After meeting the prostitute Zuleyka, Balian starts to have lucid dreams from which he wakes up with a bleeding nose. He finds himself hunted by the Master of Cats, an expert on sleep disorders who is in league with Vane, and ends up sleeping rough on the streets, leading fantastic adventures in his dreams. Looming over Cairo is the threat of the Arabian Nightmare, the sufferers of which experience dreams full of pain and terror that are completely forgotten on waking.
The storyteller Yoll — who is also, ostensibly, the narrator of The Arabian Nightmare, providing a brief first person introduction to each chapter — now comes to the fore. He tries to trap Balian, and indeed the entire novel, in a regress of nested stories, a One Thousand Nights and One Night. Eventually several characters lose their heads and the Sultan's chancellor seems to have resolved the plot...
A scholar of Arabic history and literature, Irwin animates his account of life in medieval Cairo. (This edition also has reproductions of sketches by David Roberts of 19th century Cairo, giving some feel for the appearance of the pre-modern city.) None of this is allowed to interfere with a good story, however, and despite the labyrinthine structure a good narrative drive is maintained throughout. The Arabian Nightmare is an unusual novel, but never off-puttingly so.
- Related reviews:
- Robert Irwin - Islamic Art: Art, Architecture and the Literary World
- books about Egypt + North Africa
- more historical fiction