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A Thousand and One Nights: Arabian Story-telling in World Literature

(The following is a post by Muhannad Salhi, Arab World Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

An unparalleled monument to the ageless art of story-telling, the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights have, for many centuries, titillated the imaginations of generations the world over. Perhaps one of the greatest Arabic, Middle Eastern, and Islamic contributions to world literature, the many stories of the Arabian Nights, (or Alf Laylah wa-Laylah as it is known in Arabic) in their various forms and genres, have influenced literature, music, art, and cinema, and continue to do so until our present day. Whether through its folktales, its magical stories full of adventure, or through its modern depictions as Hollywood feature films or Disney animated movies, almost everyone has been influenced to some extent by at least one or another of Shahrazad’s dazzling Arabian stories of the exotic East. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone not familiar with the stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba, or Sindbad among many others, or with such terms as genie and ghoul, all of which became known to the West through the tales of One Thousand and One Nights.

The Arabian nights. Courier Company. Buffalo, N.Y. : Courier Lith. Co., [1888] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The One Thousand and One Nights, or the Arabian Nights, as it is also known, is constructed as a “frame story” to which all the other tales are subsequently added. The tales themselves come in a very wide variety of genres, including fables, adventures, mysteries, love-stories, dramas, comedies, tragedies, horror stories, poems, burlesque, and erotica. Very simply put, the frame story itself is one of a king, King Shahrayar, who has been betrayed by his wife, and who is off commiserating with his brother, King Shahzaman, who had suffered a similar fate himself. On their journey, they encounter a beautiful woman who is being held captive by the most fearsome genie. The woman threatens to awaken the genie and thus incur certain death upon them, unless they have sexual relations with her. This encounter reinforces King Shahrayar’s loathing of women and confirms his paranoia that women are simply not to be trusted. While his brother simply swears off women completely, our main protagonist, Shahrayar has a more shockingly sinister plan in mind. He rides off back to his kingdom, and swears that he will wed every eligible bride in the land, only to have her executed the next morning before she has had a chance to cuckold him. As might be expected, the king soon runs out of brides to marry, and his grand vizier’s daughter, Shahrazad, who is well-known for her penchant for story-telling, decides to take it upon herself to marry the king despite the vehement protests of her father. Shahrazad, however, has a plan herself : at a certain point every night, she has her young sister Dunyazad come to the royal quarters and urge the new queen to entertain the King and her with one of her famous stories. Shahrazad then puts her talent to good use, beginning a tale every night, but never ending it before daybreak, thus leaving the King enthralled, and willing to spare her life one more night so he can find out what happens with the story. Hence, whenever she finishes a tale — never at daybreak — Shahrazad is sure to start another equally captivating tale, which will go on for another night or so. This continues for one thousand and one nights, until finally, the King is cured of his paranoia and decides he wants keep his queen forever after.

Shahrazad and Shahrayar in “The thousand and one nights, commonly called, in England, the Arabian nights’ entertainments.” A new translation from the Arabic, with copious notes. By Edward William Lane, 1889.

As has been previously mentioned, the tales themselves combine many genres, and draw from the very rich heritage and folkloric tradition of the entire Middle Eastern region. The stories combine the magical, the mystical, and the mythical, with the real and the historical. Some of the main protagonists in the tales, for example, are the famous Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid and his Grand Vizier Ja’far Barmaki, as well as the famous poet Abu al-Nuwwas, in addition to genies, ghouls, and mythical giant birds such as the Ruk. It is worth noting, however, that due to the folkloric nature of the tales, the Arabian Nights were often considered plebian rather than high literature. Furthermore, because some of the stories contain explicit sexuality and sexual innuendo, as well as bawdy language, and themes not acceptable by polite society, they were also deemed quite vulgar.

The Arabian nights entertainments; with illustrations. Chicago, New York, Rand, McNally & company [c1914]

There are in fact several layers of the tales, the earliest manuscript tradition originating in 9th century Baghdad, followed by a Syrian manuscript tradition, and an Egyptian manuscript tradition, not to mention the various oral traditions. The tales were written by different hands and seem to have accrued over the centuries, drawing from the cultural traditions of the Middle East, as well as from those of the various regions with which the Middle East had been in contact through trade, travel, invasions, or war, over the centuries. As a result, the tales themselves contain elements from Persia, India, Greece, Turkey, Central Asia, in addition to references to the Mongol invasions, the Crusades, among others. The tales were then Arabized and adapted for a Middle Eastern and Islamic audience.

Up until the Europeans became captivated with these magical tales of the Orient, the tales remained part of these manuscript and oral traditions. Nor were there exactly one thousand and one nights prior to the European translations, the number itself may have been either a means of exaggeration to portray the “many” nights, or perhaps even a mystical symbol denoting a particular cycle of events. The first complete translation was done by Antoine Galland into French in the early 18th century, later, many European translations would follow in various languages, including English, French, German, and practically every other language, the most well-known being Sir Richard Burton’s 16 volume, “The Thousand Nights and a Night” in 1885-1888.

The Bulaq edition of the Arabian Nights. African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress.

The first, definitive, complete printed edition in Arabic was published by the Bulaq Press in Cairo in 1835. Printed by the “first Muslim printing press in the Arab world,” the Bulaq edition constitutes “the last decisive act in the textual history.” (Glass/Roper, “The Printing of Arabic Books in the Arab World”, in “Middle Eastern Languages and Print Revolution,” 2002, p.183.) All modern translations and editions to this day are based on this corpus published by the Bulaq Press. According to Arabian Night’s scholar Ulrich Marzolph, it was this edition that “put an end to the development of the work’s Arabic text” after a thousand years of oral and manuscript tradition during which the corpus was continually subject to change (Marzolph, “The Arabian Nights in transnational perspective,” 2007, p.51). While the Library of Congress has a large number of translations and editions of the Arabian Nights in its collections in a variety of languages, it is worth noting that a copy of this definitive Bulaq edition of the Arabian Nights was recently acquired and added to the collection and may be accessed in the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room.

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