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September/October 2016
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The Adventures of Hatim Tai, by Anonymous (1830)

THE FIRST translation of Alf Layla wa-Layla, or The Thousand and One Nights, into a European language (French) in the early 1700s started a genre that has flowed and ebbed ever since, bringing forth imitations, hoaxes, and more translations. One of the more obscure, and impressive, is The Adventures of Hatim Tai, translated into English (from an eighteenth-century Persian manuscript) by Duncan Forbes and published in 1830 by the Oriental Translation Fund.

This work's continued obscurity in the West can be inferred from the scant attention it receives in Robert Irwin's masterful study, The Arabian Nights (1994). Yet in India it has inspired films and popular television series. Hatim Tai, based on an historic, pre-Islamic Arab poet, is an odd hero: ecumenical, brave, shrewd, saintly, sensual, polygamous, chivalrous even to animals. Power in his world comes from fairies and demons, talismans and spells.

Compared to The Thousand and One Nights, the present work is shorter and more unified—quite possibly the work of a single author—and much more fantastic. Rather than nesting stories, it connects them tangentially. On his way to complete a quest for distressed character A, he encounters B and sets off on another quest, only to meet C and set off tangentially again, and again. The tasks are Herculean, but Hatim Tai's virtue is strong and his magic potent. The pacing is brisk, the details weird (bleeding rocks, a desert of solid brass, a tree of human heads). The story lines eventually unwind in reverse order, and all petitioners are satisfied—including the reader with a taste for adventure.

—Robert Eldridge

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