The Arabian Nightmare

Robert Irwin

Penguin 1983
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
Part of a caravan arriving in Cairo in 1486, the Englishman Balian is ostensibly a pilgrim heading for the shrine of St Catherine in the Sinai, but actually a spy. He has only just arrived when a Venetian painter he has travelled with is seized by the Sultan's guards, perhaps at the instigation of the mysterious English alchemist Vane. This could be the beginning of a historical mystery or thriller, but while The Arabian Nightmare has elements of both it is a phantasmagoric maze of dream and story that defies genre classification.

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.

May 2011

External links:
- buy from or
- share this review on Facebook or Twitter
Related reviews:
- Robert Irwin - Islamic Art: Art, Architecture and the Literary World
- books about Egypt + North Africa
- more historical fiction
%T The Arabian Nightmare
%A Irwin, Robert
%I Penguin
%D 1983
%O paperback
%G ISBN 014010030X
%P 282pp