Claudia Ott: "'The Hundred and One Nights'" and 'The Thousand and One Nights' were contemporaneous with one another, the one probably better known in the west, the other in the east of the Arabian world."
Interview with Claudia Ott – A New Chapter in the History of Arab Literature
An almost 800-year-old manuscript is shedding new light on one of the hidden jewels of Arabic literature. Orientalist and translator Claudia Ott recently identified the oldest known manuscript of “The One Hundred and One Nights”. She talked to Loay Mudhoon about it
Just a few days ago you found what is probably the earliest manuscript of “101 Nights”. Can you tell us how this discovery came about?
Claudia Ott: In March this year, I was lucky enough to be invited as a musician to play at the opening of the “Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum” exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin. After the first rush was over and I had a little time to wander through the exhibition, a manuscript in a glass cabinet with art objects from Andalusia caught my eye. It was some distance away from the other manuscript treasures on show, such as the “Blue Koran” with its gold script on a lapis lazuli background.
It was written in red ink and in a very old Maghreb style of writing. It read: “kitâb fîhi hadîth mi’at layla wa-layla” – the book with the story of one hundred and one nights – I could hardly believe my eyes. Luckily, through my job as musician, I had got to know the exhibition curator, Benoît Junod, and got his permission, when the exhibition was over, to take a look at the colophon and other details of the manuscript’s production.
What is it that is so important about this discovery?
Claudia Ott: The colophon provides a date for the manuscript of 632, which is equivalent to 1234 or 1235 by our calendar. The colophon, however, does not belong directly to “101 Nights”, but to a geography book that is bound into the same volume, and which is probably written by the same person. The ending to “101 Nights” itself is missing, which makes the whole thing more intriguing and tantalizing.
The text takes us only as far as the 85th night. So the manuscript fragment actually does not have a colophon of its own. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has announced that it is going to carry out a scientific examination of the paper and binding. If it turns out that the same writer was responsible for both books then it will prove that this manuscript of “101 Nights” is more than 500 years older than the currently oldest extant manuscript. The writing style indicates that the manuscript came from the Maghreb region of North Africa, or from Andalusia. This manuscript could be exactly the key that scholars have long hoped to find.
Read more of this interesting find at the source: http://www.qantara.de/