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Gritty reboots of classic stories have become a cliché in American culture lately. But they’re nothing new. Historian Colette Colligan explains how British Victorian writer Sir Richard Francis Burton revisited a story that was already a classic considered suitable for children: the Arabian Nights.

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Colligan describes Burton as a traveler, anthropologist, translator, and “committed imperialist” with a fascination for Arab culture. He published his translations of the familiar stories, in volumes formally titled The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night and Supplemental Nights, between 1885 and 1887.

Unlike other translations that had been available in English for decades, Burton’s version was full of coarse language and depictions of sexual violence. But what most set it apart were the footnotes. In them, Burton claimed to offer a “panorama of Eastern Life,” describing in anthropological terms the supposed sexual practices he had learned about in his travels. At one point he detailed alleged differences in genital size among African, Arab, and European men, writing that he had measured the penis of a particularly well-endowed man in “Somali-land” and adding that “In my time no honest hindi Moslem would take his womenfolk to Zanzibar on account of the huge attractions and enormous temptations there are thereby offered to them.”

Colligan writes that the term “pornography” first appeared in English in 1850, but it was only with the publication of Burton’s Arabian Nights that it became the subject of a public debate. (Previous discussions of obscene material used more general terms like “erotic,” “forbidden,” or “curious.”) From the start, the question of what was and wasn’t pornographic hinged on how the English should view their own sexual norms in relation to the rest of the world.

Burton defended the book’s sexual content by contrasting what he presented as Arab straightforwardness about sex with English hypocrisy, arguing that suggestive writing is more seductive than the “raw word.” He also insisted that the book was aimed at students of Arab and Muslim societies and suggested this would be of political value to the nation.

“How his notes on topics such as castration or condoms might serve England’s imperial interests he never elucidates,” Colligan writes, “but implies that sexual knowledge about the Arabs could potentially advance the English imperial cause.”

One of the fiercest critics of the book was the Pall Mall Gazette, a widely read penny weekly. Its writer John Morley argued that the Arab origins of the text made it particularly unworthy of publication. Readers have reason to face the “foul quagmires” of obscene European literature, he admitted, but then asked, “Is there any reason why we should laboriously import the gigantic muck heaps of other races… and charge a high price for the privilege of wallowing in them? I think not.”

Other writers debated whether England’s reputation for prudery was something to overcome or a reflection of its highly civilized culture. Ultimately, Colligan writes, Burton’s Arabian Nights, and the hubbub around it, “discloses more about English sexual preoccupation than it does about Arab sexuality.”

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Victorian Review, Vol. 28, No. 2 (2002), pp. 31–64
The Johns Hopkins University Press