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The Arabian Nightmare

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  541 ratings  ·  52 reviews
The hero and guiding force of this epic fantasy is an insomniac young man who, unable to sleep, guides the reader through the narrow streets of Cairo-a mysterious city full of deceit and trickery. He narrates a complex tangle of dreams and imaginings that describe an atmosphere constantly shifting between sumptuously learned orientalism, erotic adventure, and dry humor. ...more
Paperback, 282 pages
Published April 30th 2002 by Harry N. Abrams (first published 1983)
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Average rating 3.84  · 
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Jack Tripper
(Updated/1/25/17 with cover and interior illustrations)
Here's the cover of the 1987 Viking (UK) hardback I have (282 pages). The US Viking hardcover has the same art as that of the Penguin paperback shown up top.

For years Id put off reading The Arabian Nightmare, waiting for the right time, as Id been under the impression that it was a rather complex and laborious read. This wasnt the case at all. To my surprise, it was actually a page-turner for me, despite the dream-like (or nightmare-like)
Dec 03, 2008 rated it liked it
so i started reading this on the subway sitting next to a man who was (somehow) simultaneously reading and humming. who does that?? so by the time i got to work i realized i hadnt absorbed anything because i was so distracted by hummy. so i started over. and it made more sense this time, but it was tainted by having to be restarted. and then life intervened and i put it down for a few days and lost the plot(s) - not a great idea. this review is a mess. bottom line - its my own damn fault i ...more
Vit Babenco
May 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
The Arabian Nightmare is magic realism and postmodernism rolled into one exotically splendid nightmare.
The world is all made of one substance; it will suffice to examine any portion of it thoroughly.
Reality, dreams, tales: in what relations are they among themselves?
each dream carries within its womb another dream. It is the interior image of infinity.
The protagonist arrives in Cairo, there he starts dreaming phantasmagoric dreams and then he turns into a character in the storytellers tale and
Jul 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to S̶e̶a̶n̶ by: Jordan West
Every visitor finds it difficult to leave Cairo. It unfolds itself like a story that will never end.
The line between dreaming and waking life dissolves in this elegant riff on One Thousand and One Nights. Set in Cairo amid institutions such as the House of Sleep and the Invisible College of Sleep Teachers, and filled with djinns, talking apes, leprous knights, and magicians of questionable repute, it is one of the most compelling novels I've read that traverses the borderlands of the
Feb 01, 2013 rated it liked it
A tall-tale in the telling that manages to be playful, inventive, and lingeringly creepy, in no small part due to a combination of the exotic settinga Cairo drowsing under medieval Muslim rule as related by an insomniac and peripatetic Christian narrator, with the decanted desert dust and labyrinthine city warrens a mixing bowl for the esoteric, philosophic, erotic, and phantasmagoricand the vivid occult and matryoshkal imagination of the author. With the simultaneously roguish and sinister ...more
Dec 15, 2007 rated it it was amazing
A specimen of narrative trickery like Calvinos If on a winters night a traveler; but mixing the obfuscation with ghoulish horror brings this more along the lines of Potockis. The Mauscript Found in Saragossa (which is referenced in the book, or Machens Three Imposters. Set in a 15th century Cairo that is turned into a oneiric labryinth, when a young Christian traveler (and spie) falls down the rabbit hole of the titular event (or not ). Endlessly switching narratives and states of reality keeps ...more
Oct 11, 2007 rated it did not like it
Shelves: fiction
One of the few books that I was simply unable to finish. I really tried to read and hopefully enjoy it, but it became a nightmare for me. I just couldn't get to a point where I even cared about Balian. I read almost half of the book, hoping something would hook me and keep me interested in the story, but it was as if I were slogging through a literary sand storm, unable to make headway and possibly endangering my life. So I gave up and returned to the reading oasis.
Mikhail Novoselov
Oh boy, this one is outstanding beyond words; never-ending sequence of dreams and nightmares interwoven with amazing sights of medieval Egypt and then with even more dreams and visions.

Magic realism at its finest.
Bill Hsu
Oct 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Not my usual cup of tea, but it's quite the collection of outrageous inventions:
Melsemuth was an automaton, a seven-foot-high brass doll powered with springs and coils. The condemned would be strapped to the doll, leg to leg, chest to chest, arm to arm. Then the doll, wound up, would begin its funny clockwork dance. The gestures and kicks would get wilder and wilder. Finally as the coils were running down, Melsemuth would garotte its dancing partner and stop.

And I totally agree with this:
Susan Rose
Plot: I cant really summarise the plot because of how many stories run into each other and involve the same characters this makes any summary a little bit pointless. However a really short introduction to the narrative is that a traveler arrives in Cairo only to be taken in by this unknowable force which is a cross between lucid dreaming and drug fueled fantasies known as The Arabian Nightmare.

Structure: Dreamlike, story within a story.

What I liked: The structure the vivid language and the
Aug 31, 2014 rated it liked it
I'd been meaning to read this for a long time. When I first began to read some stranger fiction - the first time I discovered the Dedalus imprint, I think - I saw The Arabian Nightmare recommended highly. It's one of those books which has attained cult status - and pretty reasonably, too, given that it's part sex manual, part spy story, part meditation on dreams and part talking-animal tale, all wrapped in the patterned carpets of Orientalism and stuffed inside a shaggy dog.

I suspect it's one
Mathew Downward
Jun 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Ive read a lot of books which have tried a similarly postmodern approach a historical backdrop, dreams versus reality, narrators inside & out but none half as good as this.

Its all in the House of Sleep: wet dreams, talking apes, phantom, serial-killing daughter-whores, & yes, a fervid & terrifying Orientalism based in & around the Arabian Nights.

It also makes good use of one of my favourite literary effects: the fusion of terror & humour. Read it and weep while
May 27, 2008 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this book a lot, although it took two attempts to finish it. It's an insightful book about a sleep disorder called The Arabian Nightmare. It uses The Arabian Nights convention of story-telling, except that rather have a story-within-a-story, it has stories-within-dreams which are contained in other dreams. I think that the premise was better than what the book actually delivered, but it's entertaining and very exotic.
Steve Cran
Feb 14, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Set in the era of 1406, Cairo Egypt, it is an intriguing time to be in the Middle East. European powers are watching events closely much like they do today and they are sending spies and emissaries to gather information. You also have your share of traveling merchants and religious pilgrims. Balian, from England is one such individual. Under the guise of being a pilgrim, he goes to Cairo in hope of taking a pilgrimage to Saint Catherines Monastery in the Sinai desert. Gathering information and ...more
Roy Kenagy
Oct 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: done-2018
A comic romp through 19th century Cairo, cleverly disguised as a Kafkaesque take on One Thousand and One Nights, and culminating in a running gag about an innocent gull, a deadly riddle, and a talking ape who woos and occasionally wins a beautiful young woman in a hidden garden.
1st Arrow
the plot was exciting, yet the second half of the book became too boring especially in a long line of confusing storytellings. could hardly make it till the end.

Labhaoise Seoighe
wow just wow. I'm rendered speechless after finishing this book.
Tim Hicks
Jun 12, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: fantasy, historical
I should have known better when I saw "magic realism" and "post-modern."
I hate that stuff.
Did Not Finish.

I read enough to recognize the formula.
You read a book about Egypt. Get some excellent paintings.
Then you drop some acid and start dictating.

You present a plausible framework, then start telling an anecdote, and a third of the way in you make up something random, proceed as if it were perfectly normal, and carry on describing a person who may or may not be hallucinating, interacting with
Jan 17, 2020 rated it it was ok
Although Robert Irwin knows HOW to write, he doesn't have a clue about WHAT to write. Apparently inspired by A Thousand and One Nights, he has made a messy, pointless, ultimately boring mishmash of a book set in Cairo hundreds of years ago.

The illustrations are quite lovely, made in the nineteenth century.

Aug 31, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Like listening to somebody recount their dreams. I gave up on it.
David Coker (Gentry)
Feb 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful storytelling! Tales within tales within tales weave a labyrinth of mystery and mysticism filled with interesting characters and timeless wisdom. Probably the greatest novel I've read by a living author. Highly recommended!
Alex Sarll
A European visitor to Mamluke Cairo finds himself ensorcelled, plunging through a series of dreams and waking nightmares (the boundary is seldom clear) in which certain motifs - an ape and a woman, two imprisoned princesses, a child raised by beasts - recur like symptoms of a fever. Is he suffering from the notorious Arabian Nightmare, or only dreaming that he is, and what's the difference anyway? Meanwhile, the narrator holds our hand, even as the characters criticise him for his digressions ...more
Jim Leckband
Apr 29, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Fans of: Nabokov, Calvino, 1001 Arabian Nights, Dreams
For a long time when I awoke I didn't remember my dreams. And then my shins started furiously itching, and then I got a muscle twitch in my hamstring that went on for 36 hours straight, and then I couldn't sleep at all, drowning in my itching, twitching nightmare.

For those of you who are physicians, you might notice these symptoms. I had a severe electrolyte deficiency. I took several electrolyte replacement pills and all was well in a few hours. Okay, fine story, but what's this got to do with
"Every visitor will find it hard to leave Cairo. It unfolds itself like a story that will never end."

In June 1486, the Englishman Balian, a pilgrim on his way to the monastery of Saint-Catherine in Sinai, arrives in Cairo hoping to obtain a transit visa from the Ma...meluke authorities and with a secret mission from the French court to spy on their decaying forces. However, on his very first night, Balian is afflicted by a strange sleep condition which he is told is the Arabian Nightmare.
Seán Higgins
Aug 02, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I sleep a great deal. If it was an Olympic event, I'd have won any number of medals at this point in my life. Robert Irwin knows sleeping! In The Arabian Nightmare, Irwin takes us through "Cairo -- that is, Babylon, the Great Whore, the many-gated city" as we follow Balian of Norwich (1486) in his endeavor to reach the shrine of St. Catherine. In short order we find that Balian is being paid as a spy for the French, seeking 'intel' on the Mameluke Dynasty and, very soon, he is overcome with "The ...more
Jan 28, 2016 rated it it was ok
I have a weird relationship with this book. On the one hand, it is well-written, a very effective dream book. On the other hand, it is the most frustrating book I have ever read, because it is such an effective dream book. I sort of threw it down the stairs at the end.
The reason I say it is so effective is that in this case, you literally never know what was dream and what was reality after the first chapter or so, because the main character is apparently dying of a mysterious illness called the
May 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 5010-list
This is utterly, utterly brilliant - I read it for the first time in 1993, and have read it many times since: once a year, or whenever I feel in need of a lift.

Irwin evokes medieval Cairo beautifully, and the use of stories within stories within stories not only mirrors medieval Arabic literature perfectly, but also is heavily reminiscent of the oral tradition in Arabic story-telling: this is much more akin, for example, to an English translation of a serialised tale told by a storyteller in
Jun 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Oh wow, an incredible story.

A story of a young man from England on a pilgrimage to St. Catherine's in Egypt. Se in the fourteenth century, the pilgrims base themselves in Cairo for six months, while undertaking religious vows. The young man, named Balian, gets lost in Cairo but not in the physical sense. This book is about dreams within dreams, and tales within tales.

I won't go on, as not to reveal too much of it. Read it however, you will not regret it. Even more so if you are an avid dreamer
Mar 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
This reading took longer than I like. The story was not as gripping as I had hoped, not as glitteringly philosophic as others claimed. It was not, I found, an Escher maze of words. I could not grasp the book until Chapter 14, when Irwin stopped monkeying around and began to push toward some conclusion. I know an Egyptian woman who always shares my complaints of lifelong insomnia and i'll see if she can quarter this dream.
Aug 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
Picked this up randomly from a used-book bin, and am so glad I did. Some may be frustrated by the levels and layers of story, reality, and dreams in this novel, but even if that bugs you, it is worth wading through for the many philosophical explorations of the nature of dreams, of belief, and most of all, of narrative and storytelling. I will almost certainly re-read this, and take notes the second time through.
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Robert Irwin was born in 1946. He read Modern History at Oxford and taught Medieval History at the University of St Andrews. He also lectured on Arabic and Middle Eastern History at the universities of London, Cambridge and Oxford. He is the commissioning editor for the TLS for The Middle East and writes for a number of newspapers and journals in the UK and the USA.

Robert Irwin goes rollerblading

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