Tales from the Arabian Nights
“If you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely, little tales to while away the night.” Shahrazad replied, “With the greatest pleasure”:
Tales from The Arabian Nights proved an interesting challenge, because most collections of them in English are only selections, and their contents are highly variable. The first set I started didn’t mention Aladdin or Sinbad, the two stories which have the most name recognition in the west. My reading of the Arabian nights was thus divided between two volumes, the respective translators being Hussein Hadaway and Edward William Lane.
The Arabian nights open with the framing story of two brother-kings in Persia and India visiting one another and discovering that both of their wives are cheating on them. After retreating into the country to think things over, they spy a demon who keeps his human wife locked in a box buried in the desert in an effort to keep her faithful, only to have his efforts spoiled by her finding other men to sleep with anyway. The brothers sleep with her before lamenting the unfaithfulness of womankind, and return to their respective realms, where one resolves to never keep a wife. Instead, each day he marries a virgin, sleeps with her, and then kills her after the fact. This goes on for quite some time until his vizier’s daughter, Shahrahzad, volunteers herself for marriage with a plan in mind. Using her extensive knowledge of literature and poetry, on her wedding night she begins telling a story that so ensnares the mind of her husband that he begs her to continue, and night after night puts the thought of killing her away until he can hear the end.
The tales of the Arabian nights are not one long story with many chapters like War and Peace; instead, one story will unfold to have many stories inside it, or a character introduced in one story will then be followed in another story, ensnaring the reader in a multitude of threads. They’re replete with magic, of course; demons are as common as cattle, but I suspect the translation of that particular word is awkward because the demons are not necessarily servants of a great evil power. The first one we meet is just a fellow burying his bride in a glass box in the middle of the wilderness, nothing diabolical there. In the first collection I read, once the caliph Harun al-Rashid shows up in a story, most of the stories that follow involve his court. (al-Rashid threatens his vizier Jafar with death every time they discover something untoward going on in the kingdom. Not exactly the happy little man from Disney’s Aladdin.) There are a lot of surprises here: Aladdin is set in China, of all places, but I suppose he could have been one of China’s distant western minorities, like a Muslim Uyghur. Some of the stories are also far more salacious than I would have expected, given the image of Islam as straitlaced, but these stories emerge from popular culture which eludes heavy state censorship by its oral nature.
The Arabian Nights will probably rank among my favorite, or at least the most memorable, books in this Classics Club challenge. The stories are rich in odd scenarios and characters, like the chance meeting of three one-eyed dervishes, or the discovery that the colorful fish in a pond introduced in one story are actually the citizens of a town which was cursed, and the stories-within-stories trick gets amusing, almost like a running joke. Of course each dervish, characters in a story, has to tell how they got there, and one of them has another story inside that story — Shahrazad’s ability to weave all these together is amazing.
The Canterbury Tales, G. Chaucer