Arab folktales are oral traditions that were passed down for generations for millennia. Many European tales took root from Arabic fairy tales as Arab culture spread itself across the globe, and many other cultures entered the Middle East.
The first written accounts of Arab culture’s mythology appeared in the 14th century. Unlike their European counterparts, Arabic tales were sources of entertainment rather than moral lessons. Though they did indeed have lessons to be learned, this wasn’t their main purpose. These sweeping and detailed stories were romantic and fantastical, from embellished historical accounts to richly intrinsic fables.
Most are familiar with the compilation One Thousand and One Nights, most famously retold by Andrew Lang in the late 1800s in the first English version, The Arabian Nights, which houses tales that contemporary artists and storytellers use to inspire their world. One instantly recognizable example is “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” (though it’s woefully dissimilar from the Disney version).
Muhsin Mahdi’s The Araban Nights (New Deluxe Edition) is an authentic translation of the 14th-century Syrian text. One of Arabian Nights‘ most significant aspects is the intricate layering in its storytelling. The text is a story within a story, and stories within stories within stories. The book opens with Princess Shahrazad attempting to delay her execution by regaling the king with stories; her death would swiftly follow should he become bored.
The modern retellings that do justice to the originals by leaving the typical European tropes behind are few and far between. However, we scoured the shelves to bring together a decent list for your TBR pile.
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Ahmed truly captures the spirit and poetry that is Arab folk tales in his fantasy adventure novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon. Imagine a world where ghuls, djenn, and magic are aplenty, where the struggle for power between good and evil are as familiar as it is alien. A warrior prince, a shape-shifting woman on a path of vengeance, and a retired ghoul hunter form an alliance to purge their world of iron-fisted Khalif.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
A gutsy combination of Arab and Jewish mythology brings together a golem and a jinni in 1899 New York. The Golem and the Jinni is a historical fantasy that questions the nature of humanity in the guise of mystical beings. The main characters, Chava and Ahmed, come to rely on one another not only for spiritual and physical needs, but to overthrow a malevolent entity.
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
A con woman in 18th-century Cairo accidentally summons a djinn warrior who is just as sly as she is. When a con goes wrong and sends her into the desert to escape, she finds herself thrust into a world of magical creatures and places. She is immersed in the political turmoil that has been stewing for centuries in mythical Daevabad, the City of Brass. This is a trilogy with an additional novel of short stories.
This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi
Mafi’s unfinished trilogy is a “prince and the pauper” version of Persian-Arab mythology with a long-lost princess and a prince instantly enamored with someone beneath his station. Prophesies, politics, and romance are sure to keep you entertained as you read this series.
Read more folktale articles here.