Mahfouz’s novel begins with the sultan’s deciding to spare Shahrzad’s life. The reign of blood has ended, but the sultan is not happy. He has awakened to his guilt, and with that awakening has come awareness of his many weaknesses. The joy that the sultan’s madness (and with it the parade of murdered women) has ended is tempered with worry over the dangers that his changed mood might bring.
The blood does not stop flowing. Robbery and murder, instigated by evil spirits, bring about bloody purges. On the other hand, good spirits bring about acts of mercy and work to unite two young lovers. The reader’s experience is also a mix of delight at reading the various characters’ tales and bitterness on knowing that, although the novel is, on one level, the equivalent of an escapist Saturday matinee set in medieval Arabia and dealing with stock characters, spirits, and improbable adventures, on another level it is an accurate portrait of the ugliness of corruption. Its tracing of the work of power in the relation of each person to each, and its rich ironies in the meanings lying behind the pious platitudes that the characters use to communicate, are absolutely masterful.
Mahfouz, who was a professional propagandist for years, has a perfect ear for the nuances of communication. One cannot always resist the urge to tell the truth the sultan, even if to do so will cost one one’s life; Shahrzad, a wise woman in a city completely dominated and poorly run by men, tells the truth and lives. Her story gives hope to a jaded, contemporary reader. The novel may also serve as good medicine to those who think that corruption cannot happen here. ARABIAN NIGHTS AND DAYS beautifully delineates the workings of corruption, showing how impossible social and governmental conditions can grow out the small decisions each person makes every day and out of the bad example of a leader. The novel mimics Shahrzad’s narrative technique, coating a bitter pill of knowledge in a few sugary wisps of interconnected tales.