The sequence of tales called in Arabic Alf Layla wa Layla was introduced to European readers by way of Antoine Galland’s enormously popular twelve-volume edition of Les mille et une nuits (1704-17). English translations of portions of Galland’s edition appear as early as 1706, and tales designated as belonging to the Arabian Nights circulated in close to one hundred separate editions published in Great Britain before 1800, all of them derived in some way from Galland. Galland had drawn from numerous sources—oral, manuscript, and print—and the provenance of many of the tales he translated was murky at best. The first efforts to produce a definitive Arabic edition of Alf Layla wa Layla date to the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Lane presented his edition as the first in English to be based on the recent Arabic editions rather than on Galland. Lane also took the unconventional view that The Arabian Nights were to be read not for their literary or entertainment value but for the historical and ethnographic light they throw on Arabic, specifically Egyptian, “life and customs and manners.” His copious and often quite lengthy annotations of the tales and his modernized system of transliteration, as well as his unapologetic pedantry, impressed and alienated his first readers in about equal measure.
For Borges, the vastness of The Arabian Nights made it not just unnecessary to read but also, in a literal sense, impossible. “The Arabs say that no one can read [it] to the end. Not for reasons of boredom: one feels the book is infinite” (“Thousand” 50). There is an implicit joke here, one that is relevant to the bewilderingly complex publication history of the tales. No one can read to the end of this book because the end has yet to be located. A definitive text of The Arabian Nights has never been established. Every compiler or editor has included stories labeled spurious by others while expunging tales elsewhere accepted as canonical. Establishing the text of The Arabian Nights was among the primary goals Edward William Lane (1801-1876) set for the translation he published, first in monthly installments and then in three bound volumes between 1838 and 1841. For most readers today, one source of the fascination The Arabian Nights exerts is precisely that, as Marina Warner puts it, the book has “no settled shape or length, no fixed table of contents, no definitive birthplace or linguistic origin” (7). Lane, by contrast, sought definitively to settle its shape and fully to elucidate its origins and purposes.
Even more conspicuous to his first readers was Lane’s fervent wish to supplant the long- and widely-beloved English translations of The Arabian Nights derived from Antoine Galland’s early eighteenth-century French edition. As Saree Makdisi and Felicity Nussbaum have recently noted, for eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century readers The Arabian Nights “offered a particularly powerful vision of an Asiatic culture saturated with references to sensuality, extravagance, indulgence, violence, supernaturalism, and eroticism” (4): heady stuff. It was clear to Lane’s readers that he was offering a quite different perspective. To grasp Lane’s motivations and his methods, as well as the responses they provoked, we first need to turn briefly to Galland and the history of the tales’ circulation in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The arrival of The Arabian Nights in the West is more or less coterminous with the rise of modern Orientalism. The work’s first European translator, Antoine Galland (1646-1715), spent the better part of twenty years traveling throughout Turkey and the Levant, first in government service and then as purchaser of rarities and antiquities on behalf of wealthy collectors, including Louis XIV. He also wrote widely on Islamic culture, in addition to producing numerous translations from Arabic. (In 1710 he published the first translation into French of the Qur’an.) Resettled in Paris in 1692, he assisted Bartlémy d’Herbelot in compiling the over 8,000 entries of that central pillar of French Orientalism, the Bibliothèque orientale, eventually taking over the work after the death of d’Herbelot in 1695 and overseeing its publication two years later.
In the late 1690s Galland acquired an Arabic manuscript, now lost, containing a version of the seven voyages of Sindbad the Sailor. His 1701 translation proved an immediate success. Galland next arranged to have sent to him from Syria the four volumes of a manuscript titled Alf Layla wa Layla (The Thousand Nights and a Night), which had been assembled in Egypt in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. As it turned out—this was Galland’s good fortune rather than the result of any design on his part—he lighted on volumes containing, apart from a single tenth-century fragment, the oldest known surviving manuscript of the story of Shahrazad and her nightly recitations. Working from it, but also including material gathered from other sources (including the manuscript containing the voyages of Sindbad), and almost certainly writing some bits himself, Galland published seven volumes of Les mille et une nuits between 1704 and 1706. The material in the Alf Layla wa Layla was by then exhausted, but Galland’s publisher, loathe to abandon a lucrative enterprise, issued without Galland’s approval an eighth volume containing three tales translated from supposedly authentic sources by Francois Pétis de la Croix along with a tale from yet another source that Galland had earlier published separately.
Four more volumes of Les milles et une nuits were published under Galland’s name between 1709 and 1717. His primary source was now a Syrian Maronite Christian from Aleppo named Hanna Diab, who was introduced to Galland during a visit to France in 1709. Some of the tales Hanna passed on in the form of transcripts from documents in his possession. In the majority of cases, though, Hanna simply told stories from memory while Galland made notes. Since many of these notes survive, we know that Galland freely embellished or altered the tales as he wrote them, in some cases interpolating material taken from other sources. Among the stories Hanna recited were “Aladdin; or, the Wonderful Lamp” and “The Story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” Neither of the tales appears in any Arabic manuscript known to have existed prior to the late eighteenth century, and it is now generally accepted that these late-century versions are in fact translations into Arabic from Galland’s edition. It is thus a fruitful irony that three figures—Sindbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba—closely associated with The Arabian Nights in the imaginations of Western readers were in all likelihood never a part of the Alf Layla wa Layla story cycle. Since the early nineteenth century, this fact has caused problems for conscientious editors of The Arabian Nights. A commitment to historical accuracy sits uneasily with the recognition of the cultural and literary significance of what are now referred to as “orphan” tales.
English translations from Galland appear as early as 1706. Compilations of stories under the headings “Arabian Nights’ Entertainments” or “The Thousand and One Nights” were a Grub Street cottage industry throughout the eighteenth century. Galland’s twelve volumes usually provided the core of such editions, though stories, sketches, and descriptive accounts of places and people were gathered from a wide variety of printed sources, or else invented for the occasion. Until quite late in the century, no one felt the need to consult Arabic sources. More or less the same situation obtained in other European languages. Hundreds of editions of The Arabian Nights circulated in Europe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, all of them based ultimately on Galland. Any European born before the middle of the nineteenth century, and quite a few born after that, encountered The Arabian Nights in versions indebted to his original French translations.
Galland had considered those translations as ancillary to his more serious work on the Bibliothèque orientale and related projects. A century and a quarter later, Edward William Lane likewise considered his edition of The Arabian Nights as supplementary to his more legitimate scholarly work on Egypt and the Arabic world. Unlike Galland, Lane had neither the temperament nor the financial wherewithal of a collector. His interests were instead historical and ethnographic. An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), the fruit of his extensive travels in the region of the Nile in 1825-1828 and 1833-1836, secured Lane’s reputation in England. Large sections of the book had been culled from his unpublished Description of Egypt, 300,000 words of miscellaneous observation, description, and speculation pertaining to Egyptian history, geography, manners, culture, politics, and language. (Lane, trained as an engraver, produced over one hundred illustrations for the volume as well.) As he worked on The Arabian Nights, Lane mined his earlier manuscript extensively for the edition’s most remarked-upon feature: its detailed, wide-ranging, and often extraordinarily lengthy explanatory notes.
Lane’s edition appeared at the crest of a generation-long effort to establish the text of The Arabian Nights on a scholarly basis. Widen the view a bit, and it is clear that this edition is an exemplary instance of late-Romantic comparative philology and ethnography. Lane’s work was made possible by the appearance of the first modern Arabic editions of Alf Layla wa Layla, the Calcutta (1814-1818), Breslau (1825-1843), and Bulaq (1835) editions, so-called for their respective cities of publication in India, Germany, and Egypt. A second, much expanded edition of the Calcutta text appeared in 1839-1842, thus overlapping Lane’s three volumes. None of the four Arabic editions passes muster with modern textual critics—neither does Lane’s—but together they provided stimulus for fresh translations of the tales: translations, that is, not derived from Galland. Lane drew on the Calcutta, Breslau, and especially the Bulaq (which by virtue of much padding and some ingenious segmentation was the first edition in which the tales were made to stretch over a thousand and one nights) in assembling his own bulky yet still inevitably eclectic edition.
Lane had little use for, and even less patience with, Galland’s edition. Large stretches of his “Translator’s Preface” are devoted to enumerating his predecessor’s shortcomings as a translator and his consequent distortions of the source material. Lane’s slighting dismissal of “the version which has so long amused us” (vii) signals his desire to lift the tales out of the realm of mere entertainment, where they had so long resided. For Lane, “what is most valuable in the original work” is “its minute accuracy with respect to those peculiarities which distinguish the Arabs from every other nation, not only of the West, but also of the East” (viii). It had long been the most banal of commonplaces to claim that The Arabian Nights provided a “window on the East,” but this is not what Lane means. Virtually alone among readers, then or since, Lane believed that The Arabian Nights in its Bulaq version was the work of a single author who lived around 1500, most likely in Cairo. While many of the tales are “doubtless of an older origin,” they were all “remodelled, so as to become pictures of the state of manners which existed among the Arabs, and especially among those of Egypt,” in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries (xiii-xiv). Lane asserts not only that The Arabian Nights is, rather than a miscellany, instead the product of a single shaping intelligence, but that it therefore provides an accurate, detailed, and thoroughly consistent account of Cairene life. For Lane, The Arabian Nights is to be valued for the abundant and precise documentary evidence it gives of the manners and customs and material life of Egypt. Since, in Lane’s view, those manners and customs and that material life had remained more or less unchanged since at least the sixteenth century, The Arabian Nights was more than merely an historical record.
“Galland invoked an invisible manuscript and a dead Maronite,” writes Borges, whereas “Lane furnishes editions and page numbers” (“Translators” 95). The scholarly sobriety of Lane’s edition, its unapologetic dryasdustiness, served to mute much of the exoticism that had always been one of the collection’s primary attractions for English readers. (As for its eroticism, Lane expurgated every trace.) As Edward Said has pointed out, Lane’s work overall runs counter to the main current of early Victorian responses to the Orient. “For the cultivated Englishman, Islam and Arabian lore generally represented values, experiences, mores, and tendencies that were . . . quickly assimilable to a feverish imagination or by a capacity for elaborate fantasy” (World 272). Not so Lane: there is little of the feverish or the fanciful to be found in his responses to Islam or to Arabic culture. He may for instance be interested in Egyptian techniques of carpet weaving; that some carpets are depicted as flying is for him irrelevant. Said notes that Lane’s work as an Orientalist “belonged at first . . . to the world of useful culture” (270). This is certainly the case with his edition of The Arabian Nights. It comes as no surprise to learn that the edition was published by Charles Knight & Co. Knight’s long association with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and with such ventures as the Penny Magazine and the Penny Cyclopedia made his firm an eminently suitable conduit for Lane’s work. To bring the edition within financial reach of its intended audience, it was first issued in monthly installments before being made available in bound volumes.
In his autobiography, Passages of a Working Life (1865), Knight claims that while some “desultory readers” found Lane’s edition “repellant,” “it was soon discovered that no other ‘Arabian Nights’ would meet the wants of those who really desired to understand Oriental customs and forms of speech, and was worthy of admiration of educated persons” (258). Readerly admiration and repugnance alike centered on Lane’s copious annotations. In Lane’s view, The Arabian Nights provided accounts of Egyptian life of unsurpassed richness and detail, but the tales’ value was largely hidden from a reading public unacquainted with the realities of Arabic culture. Lane set out to remedy that situation. Writing of his Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Said notes that the book’s distinguishing feature is “sheer, overpowering, monumental description,” since Lane’s “objective is to make Egypt and the Egyptians totally visible, to keep nothing hidden from his reader, to deliver the Egyptians without depth, in swollen detail” (Orientalism 162). The same objectives, Said goes on to say, governed his approach to elucidating The Arabian Nights. Borges was not fond of Lane’s edition, but there is something undeniably Borgesian about the annotations, which can be prompted by virtually anything at all in the text—“cloves, graveyards, gypsum, chess, hippopotami, laws of inheritance, perspiration, polygamy, rubbish tips, and much, much more,” to borrow Robert Irwin’s representative list (24)—and which, in their spiraling proliferation, seem perpetually on the verge of announcing the exhilarating hopelessness of the task at hand: to say literally everything there is to say about Egyptian life and customs and manners. Scholars such as Tarek Shamma have usefully situated Lane’s work within an “ethnographic” tradition of British writing on the Middle East. Despite his pretensions to scientific objectivity, however, what the specifics of Lane’s practice reveal most clearly are precisely his fantasies of total knowledge. For Lane, each detail is potentially the key to unlock the inner meanings of Egyptian life. As Shamma points out, Lane’s commitment to ethnographic method led him to treat The Arabian Nights “as no less than a microcosm of the entire world of the East—its people, culture, ‘mentality,’ and social institutions” (29).
Lane’s edition polarized Victorian readers. For every reviewer who praised it for lifting the tales out of the realm of mere romantic fiction, there was another who took Lane to task for his relentless efforts at disenchantment. In the view of his admirers, Lane had rescued the tales from the children’s bookshelf and revealed them as vital anthropological and historical documents. Walter Bagehot contrasted the utility of Lane’s edition for the educated adult reader with the “ineffacable character of uselessness” of translations derived from Galland. Even those that captured “the liveliness and spirit of [the] original” were designed not “to throw light on history, moral, nor manners, but to be read and to be found good reading” (45). For those who cherished the good reading to be found in those earlier editions, Lane’s primary achievement had been to crush imagination under the weight of pedantry. Not just Lane’s annotations, but his revised system of transliteration (adopted, he writes, “for the sake of uniformity as well as truth” [xix]) served to alienate readers who no longer recognized characters under their new appellations. In his story “The Ghost in Master B’s Room,” Dickens invokes “the good Caliph Haroun Alraschid” and then pauses to beg the reader to “let me have the corrupted name again for once, it is so scented with sweet memories!” (qtd. in Slater 141). Writing in 1859, Dickens is almost certainly alluding to the new edition of Lane’s Arabian Nights published the same year, where the name is rendered “Khaleefeh Hároon Er-Rasheed.” Many names and terms familiar to Victorian readers from long usage had disappeared or were heavily disguised under Lane’s new system. When in 1853 John Murray published an edition of Lane’s text, he removed all the notes and restored the old transliterations on the grounds that “the more modern (and undoubtedly more correct) spelling of Mr. Lane, was found to be too formidable an innovation for the adoption of English readers,” who “would more easily recognize their old friends Aladdin and Sindbad the Sailor, than Alá ed-Deen and Es-Sindbad of the Sea” (qtd. in Caracciolo 21). Lane’s disapproval was vehement, and the 1859 edition reinserted both the notes and the new spellings. “The present generation does not regard antiquated blunders as ‘the familiar names of childhood,’” the “Editor’s Preface” scolds, “but rather strives to attain accuracy in all things” (qtd in Caracciolo, 22).
Lane’s Arabian Nights never entirely displaced the many popular compilations rooted in Galland, which continued to circulate widely well into the next century. Lane’s edition is clearly a product of its early-Victorian moment. The kinds of questions he asked, not to mention the kinds of controversy he courted, align his project with the perhaps more familiar investigations into the historicity of the Bible or of Homeric texts, as well as with the intensified efforts during this period to establish reliable texts of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. It was not until the 1880s that the next attempts to produce a complete text of The Arabian Nights in English were undertaken. John Payne’s translation appeared in 1882-84, Richard Burton’s in 1885-88. Both were titled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, and both were explicitly offered as correctives to Lane. Payne sought to rescue the tales for literary as opposed to historical or philologic purposes. “The present translation being intended as a purely literary work, produced with the sole object of supplying the general body of cultivated readers with a . . . version of the most famous work of narrative fiction in existence,” Payne sees no need either for annotation or for “the various systems of transliteration . . . followed by modern scholars,” systems which in his view are “calculated only to annoy the reader of a work of imagination” (ix-x). Burton notoriously set out to restore, even to amplify, the erotic elements in the tales that Lane had so zealously expurgated. At the same time, he shared Lane’s inclination to mine the tales for their sociological data; shared, too, Lane’s passion for annotation on a colossal scale. Lane’s notes can look frugal to the point of stinginess next to Burton’s notes, appendices, and interpolated essays. His two interests come together in the 180,000 word “Terminal Essay,” with its extended discussions of pederasty, which concludes Burton’s edition (at least until he published another six supplementary volumes). That that essay is now better known—or at least more often cited by scholars—than the tales of The Arabian Nights themselves is a strange irony of recent literary history.
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
published September 2012
Arata, Stephen. “On E. W. Lane’s Edition of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1838.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].
Ahmed, Leila. Edward W. Lane: A Study of His Life and Works and of British Ideas of the Middle East in the Nineteenth Century. London: Longmans, 1978. Print.
Ali, Muhsin Jassim. Scheherazade in England: A Study of Nineteenth-Century English Criticism of the Arabian Nights. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1981. Print.
Bagehot, Walter. “The People of the Arabian Nights.” National Review 9.17 (1859): 44-71. Print.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Thousand and One Nights.” 1977. Seven Nights. Trans. Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 1984. 42-57. Print.
—. “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights. 1936. Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. Trans. Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger. New York: Viking, 1999. 92-109. Print.
Caracciolo, Peter L. “‘Such a Store House of Ingenious Fiction and of Splendid Imagery’.” The Arabian Nights in English Literature: Studies in the Reception of The Thousand and One Nights into British Culture.” Ed. Peter L. Caracciolo. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988. 1-80. Print.
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Hallam, Arthur Henry. “On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry, and on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson.” 1831. The Poems of Arthur Henry Hallam, Together with His Essay on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1893. 87-139. Print.
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—. “Alf Layla wa-Layla.” The Encyclopedia of Islam. Supplement. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1936. 17-21. Print.
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Warner, Marina. Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.
 That Hallam celebrates this poem at such length (he quotes its 154 lines in full and provides extensive commentary) says more about the intensity of his—and his culture’s—affection for The Arabian Nights than it does about the quality of Tennyson’s poem. His confident prediction is that “this poem will be the favourite among Mr. Tennyson’s admirers” (111).
 The textual situation today remains as interesting and fluid as ever. A recent renewal of scholarly attention to The Arabian Nights has coincided with the publication of multiple new editions over the past two decades. Each draws on different source materials. Husain Haddawy’s edition for W.W. Norton (1990) is based on the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript established by the Iraqi scholar Muhsin Mahdi as the oldest extent text of the tales. Robert Mack’s edition for Oxford (1995) reprints the most widely-known eighteenth-century English translation of Antoine Galland’s seminal French edition of 1704-1717. In 2001, Modern Library Classics reprinted Sir Richard Burton’s 1885-88 translation, which Burton based on an Arabic edition published in Calcutta in 1839-42. Malcolm Lyons draws on the same Calcutta edition for his 2008 translation for Penguin (a translation as unlike Burton’s as could be), though he restores some materials left out by Burton while also removing material Burton included. As we will see, Lane drew on yet another set of textual sources for his edition.
 For the sake of consistency, throughout this essay I refer to the tales collectively as The Arabian Nights. They have of course appeared under a number of other titles as well, most frequently The Thousand and One Nights (or A Thousand Nights and a Night) and Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. The title page of Lane’s edition reads The Thousand and One Nights, commonly called, in England, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.
 On Galland, see Macdonald, “Bibliographical” and “Alf Layla wa-Layla”; Mack, xiii-xvii; Irwin, 9-41.
 Lane thought there was evidence for Sindbad’s authenticity, so he included it, but he rejected both Aladdin and Ali Baba—one of several features of his edition that upset many of his first readers.
 On eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century translations from Galland, see Gerhardt, 65-114; Irwin, 9-41; Knipp; Hanford; Shaw; Macdonald, “Bibliographical.”
 On Lane, see Ahmed; Said, Orientalism, 157-66.
 Lucid accounts of the four major Arabic editions published between 1814 and 1842 and the manuscript sources they derive from can be found in Macdonald, “Bibliographical”; Haddawy, xi-xv; Irwin, 42-102.
 “I have thought it right to omit such tales, anecdotes, &c., as are comparatively uninteresting or on any account objectionable” (xvii). Lane’s criteria for what counted as objectionable were quite strict and had invariably to do with sexual matters. His expurgations were extensive, though never marked in the edition itself. The “comparatively uninteresting” material (the objectionable material being, one infers, not uninteresting but too interesting) included nearly all the poetry in the original as well as “the tedious interruptions . . . at the close of each Night” (xviii) which bring us back to the frame narrative of Shahrazad’s nocturnal storytelling.
 As was Lane’s earlier Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.
 For Said, Lane’s approach is a conspicuous instantiation of the West’s will to power in relation to “the Orient.” Tarek Shamma (one of the few recent critics to consider Lane) takes a more positive view, calling him “the one scholar who did most to turn English Orientalism from disparate, often highly subjective, impressions and pronouncements into an objective, methodical, and in his case ostensibly impersonal, field of study” (20). That “ostensibly” is important, of course, though Shamma’s view of Lane is in most respects affirming.
 On the early reception of Lane’s edition, see Ahmed, 141-52; Ali, 91-115.