Like a dance craze or a charismatic cult, The Arabian Nights seized readers' imaginations as soon as translations first appeared - in French between 1704 and 1717, and in English from 1708. Oriental fever swept through salons and coffee-houses, the offices of broadsheet publishers and theatrical impresarios; the book fired a train of imitations, spoofs, turqueries, Oriental tales, extravaganzas. It changed tastes in dress and furniture - the sofa, the brocade dressing-gown - and even enhanced the taste of coffee. In fact its diaspora almost mimics the triumphant progress of coffee, as it metamorphosed from the thimbles of thick dark syrup drunk in Damascus and Istanbul and Cairo to today's skinny latte, macchiato et al. Antoine Galland, the French savant and explorer who discovered and translated the earliest manuscript in Syria in the late 17th century, also published a translation of an Arabic treatise in praise of coffee, one of the first if not the first of its kind. It is his bowdlerised version of the stories that dominated their diaspora, from the 'Arabian Nights' Entertainments', serialised in 445 instalments over three years in the London News, to the fantasies of the Ballets Russes, to the 1924 Thief of Baghdad, to Disney's Aladdin and Sinbad.
LRB 18 December 2008 | PDF Download