Week 12: Thousand-and-One Nights

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Background Reading

Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have TWO PAGES of Background reading.

Alf-Layla-wa-Layla, "One Thousand Nights And (One) Night"

There are many versions of The Thousand and One Nights, which is best known in the West under the title Arabian Nights. The different editions share the same basic framework: the sly and beautiful woman, Scheherazade, manages to keep her husband the sultan from executing her because every night she tells him part of a story, but does not quite finish the story - so he has to keep her alive just one more night so that he can find out what happens. This is the frametale: Scheherazade telling stories to her husband, the sultan.

The inventory of stories that Scheherazade tells to the sultan is what varies from edition to edition. Some versions of the book are very short, while some are quite lengthy. As different editors transmitted the manuscript, they felt free to add more and more stories.

The first versions of the book probably were written in Persian (probably based on an even earlier Indian version), with the first Arabic translation dating to some time in the 9th century. Although this 9th-century manuscript has not survived, there is a manuscript fragment of the Nights which does seem to belong to the 9th century.

The Arabic historian Masudi, writing in the 10th century, referred to a book that he called A Thousand Nights (Alf layla). He said that the book was a collection of stories translated from Persian, Indian, and Greek sources, set in Baghdad. Masudi identifies what is probably the most fascinating feature of the Nights: it is a collection of stories from all over the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean worlds.

History and Fantasy in the Nights

In terms of their historical setting, many of the stories are said to take place during the reign of Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad. Harun actually appears as a character in the stories, as you will see next week when you read the Voyages of Sindbad. Harun was born in 764 and died in 809. The time of his rule in Baghdad (768-809) marked the height of what is called the "Abbasid" period of Arabic history (named for "Abbas," the uncle of Mohammad). Harun’s territory included southwest Asia and north Africa, and he conducted diplomacy with the emperor Charlemagne in the west and the Chinese emperor in the east. Harun's rule as the "Golden Age" of the Abbasid dynasty. Abbasid rule came to an end in 1258 when Baghdad was invaded and overthrown the Mongols led by Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan.

Yet even though the stories of the Nights are set in the 8th and 9th centuries, this is more historical fiction than historical fact. As Daniel Beaumont writes in the introduction to his book Slave of Desire: Sex, Love, and Death in the 1001 Nights:

Despite the antiquity of many of the plots in The Thousand and One Nights, the stories as we have them now seem to wear the garb of the late medieval period in the Arab-Islamic world, that is, the eras of the Mamluks and the Ottomans. Thus, stories about the Abbasid caliph Harun ar-Rashid, who ruled about six centuries before the Ottoman Turks established their power, may reflect popular notions about how a Turkish sultan lived in the fifteenth century rather more than they reflect such images of the way Harun lived six hundred years earlier.

The situation of the Nights is thus very similar to that of the medieval European story collection called the Gesta Romanorum ("Deeds of the Romans") in which the Roman emperors talk and look and act like European kings rather than ancient Roman rulers.

The Arabian Nights in France

The first European translation of the Nights was a French translation by Antoine Galland which was published in 1704 under the title Les Mille et une nuits, contes arabes traduits en français. Galland's book was enormously popular, and contributed greatly to the "Orientalism" that was such a strong force in European culture of both the 18th and 19th centuries. Orientalism is the term used to describe the fascinated interest of western European cultures for the cultures of the Middle East and Asia. As Edward Said explained in his book entitled Orientalism (first published in 1979), the "east" is a kind of imaginary other for the "west," the product of fantasies and projections, rather than actual knowledge of non-western cultures:

Thus a very large mass of writers, among who are poet, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, "mind," destiny, and so on. [...] The phenomenon of Orientalism as I study it here deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient [...] despite or beyond any corrsespondence, or lack thereof, with a "real" Orient.

The enormous popularity of Galland's translation of the 1001 Nights was a sign of Orientlism: Galland's stories fueled many of the fantasies that Europeans had of life in the exotic "Middle East" and other Oriental settings.

Galland based his translation on a manusript from Syria that probably dates to the 15th century (you can see a photograph of this manuscript online). Some of the most popular stories in Galland do not come from this manuscript, but were instead collected by him when he traveled in Syria. Some of the stories which Galland collected and transcribed in this way include the story of Aladdin and the story of Ali Baba and the forty thieves.

Another famous set of stories from the 1001 Nights is the seven voyages of Sindbad, which you will read next week. Like the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba, the stories connected with voyages of Sindbad were not part of the original Nights collection. Instead, the stories of Sindbad circulated in Persian manuscripts, and were then added to the Arabian Nights; it is not clear in what century the stories of Sindbad were added to the Nights.


Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM