and meditation in the West. After serving in a tank division in the First World War he became a partner in an occult bookstore.

I read many of PB’s books, as he is known to his fans, in the early seventies while crisscrossing the United States, Canada and Mexico in my tan VW camper bus with an icebox, sink and pop-up roof. His writing of the higher mind which he calls the Overself is timeless and deceptively simple. A SEARCH IN SECRET EGYPT was one of my favorites.

Having spent my formative years in Libya from 1960 to 1965 I remain enchanted by PB’s ability to capture the ethereal, nymph-like auara of North Africa.

The nights of Egypt are strangely different from the nights of Europe. Here they are soft-footed, mysteriously palpitant with a host of unsown lives, shaded to an indigo blue whose effect upon sensitive minds is magical; there are somewhat hard, brutally matter-of-fact, and definitely black.

There is now a powerful, fully illustrated edition of A SEARCH IN SECRET EGYPT by Larson Publications, editors of the PB Notebook series.  This collectors edition has many of PB’s original photos. The drawings of the interior of the Great Pyramid are a wonderful assist. As many readers have learned in the eighty some years since PB was fortunate to spend a night alone inside the Great Pyramid his meditation and vision that night are a gift from the cosmos to mankind.

His conversation with Sheikh Moustapha el Maraghi, regent of the famed Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo are central to the book’s message. PB and the Sheikh hold their discussion in the early 1930’s, the world’s view of Islam has much changed since then as has Islam’s view of the West. But the tone of respect and careful appreciation of tradition is one that needs to be heard today more than ever. The formative years of my life in which I spent in Libya provide me deep respect, awe almost, at the obvious deep roots of faith and tolerance within Islam’s core.

Remembrance of God is security for the heart
from Illustrated Secret Egypt

Mirage 001No study of Egypt would be complete without a stroll through the sands with Napoleon’s  mélange of scientists, artists and sabre rattlers. Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt is Nina Burleigh’s fascinating account of the adventure that began in the French port of Toulon in June of 1798. Three hundred ships set to sail off to a secret destination. All those aboard bound by the common trust in the vision of Napoleon Bonaparte. Unfortunately this scheme was among his worst. We’re grateful, however, for the discovery of the Rosetta stone a year later. Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed & Forgery in the Holy Land is Burleigh’s equally fascinating sequel, a glimpse into the shadowy world of Holy Land relics in the 21st century. Both of these books open an enchanting genii bottle.

Where do we go now? The Arab Spring swept Mubarak from the Presidential Palace something few thought possible. The Muslim Brotherhood has a member in his place. But the key problems remain. Egypt’s young men face grim economic headwinds and few chances for a healthy relationship with female friends. Forget marriage even, a society that remains unable to accept women as equals is in trouble in today’s world. Spiritual fervor can mask many sins, ask Paul Ryan.

Mary Anne Weaver’s A PORTRAIT OF EGYPT published in 2000 still has valid clues as to what we may expect as this society, with many sores long unbalanced, tries to stabilize itself.

The trail has long threads. In 1994 Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arabic writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature was stabbed in the neck. He was eight-two years old and an open critic of both secret Islamist and government violence.

Speaking openly in a sealed society is risky. A sealed society with no voice for women is doomed in this new world.


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