Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Brief History of One Thousand and One Nights: The Story Behind the Stories

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Author Hanan al-Shaykh

From time to time we will have guest bloggers in the lead up to Luminato. Today Saima Hussain, former Books Editor for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English language daily, writes about the history and adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights:

Due to its fantastical nature, One Thousand and One Nights has long been considered by western audiences to be more suitable for young readers. But given that slave girls, eunuchs, adulterous wives and violent husbands also feature prominently in the tales, this is hardly the case. It is therefore fitting that now, almost 126 years later, it is an Arab writer, and the first woman, who will adapt a selection of these legendary stories to be performed on stage this summer at Luminato.

Hanan al-Shaykh is all set to defy some more firmly held opinions with her theatrical adaptation. The tales told by Shahrazad are proof that the Arab-Muslim past is not nearly as black and white as many believe it to be. Instead, it is alive with as many vivid and gorgeous colours as will be seen on stage at the Canadian Opera Company when the curtains are raised for the world premiere of One Thousand and One Nights on June 11.

As a writer al-Shaykh challenges the notions of sexuality, obedience, modesty, and familiar relations held by the conservative majority in the Arab-Muslim world. In her works she has dealt with red-hot issues such as abortion, divorce, sanity, illegitimacy and sexual promiscuity, and by doing so highlighted many of the dilemmas faced by women in traditional, patriarchal societies. Her novels, which include The Story of Zahra, Beirut Blues, Women of Sand and Myrrh, Only in London and the very moving family memoir The Locust and the Bird, have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Most of the stories of One Thousand and One Nights were part of a popular oral tradition framed by the main story of Shahrazad, the vizier’s daughter who contrived to hold her vengeful bridegroom King Shahriyar in thrall by telling him a series of compelling, never-ending tales every night for 1,001 nights -- almost 3 years -- and thereby saved herself from certain execution.

The earliest mention of a text with the title The Book of Stories from the Thousand Nights is found in a papyrus dating from the ninth century. The papyrus mentions two characters, Dinazad and Shirazad – who later became the sisters Dunyazad and Shahrazad -- and has a few lines of narrative in which the former, under the watchful eye of the king, asks the latter to tell a story.

Among the well-known and beloved stories of ‘Sinbad the Sailor’, ‘Aladdin and his Magic Lamp’, and ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, are numerous other stories that feature jinn (genies) who fly back and forth between China and Baghdad in the course of a single night, humans who are transformed into animals and then back into humans, islands that turn out to be whales, and mountains that pull ships apart by means of magnetic powers. While the stories of Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba are certainly genuine Middle-Eastern folktales, they are not counted among those in the original compilation.

The Abbasids’ capital city of Baghdad plays an important role in these stories; its streets, sights and sounds figure as prominently as any of the human characters. However, it was not Baghdad but Istanbul, the seat of the Ottoman Sultans, where the tales were translated in 1704 by their first European translator, Antoine Galland. While his work enjoyed huge popular success, they hardly received any scholarly attention – much like the case of the original tales!

Large parts of the work were also rendered into English by British orientalist and lexicographer Edward Lane in 1840 and the poet John Payne in 1882, but the first “complete” and – more importantly -- unexpurgated translation was undertaken in 1885 by the explorer, writer, soldier, spy and diplomat Sir Richard Burton.

Burton was renowned for his travels within Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. Among his best-known achievements is travelling in disguise to the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah. In the foreword to his translated work Burton claimed that “this translation is a natural outcome of my Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah” after coming to “to the conclusion that, while the name of this wondrous treasury of Moslem folklore is familiar to almost every English child, no general reader is aware of the valuables it contains, nor indeed will the door open to any but Arabists.” And so “the object of this version is to show what The Thousand Nights and a Night really is … by writing as the Arab would have written in English.”

By Saima Hussain

On June 11, Hanan al-Shaykh’s adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights has its world premiere at Luminato. Hanan speaks about her body of work and adaptation with Susan G. Cole on June 13 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

1 comment

Some of the world's most erotic and evocative stories come from the original One Thousand and One Nights. I'm looking foward to a new interpretation.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Devyani Saltzman

Devyani Saltzman is a Canadian writer. She is the author of Shooting Water, a memoir, as well as articles for The Globe and Mail, The Atlantic Monthly, Marie Claire, TOK: an anthology of new Toronto writing, The Literary Review of Canada and Tehelka, India's weekly known for arts and investigative journalism. She is currently Curator of Literary Programming for Luminato, Toronto's Festival of Arts and Creativity.

Go to Devyani Saltzman’s Author Page