The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One NightsThe Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights by Anonymous
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


“The Thousand and One Nights,” or “Alf Layla Wa Layla,” is often considered the archetypal narrative text, or the “Mother of All Narrative,” and this may well explain the universal scope of its appeal and enduring influence over the millennia as one of the central classics of World Literature.

Its origins and authorship are obscure, and its narrative matter most likely evolved and coalesced over centuries in various cultures of the Middle-East, including Indian, Persian, Egyptian, Mesopotanian, Arabic and other sources before being integrated into a masterful organic whole sometime during the Golden Age of Islamic Culture under the Abbasid Caliphate, and becoming publicly known and acknowledged sometime in the 12th Century. No single author of the work has been identified, and most likely it was edited into its present form in several stages, beginning with an Arabic adaptation of a looser prior Persian collection, the “Hazar Afsana” (Thousand Tales) into a more organic whole. What we know in the West as the 1001 Nights was also shaped by the translation and further editing by the foremost Western translator, the French Orientalist Jean Antoine Galland (1646-1715) who added additional tales from the Mid-East not included in the original Arabic version, most famously those of “Aladdin’s Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Theives.”

If the source material is diverse and multi-cultural, nonetheless the culminating integration of the Arabian Nights into a whole reflects the Arabic and Islamic worldview, with its philosophical and religious assumptions. The Islamic Caliphate in the wake of its amazing conquests from Spain to India was faced with the immensse task of handling and integrating dozens of diverse and ancient cultures while attempting to maintain the sources of its own internal cohesion, centered on the Koran and Hadith, in which it was only partly successful. “The Thousand and One Nights” thus constitutes in effect a mirror of the Islamic world, a melange composed of the peoples of a myriad of cultures and histories, and of Arabic culture’s ability to assimilate these varied strands of influence. The bulk of its stories center on the two great cultural centers of gravity in the Islamic world, Baghdad and Iraq on one side and Egypt on the other, and though one finds characters in the stories of Hebrew, Christian, Zoroastrian, Indian, Persian and even Chinese origin, characteristically one sees their conversion to Islam and never vice-versa.

The organic unity of the incredibly diverse tales and stories of the 1001 Nights lies in their rootedness and constant interplay with the ultimate frame story, that of the vizir’s daughter, Scheherezade, the narrator of the extended tales over the one-thousand and one nights, and her perpetually impending death at the hands of her husband, King Shahrayar. Thus the book opens with the account of the visit of the King’s brother, Shahzaman, who is grieved at having been forced to execute his wife for unfaithfulness, having discovered her in flagrante delicto with the palace cook. King Shahrayar then discovers his own wife, the Queen, engaging in orgies alongside her serving maids, with several black slaves disguised in women’s dress, and orders his vizir to execute all of them. Concluding in his grief that henceforth no woman can ever be trusted, he then adopts a brutal plan to marry a new wife every night and having slept with her, order the vizir to execute her at dawn each morning before she has the chance to make the King again a cuckold. This he continues each night and day until hundreds of brides have met their death and the kingdom is thrown into a universal horrified grief. Finally, the vizir’s own daughter, Scheherezade, asks her father the vizir to marry her to the King, come what may. Over her father’s objection she marries Shahrayar, sleeps with him, and with her expected execution looming, calls for her sister Dunyazade to join them in their last hours before daybreak. Dunyazade then asks Scheherezade to entertain the King and herself with her lively stories, and she does so, so entrancing the King with the beginning tale, cut short in a “cliff hanger” pause before its ending, that the King postpones her execution until the next night so that he can hear the continuation of the tale. With this “sword of Damocles” hanging over her head, Scheherezade then continues in the same way for each of the suceeding thousand nights, so entrancing the King and leaving him desirous of the continuation of the stories, which proliferate endlessly, that her execution is continually deferred.

The narrative thus works through the suspension of time by using storytelling to stop its flow, the suspension of time in turn enhancing the narritive in reciprocal circularity of effect. Within this circularity the continuous story develops through variations, echoes, and forward and backward references, rather than linear causal sequences. Each tale thus generates the kernels and seeds of further stories to come, and the overall unity of the work is generated from the interlinking and embeddedness of each story in the others. The stories thus are similar to the familiar nested “Russian Dolls” in which opening one doll one finds another, then another, ad infinitem.

The variety of the stories are legion and encompass almost every genre later to be elaborated in World Literature.


Exemplary instances of the crime or murder mystery and suspense thriller genres, associated with Wilkie Collins, Poe and Conan Doyle are found in abundance in the collection, with multiple plot twists and detective fiction elements, such as “The Three Apples.” In that tale, Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid Caliph, comes to possess a chest, which, when opened, contains the dead severed body of a young woman. Outraged, Harun gives his vizier, Ja’far, three days to find the culprit or be executed himself . At the end of three days, when Ja’far is about to be executed for his failure, two men come forward, both claiming to be the murderer. As they tell their story it transpires that, although the younger of them, the woman’s husband, was responsible for her death, some of the blame attaches to a certain slave, who had wrongfully taken one of the apples of the title, inadvertantly causing the woman’s murder. Harun then gives Ja’far three more days to find the guilty slave. When he yet again fails to find the culprit, and bids his family goodbye before his execution, he discovers at the last minute by chance his daughter has the missing apple, which she obtained from Ja’far’s own slave, Rayhan. Thus the mystery is solved.


The Arabian Nights tale of “Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad” revolves around a house haunted by jinns, who are superhuman spirits, genies or demons. This Nights story alongside many others is almost certainly the earliest surviving literature that mentions ghouls. Another prime example is the story “The History of Gherib and His Brother Agib,” in which Gherib, an outcast prince, fights off a family of ravenous Ghouls and then enslaves them and converts them to Islam.


Several stories within the One Thousand and One Nights feature early science fiction elements. One example is “The Adventures of Bulukiya,” where the protagonist Bulukiya’s quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, journey to Paradise and to Hell, and travel across the cosmos to different worlds much larger than his own world, anticipating elements of galactic science fiction; along the way, he encounters societies of djinns, mermaids, talking serpents, talking trees, and other forms of life. In “Abu al-Husn and His Slave-Girl Tawaddud”, the heroine Tawaddud gives an impromptu lecture on the mansions of the Moon, and the benevolent and sinister aspects of the planets.

In another 1001 Nights tale in the fantasy genre, “Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman”, the protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an underwater society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land, in that the underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money and clothing do not exist, echoing also elements of Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia.” Other Arabian Nights tales depict also Amazon societies dominated by women, lost ancient technologies, advanced ancient civilizations that went astray, and catastrophes which overwhelmed them. “The City of Brass” features a group of travellers on an archaeological expedition across the Sahara to find an ancient lost city and attempt to recover a brass vessel that Solomon once used to trap a jinn, and, along the way, encounter a mummified queen, petrified inhabitants, lifelike humanoid robots and automata, seductive marionettes dancing without strings, and a brass horseman robot who directs the party towards the ancient city, which has now become a ghost town.


It may seem strange to find early feminist literature within such an Arabic Medieval work expressive of a culture and tradition usually presumed to be the exact opposite of feminist concerns. Yet the entire structure of the 1001 Nights is that of Scherezade’s courageous use of her magnificent intelligence, depth of feeling, creativity and humanity to not only defer the irrational homicidal violence of a male tyrant, but in the very process to re-educate and acclimatize him to greater tolerance and humane civilization. One story of a feminist bent I particulary enjoyed was that of “The Tale of Sympathy the Learned.” In this tale, a female slave named Sympathy, tested by her master and later the Caliph, demonstrates her knowledge as being far superior to all the greatest scholars in Islam. By the end of the tale, she is universally praised for both her loyalty and intelligence and receives for herself and her master wealth and power, rewarded by the Caliph. By telling this tale, Sheherazade is offering the King a new ideal about how women can be trustworthy and virtuous servants. Women can also be as knowledgeable about life and sometimes more so than men if they put the same effort and ability into their studies as men. Women are not predisposed to ignorance based only on their sex.

Sheherazade the narrator herself shares many of the qualities of her protagonist Sympathy. She has also studied much about Islamic culture and ideals as the daughter of the Vizir. Sheherazade also uses her cleverness to accomplish her goals. Sympathy uses knowledge to gain riches for her master and Sheherazade uses knowledge to concoct tales to a tyrant King in order to gain liberation for her people. Both women fight through prejudice to achieve some status by the end of their prospective stories. Sympathy in some ways is a fictional alter ego of Sheherazade.


A common theme in many Arabian Nights tales is fate and destiny.
Most of the tales begins with an “surfacing of destiny” which manifests itself through an anomaly; one anomaly always generates another,so a chain of anomalies is set up, building to a story of fascination and enchantment. The chain of anomalies always tends to lead back to “normality” in which destiny sinks back into its invisibility in our daily life. The protagonist of the stories may in fact be seen as destiny itself.


The influence of the 1001 Nights on World Literature has been and remains profound. Writers as diverse as Henry Fielding to Naguib Mahfouz paid homage to it in their own works. Other writers who have been influenced by the Nights include John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, Goethe, Walter Scott, Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Flaubert, Marcel Schwob, Stendhal, Dumas, Gérard de Nerval, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Hofmannsthal, Conan Doyle, W. B. Yeats, H. G. Wells, Cavafy, Calvino, H. P. Lovecraft, Marcel Proust, A. S. Byatt and Angela Carter. Themes and motifs with parallels in the Nights are found in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (in The Squire’s Tale the hero travels on a flying brass horse) and Boccaccio’s “Decameron” as well as Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso.” Four modern writers who have not only been influenced by The Nights but gone on to develop its themes and techniques further in unique directions deserve special mention and individual attention:


John Barth is one of America’s formost “Post-Modern” writers, and in his modern narrative epic “Dunyaziad” he upends the classical tale of the 1001 Nights by retelling it from the perspective of Scheherezade’s younger sister, Dunyazade. In this retelling Scheherezade is able to tell so many enchanting stories not from her native creative genius but because each night a bald, bespectacled, middle-aged genie appears from the future to tell the tales from a book he has already read: “The Thousand and One Nights.” This “genie” is clearly Barth himself, who epitomizes the “intertextual” process by which stories “tell themselves” and are transmitted from the past to the future and back again, almost independently of their supposed “authors.” Like most of Barth’s narratives, it is intensely self-referential, commenting on its own structure and motifs as they evolve through their narration, often featuring frames within frame narratives, featuring characters who themselves are writers and storytellers in a post-modern metanarrative mise-en-abime.


In his work Italo Calvino joins history’s caprices with the whimsey of imaginative fancy. Like Jorge Luis Borges, whom he admired, his novels and tales often read as allegories on the human capacity to find worlds in words and to reveal the fragility of the human condition and of what we take to be historical or material reality in our lives. In one of his more delightful concoctions, “Invisible Cities” Calvino brings together two fertile and febrile sources: Scherezade’s sea of stories and his partly factual, partly fantastic extension of of Marco Polo’s Travels. Kublai Khan in fact sent Polo on several “fact finding” missions to the distant corners of his empire. In “Invisible Cities” his reports back to the Khan grow increasingly fantastic as he crosses the border between reality and the imagination. As the Emperor, Polo and the Empire bloat and age, with each return to the throne Polo becomes a Scherezadian storyteller, imposing his will to fancy on reality, just as the Emperor imposes his will to power on reality, engaging in an extended meditation on the sovereign powers of storytelling itself.


Günelli Gün is a Turkish female writer educated in the United States and an award-winning translator of Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s novel, “The New Life.” In her feminist picaresque “The Road to Baghdad” she presents us with a modernized and post-modernized reworking of the Arabian Nights saga, replete with gender-bending, morphing, cross-dressing and transgressive identities that balance her created world on the cutting edge between unreality and surreality. Interweaving myth, fact and fiction, Gün creates a fanciful, old-fashioned epic that spans the breadth of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and tells a meandering tale of a woman’s travels and travails. The awkward young Huru’s adventures begin when her brother abandons her during a journey from Istanbul to Baghdad. By the end of her rambles, when she trades her musical talent for something more valuable, Huru has spent time disguised as a boy and has married a woman; she has seen Persia, Turkey and Syria and traveled through time; she has married a Sultan, borne his son and survived–with help from the spirit world–by her wits and her talent for playing her stone lyre. In the Post-modern idiom she uses the self-referentiality of the narrative with its colloquial theatricality to attempt to unmask what is perceived as the constructedness and fictiveness of the “reality” in which we presume to live.


Assia Djebar is a renown Algerian writer who was the first Algerian woman admitted to the prestigous Ecole Normale Superieure in France prior to Independence. Thereafter she became perhaps the most internationally visible woman writer in the Arab world. Her work speaks forcefully for human rights universally, and women’s rights in particular. In her rendering of the material of the “Thousand and One Nights” she universalizes the experience of Scheherezade to that of all brides on their wedding nights, mapping the collision of the world of fairy tales with the realities of centuries old traditions and the powers of men and society, dramatizing the timelessness of women’s subjugation to realities beyond their control, passing from innocence into experience—-that is through the rites of initiation into the timeless Sisterhood of Scherezade.


The “Thousand and One Nights” also significantly influenced the composition of my own work, most notably my contemporary epic Spiritus Mundi. In particular, the chapter “Neptune’s Fury & The Perils of the Sea” including the embedded novella “Naval Diaries and Ship’s Logs of Admiral Sir George Rose Sartorius (1780-1875)” reflect the themes and techniques of the 1001 Nights. In it we follow the fate of the modern protagonist Sartorius’ ancestor, Royal Navy Admiral Sir George Rose Sartorius as he experiences a realm of fantastic adventure, from participating in the naval battles of Trafalgar and Egypt with Lord Nelson, to shipwreck on the Indian Ocean, his sexual encounter with the sorceress “Lilith” or Sir She, and most significantly his confinement in the palace of the “Sultan of the Sea of Stories” in which, like Scheherezade, he and his fellows, Billali the aged scholar, Ibn Battuta the Arab world traveller, and Princess Nooaysua, a Scheherezadian heroine, must daily invent and compose a series of stories for the Sultan’s pleasure, on pain of death.

In conclusion, I would recommend to all of you to take the time to read and enjoy the 1001 Nights and lose yourself in its narrative web and spell, as well as taking a look at its modern and post-modern spiritual offspring in the works of John Barth, Italo Calvino, Günelli Gün, Assia Djebar and in Spiritus Mundi.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and n Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I:
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

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About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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