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1001 Nights

By Martin Nick

Throughout the ages, a great trade route passed along the edges of Arabia. The area and its natives had contact with Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Persian, and Indian civilizations. The Arabian people, thus enriched by the experience of other cultures, learned the skills of trade and dominated both the desolate desert landscapes and the testing sea routes. These times of travel were solitary and sometimes perilous. At uneven intervals, the relative safety of bazaar life would present a welcome setting. Here, the ambiance predisposed travelers to relate exaggerated stories of voyages and almost magical experiences. These were fascinating tales of dreamlike quality, polished from mouth to mouth, and complete with the wisdom of life.
From such days long forgotten, all the way throughout the rich history of the eastern world, a priceless collection of miraculous narratives has been formed. This captivating compilation has made its way down to the present day under the title Alf Laylah wa Laylah, or as it is popular in the west - The Thousand and One Nights.

Alf Laylah wa Laylah - The Thousand and One Nights
Also known as The Arabian Nights' Entertainment, The Thousand and One Nights is by far the most famous work to come out from the Muslim world in the sphere of popular literature. The core of original stories came out of Persia and India in the early eighth century. The first Persian edition was known as Hazar Afsanak, meaning Thousand Tales. It was translated into Arabic under the name Alf Layla, or Thousand Nights. This set of fanciful fairy tales fell short of living up to the number in its title. The number was later increased with Arab stories and anecdotes added in Baghdad around the 9th century. This new group contained the tales that probably refer to famous ruler Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Later, some more tales were included in Egypt and Syria around the 13th century. Subsequently, some of the added stories, such as the voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, became the best-known tales of the entire collection. The final compilation was made by Arab authors, giving it an entirely Arabic outlook. The tales' two main centres were firmly placed in Baghdad and Cairo, and most of the characters' names were typically Arabic.

The unifying outermost story of the Thousand and One Nights tells of the supreme ruler Shahryar. In the frame story, he finds out that his wife has been unfaithful while he is away from the palace. In his anger, he orders that she be executed with all who have participated in her disloyalty. After this, King Shahryar decides he cannot trust any other woman for she would too be unfaithful, so he marries a new wife each day and kills her the next morning. In the end, there were no more women whom the King could marry. Hearing this, one of the Vizier's two daughters, Shahrazad, or Scheherazade, comes up with a clever plan. To prevent the further killing of women, she convinces her father to give her in marriage to Shahryar. When the time came and they got married, each night Scheherazade's sister Dunyzad would come into their bedroom and ask for a story. The King agreed to listen to the story and was so absorbed by Scheherazade 's tales that he would insist to hear the ending. Then Scheherazade would leave the story incomplete and promise to finish it the next night, thus ensuring the king would spare her life. This was repeated many a night, until at last the King decided he would not kill any more women. Integrated in this frame story over the centuries, the Arabian Nights tales have become so popular that the characters of Alladdin, Sindbad the Sailor, and the supernatural Genie, among others, have almost become part of Western folklore.


Alladin is undoubtedly the best-known character from the stories in The Thousand and One Nights. In the original story, he is a fatherless young boy living with his penniless widowed mother. One day, sloppy Alladin comes across a strange magician who tells the boy he is his uncle. Then they go to a cave and the magician instructs Aladdin to go inside and bring out a magnificent lamp. Before the boy enters the cave, the magician hands him a magic ring to keep him from danger inside. Aladdin finds the lamp and back on his way out declines to give it to the magician before he first lets him out of the cave. This angers the magician who pushes Aladdin with the lamp inside the cave, shuts the opening, and leaves.

Aimlessly rubbing the ring in the dark inside the cave, Aladdin finds out that this action produces a robust genie. The genie offers the boy his loyal services and takes him home. Not much later, the young lad finds out the lamp has a similar quality and also summons up a genie when rubbed. Logically, Alladin soon becomes the richest in the land, builds himself a sparkling palace, and marries the stunning daughter of the Sultan. Determined not to give up, the magician again tries to get hold of the lamp. However, Alladin manages to keep it and lives happily ever after. In the meantime he succeeds the Sultan, and reigns for many years to come. The tale is very telling of the Arabian Nights' style and is one of the most fascinating of the stories. This particular narrative had made such an impact on popular culture that Aladdin became Disney's biggest animated hit to that time.

Sindbad the Sailor is the other celebrity in The Thousand and One Nights. He tells of his voyages in seven different stories where he either survives a shipwreck or is abandoned by his crew after having had put out to sea with merchandise. He manages to come out of the desperate situations either by wit or good fortune, or both, and returns home with loads of riches.

Sindbad's stories are made exceptional in part by the references to fantasy creatures on several occasions. In his third trip, for example, Sindbad's ship is sunk by an enormous roc - a monstrous bird which released massive rocks onto the vessel. In his fifth voyage, hairy apes attack the ship and abandon Sindbad and the crew on an island. Furthermore, the voyages are an interesting source of information on maritime business for that period, probably the early Abbasid era from around 750 to 850 BC. In spite of the fact that Sindbad's experiences were exaggerations of real-life dealings of traders, they are indeed well telling of different aspects of historical eastern life. As a case in point, in his stories Sindbad tells of the riches he takes home, namely precious metals, precious stones, sandalwood, and ivory to mention but a few. The overall imagery in Sindbad's miraculous experiences has, according to some scholars, played an important part for the formation of later world classics such as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels.

The Genie
The jinn, or what The Arabian Nights tales made popular as the Genie, is in Arabic mythology a supernatural being below the level of angels and devils. The activities of these beings are also acknowledged by official Islam. According to the Koran, God created two apparently parallel species of creatures, man and jinn, the one from clay and the other from fire. Supposedly the jinn are capable of rational thought and can behave responsibly. However, they are generally seen as more evil than human beings are.

Since the jinn were made from fire, they can change their form easily and can take animal or human form. They usually inhabit the cracks of rocks, the insides of trees, and other inanimate objects such as bottles and oil lamps. The Genie can be exploited to people's advantage. Genies can at times be either good or bad, and are held eternally responsible for their past deeds. In Islamic tradition the jinn will, like human beings, be judged on Judgment Day and ultimately face salvation or damnation.
The jinn have traditionally been prominent characters in Arabian belief due to their magic capabilities. Apart from their important role in The Thousand and One Nights, the jinn appear in Egyptian, Syrian, North African, Persian, and Turkish traditional myths and are featured in much of Arabic popular literature.

The Overall Islamic Spirit of the Tales
The various versions of The Thousand and One Nights exhibit a universal Islamic atmosphere. The presence of religion provides much of the spirit of the tales, and they would have been quite a different encounter had it not been for Islam. The frame story begins with a typically Muslim foreword passage, which translates from Arabic like this:
"In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Praise be to God, the Beneficent King, the Creator of the universe, who hath raised the heavens without pillars, and spread out the earth as a bed; and blessing and peace be on the lord of apostles, our lord and our master Mohammad…"
Irrespective of the subject matter, it is common among Moslems to include the above paragraph in written or oral form at the beginning of every book and every legitimate deed of considerable significance. The inclusion of the passage signifies the overall presence of Islam throughout the Tales. The characters pray, perform religious ceremony, and in general acknowledge the Moslem faith when chance permits.

Influence in Europe
No product of Arabic literature has affected western authors to the degree that The Arabian Nights has. Chaucer, for example, in Squires Tales employs a theme which originated in the Middle East. His Horse is analogous to the enchanted horse featured in The Thousand and One Nights. The Arabian Nights indeed expanded the collection of romantic themes in Europe, inspiring the metaphorical and verbal potential of western writing. As a result, Arab themes or characters are found in such famous medieval works as Dante Alighieri 's Divine Comedy, and in Aucassin et Nicolette, translated by Andrew Lang.

The real influence of the Nights began, however, when Frenchman Antoine Galland's translation brought the full set of the tales to Europe in the early 1700's. In his Les Mille et Une Nuits, contes arabes traduits en français, completed from 1704 to 1717, Galland tried to make the text more readable and appealing to western tastes. His efforts were extremely successful. The volumes became popular in France and were soon translated into English and published in London. As mentioned earlier, the Nights are suggested to have been responsible for the composition of famous European novels such as Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. Other western writers to be influenced by the stories were Addison and Pope, followed by Reynolds, Sterne, Blair, Warton, Hawkesworth and Beattie, among others.

In his magnificent essay called A Christmas Tree, Charles Dickens too exhibits his deep-seated affection for the Arabian Nights. The composition refers to the author's memories of his Christmas tree experiences from the days he was a young boy. Explicitly, one passage is all about the Thousand and One Nights. Here is a part of it:

All lamps are wonderful; all rings are talismans. Common flower-pots are full of treasure, with a little earth scattered on the top; trees are for Ali Baba to hide in; beef-steaks are to throw down into the Valley of Diamonds, that the precious stones may stick to them, and be carried by the eagles to their nests, whence the traders, with loud cries, will scare them. Tarts are made, according to the recipe of the Vizier's son of Bussorah, who turned pastrycook after he was set down in his drawers at the gate of Damascus; cobblers are all Mustaphas, and in the habit of sewing up people cut into four pieces, to whom they are taken blind-fold.

I hear Dinarzade. "Sister, sister, if you are yet awake, I pray you finish the history of the Young King of the Black Islands." Scheherazade replies, "If my lord the Sultan will suffer me to live another day, sister, I will not only finish that, but tell you a more wonderful story yet." Then, the gracious Sultan goes out, giving no orders for the execution, and we all three breathe again.

The degree of influence The Arabian Nights has had over the centuries is almost incomparable. Few works of literature have been published in such diverse editions or have been referred to so often, implicitly or explicitly, as these tales. Apart from the all the standard book editions, the Nights have appeared as magazine serials and magazine articles, comic books, children's books, and adult books. A jewel in Arabic literature, The Arabian Nights is not only a crowning literary success of the Arabs. Much more than that, it has made an everlasting impression on western and world culture and has profoundly enriched us all. The tales carry the Arab legacy and give us a better appreciation of the customs and tradition of the Arab people. More than anything, The Thousand and One Nights has given the world a chance to feel the magical vision of fantasy and the essence of traditional realism all at once.

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