The Mystery of Abu Hassan's Fart

One of my prized possessions is a complete set of Richard Burton’s The Arabian Nights with Supplemental Nights. It’s an unexpurgated translation of the original 1001 nights, published at the height of the Victorian age. (Burton also founded the Kama Shastra Society, which published translations of ancient erotic classics, such as The Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden – powerful stuff, and proof that the Victorians were all as stuffy as we’ve been lead to believe.) The most interesting things are vthe footnotes, which frequently take up more space on the page than the clear text they seek to comment on, giving interesting asides on Eastern Culture.

In any event, the stories are considerably more bawdy than you’ve been lead to believe. One of them concerns the Historic Fart of Abu Hassan. You can read a synopsis of the story here:

Here’s the full Burton translation (scroll down to 135) – The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night/Volume 5 - Wikisource, the free online library

I was surprised to learn, years after I first read Burton’s translation, that he is not highly regarded, and that more recent translations are preferred. There’s a book of selected tales from the Nights published by Penguin Books. It’s translated by N.J. Dawood (whose translation of the Koran is also published by Penguin),. Dawood states in the introduction why he doesn’t like the Burton translation, and produced his own. Among the tales included is The Historic Fart. In fact, it’s also in the audiobook version of the Dawood translation.

A lot of people have referred to this story through the years. It’s cited by Wikipedia
( Flatulence humor - Wikipedia )

So I was very surprised when I read Robert Irwin’s book The Arabian Nights: A Companion (Penguin, 1994), p. 34

How can this be? Would Burton have falsified his translation in such a blatant way? And if Burton is the source of it, how did the story come to be in Dawood’s translation? Dawood hated Burton’s translation, and he would surely have gone back to the original. If he didn’t find it there, surely he wouldn’t have included it in his own anthology – an anthology of highlights from the 1001 Nights. (And, for the record, the version Dawood prints is not identical to Burton’s.)

Furthermore, Dawood isn’t the only one to include it in his edition. It appears in the Arabian Nights translation by Powys Mathers, who translated into English the French translation of J.C. Mardrus. Did Mardrus copy from Burton, or did Mathers do it? Or is the story, in fact, in some Arabic original?

The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia by Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen (ABC/CLIO 2004, Volume 1, p. 68) agrees that there is no Arabic original, but says that the story resembles an Arabic original, The Story of the Qadi who Bore a Babe from the Wortley-Montague manuscript of the Nights (and included on page 332 in the Encyclopedia). (This story, I note, strongly resembles an Ozark folktale related by folklorist Vance Randolph in his book Pissing in the Snow. Folktales, as you should by now have gathered, can be pretty vulgar.)

Other scholars agree that there’s no Arabic original, one of them suggesting that Dawood simply like the story in Burton, took Burton’s version, and retold it. That seems like a breach of faith by yet another translator. Besides, that leaves open the question of why Mardros/Mathers tell the same story.

The story is popular – people like fart humor. If you look it up online you’ll find retellings and recordings and even a stage version. But is it original? And if it isn’t, why is it in at least three (and possibly more) translations?

While I don’t personally agree, the Master talked about a fart joke in Moby Dick even.

I have this version:

It brings to mind the story of the Earl of Oxford and his embarrassment before Queen Elizabeth I.

When the Earl made a low obeisance to the Queen, he happened to let go a fart, at which he was so ashamed that he left the country for 7 years…


Indeed, as your source indicates, this is the very story told by Aubrey that Robert Irwin referred to

Yes, point is that the story is false.

It was told by Aubrey a century later. There’s no contemporary evidence of it whatsoever, and Aubrey doesn’t give his source for the story.

Elizabethans were not the kind people to ignore a story like that if it had really happened, and Oxford had plenty of enemies.

It was probably an ‘urban myth’ story that was circulating in Aubrey’s time, and got attached to a prominent figure of the past. It may have been told to him as true, and he simply repeated it without evidence. Aubrey’s Brief Lives are highly gossipy and salacious.

Life imitates fart.

All too often, sadly

That story was done as a National Lampoon comic. I seem to recall the fart sound as being “Brump!”

It has been fashionable for many decades for scholars to make a living out of disproving the authenticity of older texts and to declare the writers of yore as frauds. By doing so, such scholars exhibit an an only limited understanding of the ancient world and a very limited imagination.
There was in the ancient world traffic along the trade routes over land and sea. Ancient items have been found in places far far away from their place of origin, and, of course, not only physical objects travelled but stories. So the same story may have gone from, say, Egypt along North Africa, to appear in Europe via Spain or Italy or Greece, and the Egyptians themselves may have received the story from the East, which story may have travelled along several routes from the mother of all civilisation, India, to arrive to Europe via Russia and the routes over land and sea between many points in Asia and Europe, and have gone north to China and South East Asia. Even in India, there would also have been several versions of the story, found in the many kingdoms of that land, in every case with a different name and location and maybe different details (as is the case with modern retellings of the tale today). Even the tales of the Grimm Brothers have been shown to have their origin in India (as well as something as Chinese as acupuncture).
There is no credible reason to believe that RFBurton didn’t hear the story of Abu Hasan’s fart on his many travels in the Middle East and Arabia. He probably even heard several versions of it. And to suggest that he would take an originally European story and turn it into an Arab one is simply spurious. For one, it wasn’t as if he didn’t have more material than he could handle. For two, in the ancient world, the transmission of texts was almost exclusively oral, which means it’s absurd and self-serving for modern scholars to pontificate about their ‘recent research’ – such research into orally trasmitted texts must necessarily be more speculative than scientific. And if one wants to show what a clever scholar one is, what easier way than to ‘prove’ that earlier scholars were frauds? And then years later ‘new research’ disproves the earlier ‘new research’ and the scholars laugh all the way to the bank.
RFBurton translated a huge number of Arabian tales, put in an almost superhuman effort to make sure everything was explained, and to accuse him of making things up says more about the accuser than Mr Burton. I spent years studying some ancient Indian texts and no thing did I find more tiresome and pretentious than modern scholars with their ‘This looks like a later addition’ and their general distrust of the ancient scholars – nothing less than arrogance.
Even in modern history (incl. recent history) scholars are not sure who said what, and anyone more than 30 years old will have that experience among friends and family.

Well, there’s the answer to your question, @CalMeacham . Some people are so convinced that the Old Scholars got it right, that they wouldn’t dare question them, and so assume that there must have been some Arabic original, even if they can’t find any other trace of it.

Although I welcome **guest2’**s contribution, it does seem a bit long to state what Chronos could sum up in a couple of lines.

If you haven’t been on this Board long, you might not have encountered the abbreviation “tldr”, meaning “too long; didn’t read” Confronted with a large block of text not broken down into paragraphs, many readers will simply bail and not try to read it.

One should make an attempt to present one’s thoughts and arguments succintly, and in a reader-friendly fashion, as I’ve tried to do here.

In any event, I have problems with the suggested solution. In the first place, the Alf Laylah Wa Laylah is a translation from a written-down text (actually a number of texts, in two main traditions) that is over a thousand years old. Inserting an oral tale not in the written tradition would be frowned upon. At the least an author would make a footnote about it. And would probably include it, if at all, at the end of the collection. Burton, in fact did both of these practices – with other stories. He had six volumes of “supplemental nights” made up of “Arabian Nights”-like stories not in the canonical collections (and including, interestingly, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp). And Burton is the King of Footnotes. In his edition of the 1001 Nights, his footnotes frequently take up more space on the page than the original text, despite being in smaller type. But his story of the Historic Fart is neither in the Supplemental Nights, and has no footnote explaining that it is an oral tradition.

Furthermore, the story is included in translations (like the Penguin translation by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons) by people who loathed Burton’s mock-classical style. They certainly wouldn’t have included a spurious tale that he either invented or brought in from the oral tradition. Its presence suggests the existence of an Arabic original (I can’t see the Lyons simply taking Burton’s florid tale and stripping off the fake Elizabethanisms) , yet some scholars claim that such an original doesn’t exist.

I’m not familiar enough with the originals, and can’t read Arabic, anyway, so I still don’t know the answer.

Salman Rushdie told a variant of the tale of a nobleman breaking wind while bowing low before a ruler, then fleeing the country in shame, in The Satanic Verses. The punchline of his version was that, when the man returned incognito many years later, and was talking to a merchant about what had happened while he’d been gone, the merchant offhandedly dated something as having occurred “four years after Sheik Abdul farted in front of the Emperor.”

That would indeed show that Rushdie was familiar with the story, but doesn’t clear up the mystery of whether Burton was responsible for it, or if it was indeed in some text of the Nights.