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Arabian NightsMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
My early childhood hero had a name I was not able to pronounce. He used to wander at night, incognito, in the backstreets of a city of dreamlike beauty in the company of a trusted friend and counselor, listening to the common folk's opinions and complaints and using what he learned to set wrongs to right.
Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood held no interest or charm for me; what I wanted were more stories of Harun al-Rashid and his magical Baghdad.
For me, as for countless Europeans and Americans since the early 18th century, "The Arabian Nights" offered the first glimpse of a totally different world, one where the wondrous and the magical mixed seamlessly with the common occurrences of everyday life and an old rug or a tarnished oil lamp could all of a sudden reveal themselves to be objects of great power and totally different nature.
…Just like the book itself.
"The Arabian Nights" for us is almost the archetypal fairy tale book, strongly linked to similar European collections like Grimm brothers' one (1) or Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose. The original work, though, was everything but a book written for children.
The Book of Thousand and One Nights (Kitāb 'Alf Layla wa-Layla in Arabic, Hazār-o Yak Šab in Persian) is a composite book. Scholars divide its stories in three main groups:
1) Persian stories with Indian influences, first written down in the 10th century.
2) Stories from Baghdad, written in between the 10th and the 12th century.
3) Stories from Egypt, between the eleventh and the 14th century.
The model and frame-tale were borrowed by the Persian A Thousand Myths, where we already find a disillusioned Caliph who each morning has his wife of one day executed, until he is convinced to relent by the smart daughter of his vizier.
The frame tale itself and a core of eleven stories (who, sadly are not explicitly named in my sources) are present in all the surviving manuscripts of the Nights.
Most of the tales included in the Nights had been going around in written form for centuries, before being composed in a single, organic work in the late 13th century, either in Syria or in Egypt. This original work, now lost, is the single source from which all existing manuscripts (the earliest dating to the 14th century) derive.
The manuscripts differ widely in number and scope of the tales. They could be divided into two branches: the Syrian one: the nearest to the original work and the more "conservative" and cautious in adding new, later material, and the Egyptian one: wider and more open to the addition of other folk tales, almost, it seems, with the aim of really covering the one thousand and one nights of the title (2). It is important to note that, to date, there is no single version of the work universally recognized as the paradigm, and all are more or less equally legitimate.
The popularity of the Nights in the Islamic world was not equaled by recognition of its literary value, as in other traditions (China comes to mind) popular tales, even collected and re-written by literati were definitely looked down as a somewhat questionable pastime, not worthy to share a shelf with serious prose.
In the Islamic world, fiction, fantasy, and romance were commonly the realm of poetry that had a rich history going back to pre-Islamic times. Prose was usually either didactic or religious. As such, writing fiction in a literary form usually reserved to instructional works was constructed by the strictly religious as akin to lying.
That's why the One Thousand and One Nights has been defined by one scholar as: the expression of the lay and secular imagination of the East in revolt against the austere erudition and religious zeal of Oriental literature generally. (3)
And a wild imagination it was. The structure is convoluted, the hero of a story often narrating another of his own, that brings to yet a different one. The subject matters are many: stories of powerful demons, talismans protecting a hero, wondrous quests, tales of transformations, often tinged with strong erotic imagery and pederastic allusions.
The Arabian Nights arrived in Europe, thanks to a French Orientalist, Antoine Galland, at the beginning of the 18th century (4). His "translation" (in truth more of an adaptation), was based on the Syrian text of the 14th century, with the addition of some folktales not present in the manuscript that Galland had heard from Youhenna Diab, a Maronite storyteller, in Aleppo. Ironically, among the added materials there were some of the tales most readily associated in modern readers' minds with the Arabian Nights: Aladdin and the Wondrous Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
The best known English translation of the Nights is that by Sir Richard Francis Burton printed in 1885. This ten-volume work was not edited or censored, but circumvented the strict Victorian laws on obscene materials because it was made available by subscription and not to the general public, Burton's translation is nowadays easily found as HTMLed text on the web.
Many other editions preceded and followed Burton's, many adapted or rewritten for children, not to mention the spurious works passing off as authentic material. Somewhat surprisingly, no scholarly edition of the One Thousand and One Nights was written until 1984. It was written in Arabic by Muhsin Mahdi, using the fourteenth century manuscript on which Galland had based his work. Husain Haddawy's English translation of Mahdi's book is considered by many to be the best available.
No matter in which of its many incarnations, The One Thousand and One Nights has inspired countless writers over the centuries, from Poe to Tennyson from Mahfouz to Borges. I would not be surprised if, in a thousand years' time, on some faraway colony planet, children and adults alike would sit, transfixed by a reader's voice intoning : "Now it happened in the reign of the mighty Caliph…"
(1) The Grimm’s work, although later published in a smaller edition aimed at children, was the result of their academic research on folklore, at the time an important and rather new field of particular interest for linguistic studies.
(2) The number was simply a way of saying "a great many".
(3) N.A. Dawood as quoted in http://www.northern.edu/hastingw/arabnights.htm. The Arabian Nights has often been banned in Islamic countries, most recently in Egypt in 1989.
(4) The first volume was published in 1704.
Said narrates his adventures to Harun al Rashid and his vizier Jafar.
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