Thousand and One Nights, The

Thousand and One Nights, The
   Like CHAUCER’s CANTERBURY TALES or BOCCACCIO’s DECAMERON, The Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla wa-Layla) is a collection of stories within a frame narrative; the frame creates a context for the telling of tales within the larger tale, and makes for a highly entertaining text. The most popular work of medieval Arabic literature, both in Islamic countries and in the West, The Thousand and One Nights has never been recognized by Arab literary scholars as a serious literary text or part of the Arabic literary canon. Still its tales of fantasy, magic, romance, violence, and lust continue to ensure its place in popular, if not learned, literary circles.
   By the 10th century, the Arabic scholar al-Nadim called the work “foolish” and “vulgar.” His opinion remains widespread among Arabic scholars today—Egypt banned the Nights as immoral as recently as 1989. Partly this antipathy is based on a general Islamic mistrust of fiction—the KORAN condemns all fiction as lies. In addition the colloquial language of the Nights is a barrier to its acceptance: Serious literature in medieval Arabic was written in what was called the adab style, a courtly form characterized by wide learning and complex poetic forms.
   Despite this official rejection, The Thousand and One Nights has flourished as folk literature since its beginnings. Those origins, however, are murky. Clearly the tales began as oral stories, but modern scholarship has managed to trace their textual origin to a collection in Persian called the “Thousand Stories,” produced during the Sassanid period (226–652), the last pre-Islamic dynasty in Persia. That Persian text seems to have been a translation from an original collection in Sanskrit that had come into Persia from India. During the ninth and 10th centuries, Persian texts of all kinds were translated into Arabic, and like many other texts, The Thousand and One Nights was probably translated at the court of the caliph in Baghdad. The inclusion of a number of tales set in the Baghdad of the caliph Haroun al-Rashid (763–809) indicates how translators and scribes felt perfectly free to add new tales to the Nights even as they sought to transmit the text—a practice that stemmed, most likely, from an impulse to try to fill the fanciful “thousand and one” tales of the title.
   From Baghdad the core of tales spread through the Islamic world, apparently becoming particularly popular in Syria and in Egypt, where two different branches of the Nights developed. The earliest extant manuscript of the Nights was produced in Syria in the 14th century.Manuscripts related to this one are more conservative, consisting of a core of tales most of which came, ultimately, from the original Arabic translation. In Egypt the Nights were particularly popular during the Mamluk period (1250–1517). Here, new tales were added from Egyptian, Turkish, Indian, Persian, and Jewish sources. This Egyptian branch of manuscripts contains the most famous stories in the Nights—the tales of the seven voyages of Sinbad (added early in the Mamluk period), Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, and a very late addition, the tale of Aladdin—none of which appear in the earliest texts of the Nights.
   Because of its Iranian personal and place names, one part of the text that can be definitely traced to the Persian-Indian source is the frame narrative. This is the familiar story of Shahrazad (Scheherazade), daughter of King Shahrayar’s vizier. The king, whose wife has proved spectacularly unfaithful, decides that all women are therefore untrustworthy, and hatches the mad plan of ensuring his wives’ fidelity by marrying a new bride every night and executing her every morning. Shahrazad,witty and well read, resolves to save the women of her land by volunteering to marry the king. She forestalls her own execution by telling Shahrayar stories, which she breaks off each night at the climactic moment. In order to hear the end of the story, the king must keep her alive until the following evening. This open format allowed translators and scribes to insert new stories at will. The frame ultimately ends with the king’s sparing Shahrazad’s life, presumably after a thousand and one tales, and accepting her as his faithful wife. The Thousand and One Nights is a highly unusual literary classic, having been composed over many centuries by a wide variety of contributors in several countries. In modern times, the Nights became popular in western Europe when Antoine Galland translated the text into French (1704–08), and Richard Burton made a popular English translation (1885–88). Both Galland and Burton added new tales (much as earlier Arab scribes and translators had done), and, curiously, these western texts were translated back into Arabic,with the new tales added. Because of this complex textual history, a definitive scholarly edition of the “original” manuscript of the Nights was not available until 1984.
   ■ Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1976.
   ■ Gerhardt,Mia Irene. The Art of Story-Telling: A Literary Study of the Thousand and One Nights. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1963.
   ■ Ghazoul, Ferial Jabouri. The Arabian Nights: A Structural Analysis. Cairo: Cairo Associated Institution for the Study and Presentation of Arab Cultural Values, 1980.
   ■ Haddawy, Husain, trans. The Arabian Nights. Based on the text of the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi. New York: Knopf, 1992.
   ■ ———, trans. The Arabian Nights II: Sinbad and Other Popular Stories. New York: Norton, 1995.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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