A 1980s Pakistani children’s TV series called “Alif Laila,” or “A Thousand and One Nights” in English (also known as “The Arabian Nights”), depicted the allure of the thousand and one stories told by Shahrazad. In her budget costumes and green screen backgrounds, she bravely faces the tyrant king, weaving a tale that wins her not only freedom but everlasting love. Watching this series, I was enchanted by the mystical components. Jinnis bound to lamps, clever slave girls outwitting 40 thieves, a barber pleading for his life, a princess saved from the evil magician — tales within tales, each flowing into the next.
The frame story is that of Shahrazad and King Shahryar. King Shahryar, who is said to be a Sassanid king, holds women in very low regard. In some versions, his wife had cheated on him, and in others, his brother’s wife was the transgressor. Regardless, King Shahryar views all women the same: unfaithful and loathsome. With the diminishing of light of the sunset, he marries a virgin. Each morning, by the early rays of the rising sun, he has her killed. Determined to stop this cruel and unusual punishment, Shahrzad, the daughter of a vizier, comes up with a plan: Each night, she tells the king a story, ending on a cliffhanger. Intrigued, the king keeps her alive until the next day. Shahrzad cleverly articulates a story that takes 1,001 nights to complete. By the end of her interminable tale, the king has a change of heart and pardons her. Her stories provide extensive background and detail, employing an embedded narrative style, with many substories and offshoots. Over time, more stories from all over Asia were added to the frame story as the tradition of oral storytelling continued and the world became more interconnected. Eventually, Shahrzad’s 1,001 stories reached Europe, ushering them into the modern era.
I was attracted to these stories because I felt they were of the rare instances in which Western, modern society recognized and enjoyed my Muslim and Asian history. Despite the questionable frame story, the stories featured impressive Muslim leaders, like the Caliph Harun Al-Rashid and his advisors, who are rarely mentioned in history and literature classes. Later adaptations of the stories into film — such as “Aladdin,” “Sinbad” and “Ali Baba” — I felt were a nod to this history. The stories were so flamboyant and extravagant, dealing with themes of wealth and prosperity, greed and magic, across the middle eastern, sub-continent, central Asian and East Asian kingdoms.
But do these stories paint the culture, religion and leaders of these regions in a positive light? The discussion of overarching themes, such as religion and philosophy, only emphasize frivolity and greed. The stories highlight the polarization between religion and worldly desires. Temptations and material delights, such as wealth and status, are continually contrasted with Quranic verses, Islamic practices and even poetry from prominent Muslim scholars, such as Imam Al-Shafi. Each story culminates in a cynically humorous debacle, which ends in the elevation of the “main” character’s worldly status. The characters have no other goal than to appease the rich, become wealthier and elevate their status, mocking religion in the process.
“A Thousand and One Nights” is steeped in over-generalizations that boil down the complexity of the people during the time and fetishize their culture and religion. A brief look into the origins of these stories gives insight into the extent of these generalizations. The current version we know of is the result of several translations throughout hundreds of years. The original compilation of stories has no defined source. For example, “Aladdin” was added to the compilation by French writer Antoine Galland. He claimed to have heard it firsthand from Hanna Diyab, a Syrian storyteller. However, there is no way to confirm if Diyab’s original tale is the version included in the collection or if it is an “exotic” rendition.
In fact, according to Yasmine Seale, a recent translator of the tales, “Aladdin” has many indicators of 18th century French Literature, and the story presents a colonial, generalized view of Asia, with an emphasis on xenophobia, exoticism and orientalism. Galland’s impact on the stories is greater than previously realized. He is considered to be the one who introduced the Arabian Nights stories into the European world, where his translation gained immense traction.
Muhsin al-Musawi, professor of classical and modern Arabic literature at Columbia University, mentions in his introduction to the Barnes and Nobles classic edition the flaws of previous translations: “Galland’s aim in translating The Arabian Nights was not so much to transcribe accurately the real texture of medieval Arab prose as to rescue from it items that he judged would please the salons of 18th century France … over time the tales passed through so many reproductions … of which Galland’s was a keystone.”
This current version, which I own, was published by the Brothers Dalziel Illustrated Editions, who used Galland’s original translation as the basis for the stories. Unfortunately, Galland’s version of the story and subsequent tropes are continuously perpetuated in today’s media. Romanticized depictions of Asiatic cultures, such as mixing them into one big hodgepodge, are glaring mainstays in modern renditions of Asian folklore and myth. Cultural sensitivity proves to be a persistent issue as we learn how historical narratives were workshopped to fit a certain cultural idea.
It’s clear that the origins of “A Thousand and One Nights” are ambiguous, and it’s highly likely that the philosophy and reality displayed in them were lost in translation. Despite this, I will be the first to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed these tales, with all their grandeur and flamboyance. Let’s face it — the idea of jinnis, magic and fairies are attractive.
However, I read them now knowing that somewhere buried behind the translations is the true tale that holds the history of the storytellers’ past, each with their distinct culture. I enjoy the retellings of these stories knowing that their discussions of religion, culture and society are not something to take as a representation of past societies, but as a fantastical tale in a faraway world.
“He told his son the secret of the cave, which his son handed down in his turn, so the children and grandchildren of Ali Baba were rich to the end of their lives.” — “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”
Daily Arts Contributor Zoha Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.