Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1206, (17-23 July 2014)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1206, (17-23 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Magic of the Arabian nights

As Ramadan days wind down, we feel a renewed respect and reverence for the mystique and magic of our Arabian nights!

A hypnotic spell descends on Muslims come sundown.  They bask in an intangible, inexplicable mixture of the meta-physical and the pleasurable in a refined, rarified union that is singularly unique.

Such is the enchantment of the legendary ‘Land of Araby’!

Arabia’s fancy and fantasy, fragrance and flavour, perfumes and spices are all part of the lavish and resplendent culture which has bewitched and beguiled the Western world for centuries.

The tales of ’The Thousand and One Nights’ have enchanted readers for over a thousand and one years.

A tale, within a tale, within a tale, they offer the reader all the aesthetic pleasures in a form that is immediately intriguing, astonishing and delightful. Each tale stimulates the imagination swiftly, holding us in its grip, carrying us across deserts and seas, for wild adventures, romance, passion, love, greed, deceit and despotism.  Suddenly, and almost like a shock, one story ends and another begins.  The pleasure is reserved to the end, and as we hunger for more, the cycle re-starts leaving us breathless, dazed and hungry for more.

Its unmistakable flair for the truely dramatic situation and its vast range and intensity became the perfect Hollywood trove.  For years Hollywood reverted to the glamour of the Arabian Nights, for its exotic splendour, tenor and timbre. During its silent era, Rudolf Valentino became an international heart-throb after impersonating the dashing and romantic horseman of the desert in “The Sheikh”, (1921) and “Son of the Sheikh”, (1926).

The 1940s introduced the dazzling era, adapted from or inspired by the Arabian Nights. Among the many films glorifying Arabian culture were, “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940), “Arabian Nights”(1942), “Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves” (1943), “Sinbad The Sailor” (1947).

Suddenly it all came to an end.  Hollywood lost interest in all things Arabian after the creation of Israel. Slowly but steadily, the image of the Arab on the silver screen took a negative bend, long before 9/11. Today the Arab has replaced all the villains in Hollywood history.

Despite that the “Arabian Nights” lives on!

Fairy tales, folk tales, short stories or long novel, the history of the ‘Nights’ is extremely complex, baffling many scholars who have tried to untangle the puzzle of how the collection came about. The earliest version was an Arabic translation from a Persian text, with Indian elements, (Hazar Afsan) meaning a thousand tales.  Because there is no physical evidence of Hazar Afsan, its relationship with the existing fragments of the Arab version remains a mystery. The core was quite small and Iraq added stories about Haroun Al-Rashid in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Further layers were added by Syria and Egypt until the bulk of the text swelled to a thousand and one stories.

The work was collected over many centuries by various authors, translators and scholars, across west, central, south Asia and northern Africa. The tales themselves have Arabic, Egyptian, Persian, Mesopotamian and Indian folklore.  When and why the tales came to be called “A Thousand and One Nights” is unclear. Some believe that odd numbers are associated with luck and fortune.

The thread that runs through the tales revolves around Shahryar and Shaharazade.  The King, foully deceived by his wife believed all women to be false and faithless.  He vowed to marry a bride each night and behead her the next morning.  Shaharazade, daughter of his counsellor, an intelligent and wise woman, finds a way to end the bloodshed, by telling Shahryar fascinating tales which remain unfinished at the break of dawn, thus earning herself one more day.

This in itself is a story with unusual appeal which rises in a sweeping curve to a well-defined crisis.

The ‘Nights’ was first introduced to the West by French author Antoine Galland, in 1706, which included stories not in the original manuscript, such as “Aladin and the Wonderful Lamp”,” Ali Baba” and the “Seven Voyages of Sinbad”.  He claimed he heard them from a ’Maronite’ scholar, Hanna Diab, of Aleppo.

British John Payne (1882) and Richard F. Burton, (1885), later introduced English versions, the latter being the more popular.

Russian composer Rimsky Korsakov, likewise carried away by the lure of the East, composed his symphonic suite, “Shaharazade” in 1882, evoking the magic of wondrous Arabia.  It became his most popular work, and when heard, we recall those annual Ramadan productions on Egyptian radio and television. 

Is it not rather unusual that in a medieval, Arabic, patriarchal system, a woman assumes such a pivotal role!  Could that be a revelation that women have always exercised more power in Muslim countries? How could it have diminished thus at the hands of those extreme fanatics?  How could we allow it?

This fascinating jigsaw puzzle raises everyone’s curiosity, especially Shahryar’s, and only when the human pieces click into play, the enjoyment begins.

Shaharazade has many lessons to teach the intelligent reader worth a thousand and one pieces of gold. It would do readers well to see beyond the tingling drama, beyond the erotic and exotic!  Delve deep and you can find lessons in manners, ethics, politics, religion, aesthetics, etiquette and other principles valued by all mankind.

Shaharazade cured her king, ended a reign of terror, and changed a strict male-moral code to her advantage! Would you call it magic?

“Wisdom is always an overmatch for strength.”     Phaedrus (c. 15BC-40AD)

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