The cohesive plot device concerns the efforts of Scheherezade, or Sheherazade, to keep her husband, King Shahryar (or Schriyar), from killing her by entertaining him with a tale a night for 1,001 nights. The best known of these stories are those of A...
One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. It is often known in English as the Arabian Nights, from the first English-language edition which rendered the title as The Arabian Nights' Entertainment.
The work was collected over many centuries by various authors, translators, and scholars across West, Central, and South Asia and North Africa. Some tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Greek, Jewish and Turkishfolklore and literature. In particular, many tales were originally folk stories from the Abbasid and Mamluk eras, while others, especially the frame story, are most probably drawn from the Pahlavi Persian work Hez?r Afs?n, which in turn relied partly on Indian elements.
What is common throughout all the editions of the Nights is the initial frame story of the ruler Shahry?r and his wife Scheherazade and the framing device incorporated throughout the tales themselves. The stories proceed from this original tale; some are framed within other tales, while others are self-contained. Some editions contain only a few hundred nights, while others include 1,001 or more. The bulk of the text is in prose, although verse is occasionally used for songs and riddles and to express heightened emotion. Most of the poems are single couplets or quatrains, although some are longer.
Some of the stories commonly associated with The Nights, in particular "Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp", "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", and "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor", were not part of The Nights in its original Arabic versions but were added to the collection by Antoine Galland and other European translators.
by Hanan al-Shaykh
As Sir Richard Burton well knew, the tales that Scheherazade spun in order to keep from having her sultan husband chop off her head were full of erotic moments, explicit and implicit alike. Denatured into fables for children, the tales of Ali Baba, magical caves, flying carpets and Sindbad the sailor lost any such erotic possibilities, which al-Shaykh very gamely restores with the unmistakable conjuring of “[t]he stick, the thing, the pigeon, the panther, the shish kebab, the cock” and dizzying tales of noblewomen ravished by African slaves—in short, the sort of things that ought to find these once-tame stories a whole new audience. It’s not just the sex, but also the sexual violence and mistrust that run like a swift current below the stories. Says one sorrowful shah to his brother early on, “I caught my wife in the arms of one of the kitchen boys in her quarters before I set out to come to you. My anger took control and I avenged myself by slaying both of them and hurling their bodies in a trench, like two dead cockroaches.” It would take an accomplished psychotherapist and dream interpreter to plumb the depths of what al-Shaykh reveals of the relations, as fraught as any in Faulkner, of cloistered women and fearful men and those ever-watchful black slaves. Yet some of what the Arabian storytellers unleashed on their audiences, if we are to trust these versions, is utterly unveiled, as when a young woman tells her sisters, “I have learned a lesson: there is little that is good in marriage.” Readers of a nostalgic bent will be pleased to discover Sindbad in these pages, though a different one from the Sindbad of their youth. As a storyteller reporting Sindbad’s very own account of his adventures relates, “at times I was so terrified that I nearly shat myself.”
A lovely book, and a wonderful revisiting of tales that, told once again, are meant to inspire—well, if not piety, at least more humane behavior toward our fellow adventurers.
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