Old stories

The Arabic suite of One Thousand And One Nights hasn’t grown old. A miniature illustration by the Persian artist Abu’l-Hasan Khan Ghaffari Kashani, also known as Sani ol Molk ((1814–1866).

The oldest stories tell fundamental truths. Under the varnish of lost civilisations, the inaccessible language, the strange furniture, the world’s earliest narratives are also the most enduring. Why do we still talk about Homer, why does the Aeneid still matter? Why are the 1001 Nights 100% cool in our time? Certainly because others before us have read them, but why are we still drawn to them, even when they seem to belong to worlds long dead and buried?

It is fascinating when you think that in cultures where the handing down of a story to the next generations seemed so fragile and unassured, texts still made it down to us. It’s true, there are stories that haven’t, and that is a great loss for which there should be an International annual celebration. I call for the International Day for Lamenting the Extinct Story. A mausoleum for the unknown text which perished on the battlefields of textual transmission, like the tomb of the Unknown Soldier celebrated nearly everywhere.

But those that made it should equally be honoured, and many and still are. There is a crisis of visibility for the ancient worlds, but there are many already leading beautiful battles in unlikely places to restore the lost fragrance of the distant past. So I will only lament the unknown stories, not the ones that many today fear are threatened with extinction. In regard to those, I salute those whose indefatigable pens are reeds through which they breathe new life into old bones.

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