Chapter Six: On Arabian Nights & Gender Equality Intersections

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

  • Familiarity with story collections, a form of Near East literature with medieval
  • Textual analysis of frame and embedded narratives found throughout the Arabian Nights
  • Identifying theme and its role in several embedded stories, especially on gender equality
  • Critical writing exercises enhance close reading, analysis, and ‘ecocritical’ approaches.

Color painting of a woman dressed in a robe holding a tree in her left handpainting of old man on the left facing a crowd of five people gathering under a dome structure.Two discolored pages of a manuscript in Arabic scriptBlack and white illustration of a caged bird on the left facing four people on the right at a dinner table

1915 Parrish’s art (left), 1220 1001 Nights storyteller, (center), 1300s Oldest Manuscript, & 1915 Bird Tells Truth (right) CC

Introduction to Chapter Six

One Thousand and One Nights is the world’s most well-known collection of stories. Current Persian and Arabic scholars recognize the literary merits of this tome of popular stories, poems, and songs “as a narrative, cultural, and historical document” (Seale 2021) of collected fantastic and wondrous stories. As embedded fables, these imaginative fables are framed by Shahrazad, its principal female storyteller.

As a whole collection, One Thousand and One Nights is culturally diverse with origins from oral traditions that come together in an intertext of stories. Traditionally, there is no one version alike.

…the hybrid character of the Nights, many of whose tales belong to a complex web of tradition. This web extends from the Buddhist Far East to the Christian West, and draws on a large variety of traditions, including (Buddhist) Indian, (Zoroastrian) Persian, (Muslim) Arabic and Jewish narrative traditions. In this way, the Nights both originate from a multiplicity of origins and in turn have passed on their legacy to a large variety of narratives worldwide. (Marzolph 6)

Recent studies highlight the collection’s origins and influences from ancient India, African city states, and China. Many tales in this story collection represent medieval Arabic literature that blend pre-Islamic tales with popular urban stories for entertainment. Scholars today translate the Nights to recover its Eastern legacies and undo misrepresentations like translations from Western orientalism. These efforts inspire 21st century readers with inquiries about the role of storytelling and the role of readers and interpreters.

Among Victorian translators, there was an underlying perception of the Nights as the domain of the explorer, adventurer, and anthropologist, and its content was treated as evidence of particular Islamic virtues or as heroic tales to be rendered with appropriate masculine vigor. Despite the fact that the sprawling Arabic story collection contains numerous formidable female characters, Victorian translators routinely cut or undercut tales featuring women or female characters. (Seale lxiii)

One Thousand and One Nights also represents the dynamic trade routes and the urban coffeehouse surrounding Baghdad, as well as Cairo’s storytelling cultures dating back centuries. In the West, the fantastic stories from the Nights greatly influenced European literature, especially after the 1702 French translation, which is based on the 1300s manuscript and new stories by a Syrian storyteller.

Published as The Arabian Nights, this version of One Thousand and One Nights includes new stories by Hanna Diyab, a Syrian storyteller. He retold unknown stories like Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor. Since 1702, new European editions and translations of the Nights have influenced the imaginative works of Voltaire, Dickens, Charlotte Brontë to James Joyce and Edgar Allan Poe to Jorgen Luis Borges and Wole Soyinka, to name a few.

On the Legacy of 1001 Night among other Well-Known Story Collections

The earliest known Arabic manuscript of 1001 Nights dates back to the 1300s, at a time when Eastern knowledge thrived throughout the Islamic world.

“Arabic became an essential language for human knowledge in the medieval centuries during the bright period of the Islamic civilization, when Muslim scholars vastly contributed to knowledge and science in many fields: algebra, geography, medicine, social sciences, astronomy and many more” (OER Pressbooks on Arabic Culture & Language).

The way that the Arabian Nights traveled throughout Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa to medieval Europe, and was finally translated into French by 1702, was initiated with the founding of Baghdad, where, “One of the first libraries in the world was created by Assyrian king Ashurbanipal” (Puchner 108). Our modern-day access to this compilation of stories is demonstrated by an inclusive dynamic definition of ‘culture’. For example, the editor and translator of a recent 2021 publication of 1001 Nights show concerted efforts to include numerous cultures, whose members have contributed to this story collection. Dr. Martin Puchner underscores such inclusive collaborations that participated in the story collection of 1001 Nights and later the French translation titled Arabian Nights:

Translation was an act of homage on the part of the new Arab rulers, but it was also a canny move that allowed them to tap into the cultural resources of the conquered region. Soon, translations from Persian became the building blocks for new Arabic literature, above all, One Thousand and One Nights, which would eclipse its much smaller Persian antecedent and become a classic of world literature. Along the way, it immortalized al-Ma’mun’s father, Harun al-Rashid, who appears in many of the stories that are set in Baghdad. (Puchner 2023)

Prior to the first European translation by Antonio Galland in 1702, medieval Europeans also knew about the stories – as witnessed by the frame narratives in the works by Boccaccio and Chaucer. Renaissance dramatists William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Miguel de Cervantes also allude to the Nights.

English literary historians claim that from Samuel Johnson through Dickens, ‘hardly a writer of note’ failed to ‘hint at, or mention, somewhere or other, the recollected pleasure of reading the Nights in childhood.’ Indeed, by the early nineteenth century, the inspirational presence of the stories of the Arabian Nights became itself a standard literary trope. (Seale 2021)

On the One Thousand and One Nights as Europe’s the Arabian Nights

Before the 1702 French translation of the Nights, its stories that traveled through North and West Africa and the Middle East reached Europe and influenced the story compilations of Boccaccio and later Chaucer, especially in their own use of a frame narrative. Boccaccio and Chaucer seem attracted to these stories, possibly because of their mostly non-religious content and alternative representations of gender, unlike the misogynistic morals of the medieval romance, a common theme that feminist Christine de Pizan addresses directly in the late 1300s and early 1400s.

In these stories, the usual religious themes are conspicuously absent, with the authors using magic to explain how the husbands discover the trysts. By omitting the divisive religious element, the Nights’ original story takes on a neutral element, allowing Chaucer to appropriate it for the moral, rather than religious, goal. This moral, which is present in many of the stories derived from the Nights, is “there is no such thing as a faithful woman. (Irwin 99)

Overall, the collection absorbed oral storytelling traditions that spanned from the 900s to 1300s C.E. with an array of genres from fantastic voyages to trickster tales and from heroic epics to animal fables and devotional literature to urban mysteries and horror stories about ghouls and flesh-eating female figures. “The Arabian Nights today offers readers a bewildering array of tale genres that foreshadow all the styles that define storytelling today – suspense, horror, crime, fantasy, adventure, romance’ (Horta xxi). Throughout the years, poetry was inserted that reflects classical verse in Arabic, of about 1,420 poems. The poems address love, grief, beauty, folk wisdom, and some help to advance the plot of a tale.

On the Story Cycle and Embedded Narrative

Most of us in the West may know the collection of stories as the Arabian Nights. This means it has been brought down to us from older Arabic texts known in the East as One Thousand and One Nights to Europe and translated as The Arabian Nights. Since the 800s C.E,, the stories affiliated with the Nights have one definite feature in common – its frame narrative and a few early story cycles of aja’ib – tales of marvels, wonders and astonishing things, including:

  • “The Merchant and the Jinni,”
  • “The Fisherman and the Jinni,”
  • “The Porter and the Three Women of Baghdad,”
  • “The Hunchback,”
  • “The Three Apples.”

These stories are stories within stories that are part of the frame narrative. Their characterizations echo back to King Shahriyár and Shahrazad in the frame narrative and serve as exemplary tales. “These techniques of embedding narrative made it easy to incorporate new stories that employed similar themes, plots, motifs, or character types as the collection was remade by new storytellers and editors”(xxiii). One motif is its representation of magic.

In secular storytelling – like folklore – in place of the gods that actively manipulate the plot and outcomes, the role of ‘magic’ is emphasized. For example, to highlight characters on higher moral ground, magic plays the role of the leveler. Stories that rely on magic are widely integrated in popular literary traditions. Today’s Marvel Comics and its film adaptations come to mind, and the 2023 film release Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Characters transform to represent the common good through magic.

What are Examples of Frame Narratives?

An earlier known collection of stories with stories within a frame narrative is the ancient Indian collection Panchatantra. It may have influenced the frame narrative of the Thousand and One Nights. By the 800s C.E., this collection was translated into Arabic. The stories represent different cultures throughout the Middle East, including Cairo, Egypt where “stories of Shahrazad were circulating in Arabic under the title Alf Layla wa-Layla, or One Thousand and One Nights.

The central story of Thousand and One Nights is a frame narrative about two brothers who ruled India and China. The frame narrative begins with their discovery of the infidelity of each other’s wives. In response, King Shahriyár, who is the most powerful of the two brothers, goes on a quest to avenge their injustices on every woman he marries. He decides to kill a new wife the morning after their wedding night. His kingdom endures Shahriyár’s indiscriminate vengeance. Then Shahrazad, the daughter of a trusted vizier of the king, tells her father that she will volunteer to visit King Shahryár in order to dissuade him from murdering more women. This initiates her role as the principle storyteller of the frame narrative. Incidentally, a French publication of the Nights has King Shahyiyár renounce his murderous claims at the end of the collection of stories. One interpretative phenomenon known as orientalism is traced back to Gallant’s 1702 French translation of the Nights. Misrepresentations of the East coincided with European colonialism and British imperialism.

The 2011 current Broadway production of Disney’s 1992 film Aladdin shows our continued enthusiasm for the Nights to this day. Director George Miller’s 2022 film Three Thousand Years of Longing features the struggles of a jinn to gain and hold onto his own liberty, which is the heart of its theme – forms of social injustices and the problematics of political power.

The ‘retelling’ of its stories across ages, continents, oceans, languages, and time since it was first known in 800 C.E. Akkad also emphasizes an approach to literary studies for students of literature; retold versions are part of the legacy and culture that has allowed One Thousand and One Nights to continue in one form or another.

One might study syntax and structure and use of language and all manner of literary devices, but this is one thing, this magnetic thing, when it happens, is a distillation of all that is joyful about storytelling. Anyone who as a child stayed up past bedtime with a flashlight and a paperback under the covers, anyone who’s ever sat by the campfire waiting on the climax of a good ghost story, anyone who has been made to momentarily cast the real world lose in favor of a fictional one knows this feeling intimately (xv).

The childhood memory of romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge also shows us the profound impact Arabian Nights has had for European romantic writers. In one of his letters, Coleridge tells of his intrigue reading the stories that kept him up all night.

“I would seize it, carry it by the wall and bask and read. My father found out the effect which these books had produced – and burnt them.”

Scholars have noted that since the 1702 translation of the Arabian Nights, its tales of wonder and the imagination has made – and continues to have – an impact as a new form of storytelling that is unconventional and frees itself from any confines like religious doctrines or official political norms.

“In an age that increasingly placed values of science above the power of the imagination, the tales of the Nights liberated writers from the constraints of plausibility” (Horta xlii).

On the frame and embedded tales of One Thousand and One Nights

In the frame narrative of One Thousand and One Nights, Shahrazad tells a story every night to enchant and deter King Shahryár, who threatens her life and the lives of the young women throughout the kingdom. The King’s pledge of retributive justice follows his wife’s infidelity. The stories Shahrazad tells overlap, with stories within stories. And, several of them address the dynamics between people who are limited by their own short-sighted emotional state of mind, which clouds better judgment. A few of these embedded fables allude to the situation Shahrazad faces in its frame narrative.

The tale “The Story of the Fisherman and the Jinn” is told by Shahrazad. She presents a fisherman who innocently liberates a jinn who cannot contain his own anger toward anyone due to his imprisonment.

But presently there came forth from the jar a smoke which spired heavenward into ether (whereat he again marveled with mighty marvel), and which trailed along earth’s surface till presently, having reached its full height, the thick vapor condensed, and became an Ifrit huge of bulk, whose crest touched the clouds while his feet were on the ground. His head was as a dome, his hands like pitchforks, his legs long as masts, and his mouth big as a cave. His teeth were like large stones, his nostrils ewers, his eyes two lamps, and his look was fierce and lowering. OER Pressbooks on “1001 Nights”

In this story a fisherman sets a jinn free only to experience the jinn’s wrath. The angry jinn suffered imprisonment and has vowed to kill anyone who releases him.

“Ask of me only what mode of death thou wilt die, and by what manner of slaughter shall I slay thee.” Rejoined the Fisherman, “What is my crime and wherefore such retribution?”

Since the jinn refuses mercy, the Fisherman resolves to outsmart him through cunning — the telling of a tale. The Fisherman’s tale ends by thematically circling back to Shahrazad when he shows the jinn honored and rewarded acts of mercy. The conflict between King Shahryar and Shahrazad of the frame narrative is alluded to by the Fisherman’s embedded narrative. Like the jinn, the King also confuses acts of kindness with injustices.

In anticipation to hear how the story ends, King Shahryár allows Shahrazad to tell her tale the following night. Throughout the One Thousand and One Nights, tyrannous figures are repeatedly shown alternatives to short-sighted fits of anger that have the potential to lead to acts of violence.

On Orientalism and its Prevalence in the Arabian Nights?

According to Palestinian postcolonial scholar Edward Said in Orientalism (1978), since early European colonialism in the East, representations and understandings of its people reflect Western fears of what is seen as ‘foreign’ while they enforced efforts to dominate the East. He argues that orientalism was a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Harlow, Carter 1999). We can go to literary works – including adaptations in animation – to witness and learn about this colonial phenomenon, and a practice that leads to misrepresenting the cultures of the East and resembles Western ideological trends of ‘othering’ social groups and nature.

Coincidently, the oldest surviving feature film in animation is also an adaptation of The Arabian Nights. The 1926 German film The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger represents motifs from Aladdin through European expressions of orientalism.

For example, witness how the stills from the film misrepresent ‘orientalize’ – the East. View a still from Reiniger’s 1926 film below. Then, try to identify characteristics in a still image that either limit an understanding of Eastern cultural norms or simply reduce them to stereotypes through caricature characterizations. OER “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”

Blue silhouette of three people holding hands in tropical water scene"Die Abendteurer des Prinzen Achmed"The figures are in black and the backdrop / setting is in orange. Clothing includes turban, long features projecting from the headssilhuettfilmen Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1923–1926)

Pari Banu (left), title card, and two more silhouette stills, Lotte Reinger’s 1926 silent film The Adventures of Prince Achmed CC

The characterization of Eastern peoples are figures in shadows in black with a solid blue, orange, and yellow background. The silhouettes illustrate clothing associated with cultures of the East – characters with featured turbans which identify male figures. Their postures tell a story of how they dance and engage in a sort of ‘harem’ indoors, as the females remain in shadows (see still with orange background). This one example demonstrates visions of orientalism that became the ‘norm’ in the motion picture industry – stereotypes such as the male figures living in excess and leisure.

Edward Said’s postmodern interpretive theory of orientalism challenges us to identify such constructions and to avoid blatant, disingenuous misrepresentations. This line of analysis also supports our learning of more representational depictions in an effort to minimize cultural biases and uphold the rich and vast culture of The Arabian Nights. Ultimately what scholars of orientalism demonstrate by these expressions of the West misrepresenting the East are examples of popular construction that perpetuate racialized constructions in film.

As noted earlier, the West has absorbed the storytelling cultures of the East, like The One Thousand and One Nights through a 1702 French-language publication titled The Arabian Nights. Hence, the West absorbs the cultural norms of the East while paradoxically treating these cultures as ‘other’ or inferior. These sorts of paradoxes are rich in meaning and worthy of a literary study to explore new ways to value literature without dishonoring the culturally rich and storytelling traditions of its origins and cultures. Additionally, ecocriticism of orientalism reveals themes that pertain to sustainability.

How does the Arabian Nights Address Sustainability?

An interpretation of how the West responded to Eastern literature may offer us insights on what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses in The Dangers of a Single Story, on the importance of authoring our own experiences, which contribute toward identity affirmation. For example in Vanity Fair (1848) by William Thackery, the protagonist as a boy would lie for hours under a tree with “his favorite copy” of The Arabian Nights. Its stories of adventure and imagined experiences act as an environment to avoid the rules imposed by adults.

Examples like this one tell us that those “attracted to these elements of the fantastic” in The Arabian Nights reveal European “issues of political oppression” (Seale 2021). The United Nations Sustainable Development Guidelines include topics on gender equality and justice (UNSDG Toolkit, Pressbooks). And, coincidently, themes on oppression are fundamental in The One Thousand and One Nights, expressed through frame narrative.

Key Points

  • One Thousand and One Nights is an example of a folkloric story collection
  • The history and collection of 1001 Nights is an example of intertext
  • A literary device that ties many the tales in 1001 Nights is the frame narrative
  • The embedded tales throughout 1001 Nights show its rich and complex scale
  • Western translations and cinematic adaptations of 1001 Nights are examples of orientalism
  • Ecocriticism reveals orientalism throughout The Nights

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