The Forgotten Middle East Legacy of ‘1,001 Nights’

While the tales can rightly be called world literature, the fact that people obsess over the work’s standing in the West ignores its legacy in its home and distracts from the joy of the stories themselves

The Forgotten Middle East Legacy of ‘1,001 Nights’
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Once upon a time, there was a Yemeni Bedouin named Abu Hasan who decided to leave the desert life, move to the city and become a merchant. He settled at the fortress town of Kawkaban, but then his young wife died, leaving him desperate and alone. After much pleading, his friends persuaded him to marry again.

On the day of the wedding, Abu Hasan threw a lavish feast but, as chance would have it, he discredited himself at a key juncture. “At last came the moment when Abu Hasan was summoned to the bridal chamber,” says the narrator in N.J. Dawood’s English translation, “but, horror of horrors, being bloated with meat and drink, he let go a long and resounding fart.” Humiliated, he fled to India but never stopped longing for home.

After 10 long years, Abu Hasan wanted to see Yemen again. He boarded a ship for Hadramawt and then made his way overland to Kawkaban. Then, disguised as a dervish, he roamed the outskirts of town before sitting down to rest outside a hut, where he overheard a young girl talking to her mother.

“Which day was I born? One of my friends wants to tell my fortune,” the girl said.

“My dear,” the mother said, “you were born on the very night of Abu Hasan’s fart.”

Realizing his flatulence would live in infamy, Abu Hasan slinked back to India, where he died in exile.

The story of Abu Hasan’s “Historic Fart” is one of the many off-color jewels found in “The 1,001 Nights,” but it likely wasn’t part of the original. The swashbuckling Victorian translator Sir Richard Francis Burton may have thrust it into the storyline simply because it touched his funny bone. He doesn’t say where he got it, although scholars verify similar legends in 20th-century Arab storytelling. Even so, with a bit of a stretch, poor Abu Hasan and his vapors can make a point about the “Nights,” or at least about the “Nights” as they stand in the Middle East.

By now, 300 years since coming to Europe, the “Nights” aren’t just a work of literature but in fact a whole industry. Ever since Lady Isabel Burton’s anthology graced Victorian tables with a sanitized, mannerly “Nights,” the West has caught a bad case of Aladdin- and Ali Baba-mania. In fact, the “Nights” as seen in the West are all Westerners seem to talk about. Gothic and Romantic works like William Beckford’s “Vathek” or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”; music like Nikolai Rimsky‐Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”; visual art like the Modernist painter Henri Matisse’s paper cutout “The Thousand and One Nights”; and Hollywood films like “The Thief of Baghdad” or Disney’s “Aladdin” are all famous pieces of Western art inspired by the “Nights.” The bloody saga of “Nights” translation, with each new Macbeth massacring the latest King Duncan, will be familiar from Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights.” A Google search of the “Nights” brings up essays about the stories in Wisconsin, Poland, the Mississippi Delta and beyond.

Granted, these examples do prove the “Nights” are a world cultural heritage. But like Abu Hasan’s “Historic Fart,” all the gassiness over the West’s view of the “Nights” has driven how Middle Easterners see those same stories into exile. The most famous tales, featuring Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba, weren’t even part of the original collection until the 18th century, when they were added by the French Orientalist Antoine Galland, the first to popularize the “Nights” in Europe. Like “Grimms’ Fairy Tales,”, bowdlerized versions of the “Nights” have long given the faulty impression that they are children’s stories. The loud, smelly fights over sexism and Orientalism have masked how the “Nights” have been read, cherished and performed in the Arab world for a thousand years. Also, when we ignore how, in that world, the stories act as a childhood touchstone, we miss how fun it is to read and enjoy them for their own sake.

Will Westerners hold on to all this hot air, as did the mother in Abu Hasan’s tragic tale, and continue to banish the Middle East legacy of the “Nights”? Or will they clear the atmosphere and see the stories in a way that isn’t obsessed with the West?

Before tackling this question, there’s another that can’t be ignored. What exactly are the “Nights”? Where did they come from, and how did they get to us? If this seems pointless to ask — pointless because everyone knows the answer — then remember Mark Twain’s definition of a “classic”: a book that everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read.

By this measure, the “Nights” more than qualify. Even Arabs in the Middle East usually had their last meeting with Sinbad or Ali Baba in primary school or, as we’ll see later, at their local fried chicken joint. For them, the “Nights” have the same status that Charles Dickens, Santa Claus or religion have in the West: an amusement for youngsters, and maybe even good moral training, but something to be discarded by serious adults. Yet those who pass over the “Nights” are missing a rich honeypot that unlocks history, culture and more than a few hearts in the Middle East, even now.

Indeed, few names are as recognizable today as Shahrazad, aka Scheherazade, that brave and cunning woman who stayed a tyrant’s wrath using only her words. In the usual “Nights” frame story, Shahriyar, “King of India and Indochina,” has been cuckolded by his wife, whom he then murders and for whose perfidy he swears vengeance on all women, bedding a new bride each night and then executing her at dawn. Shahrazad, the daughter of one of Shahriyar’s viziers, hears of this cruelty and steps in to save her sex. She marries the king, who, after having his way with Shahrazad, grants her request that her sister, Dinarzad, join them in the bedchamber.

“Sister,” says Dinarzad wistfully, perhaps with a tear in her eye. “Tell us one of your lovely stories to pass the night, since I don’t know what will happen to you in the morning.”

With these words, Shahrazad spins such an absorbing tale, conveniently left unfinished by morning, that the king postpones her death so that Shahrazad can conclude the following night. Only it doesn’t end there. Her first story has a character who launches his own, second story, tucked snugly and sneakily within the first, neither of which is done before sunrise. And on and on it goes each night, one story cascading from the next, until at last Shahriyar’s heart softens and he quits his bloodlust, at least in the Western versions tinged by the “happily ever after” hue of European fairy tales. The earliest Arabic texts don’t say if Shahrazad succeeded.

This isn’t the only difference between the original Arabic stories, which date from the ninth century, and their European versions added a millennium later. It was the 18th-century Maronite Christian merchant Hanna Diyab — whose name appears in Galland’s journal as a native informant — who gave us the most famous stories, namely Sinbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba. But before then, they are nowhere in the original text. The French translator Galland recorded them from Diyab’s oral account, for both Europeans and the Arabic readers who caught their fever for all things Oriental and Orientalizing.

Scholars have known about Diyab, sometimes called Galland’s muse, since the 19th century. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that they also found his autobiography, an account of his wanderings through France, North Africa and the Mediterranean from 1707 to 1710. Published in 2015 in French and, most recently, in 2021 in English by the NYU Press Library of Arabic Literature, Diyab’s Arabic-language “Book of Travels” is less travelogue and more picaresque. It describes people and places, compares cities and lays bare the author’s inner life.

“You are reading Diyab’s true story because of others he made up,” writes Yasmine Seale, a translator in her own right of the “Nights.” And though the world owes him a debt for those made-up tales, they were not, as noted, part of the “Nights” for most of its 1,000-year history up to the 1700s.

Indeed, the earliest, most “authentic” Arabic stories are all but unknown in the West. Or, at least, they don’t have the kind of pull for Douglas Fairbanks or Will Smith to play the lead role. Like Aladdin and Sinbad, some are called after their protagonists: “Maruf the Cobbler”; “Jullanar of the Sea”; “King Yunan and the Wise Duban”; “Qamar al-Zaman and the Princess Budur.” But more often, the titles contain generic types — like Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” of the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, etc. — such as “The Hunchback Cycle,” “The Christian Broker,” “The Fisherman and the Demon” or “The Husband and the Parrot.” There are “cycles,” that is, groups of stories with common figures, for example, the first, second and third “Tales of the Dervishes”; and there are quick blurbs, like “The Tale of the King’s Son and the She-Ghoul.” The buzzing markets, opulent courts and the protagonists’ trades — merchant is the commonest one — give away the urban flavor of the “Nights,” in contrast with older, indigenous Arabic genres, above all the high desert “qasida,” meaning an ode of pre-Islamic Arabia.

Speaking of indigenous genres, the “Nights” show a clear Persian shade, as in the names Shahrazad, “child of the city”; Shahriyar, “keeper of the realm” (i.e., sovereign); Shah Zaman, “lord of the age,” and more. This betrays the likely source of the “Nights.” According to the Baghdadi bookseller Ibn al-Nadim and the historian al-Masudi, both of whom lived in the 10th century, the Arabic “Nights” were translated from a Persian book called “Hizar Afsan” (“The Thousand Stories”). Some scholars even propose an earlier, Sanskrit source: the “Panchatantra,” a collection of animal fables, though there is little proof to support this. In any case, the Arabic “Nights” and its Persian ancestor share much of the same material, as do other medieval Arabic story collections, like the anonymous “Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange,” translated by Malcolm Lyons for the Penguin Classics series.

There are not 1,001 stories in “1,001 Nights.” Richard Burton’s translation tops out at almost 500, but the 15th-century Arabic manuscript translated by Galland has just 35. As a rule, each story stretches over several nights, interrupted by the dawn and carried over to the next night. Daniel Heller-Roazen has likened this fact to enjambment, that is, when a line of poetry’s meaning carries over from one line break to the next. For him, this makes the “Nights” potentially limitless. “The thousand and first night must be a night that knows no end,” he writes, “a night that will never reach dawn—not so much ‘another night,’ one might assert, as something other than any night at all.”

In some “Nights,” the moral of the story seems clear. One of them is “The City of Brass,” the tale of two men assigned to find bottles that, according to legend, still hold the rebellious jinn captured by King Solomon. The explorers set out from Damascus toward “the Far West” (present-day Morocco) but lose the path and stumble upon a black-stone castle and a brass horseman — one of several enchanted robots in the story — who, with a rub of his hand, points toward the City of Brass. After conversing with a demon trapped by Solomon in a column of black stone, the pioneers find the titular city, its walls carved with a warning: “If any creature could attain eternal life, Solomon the son of David would have done so.”

From the city’s fortifications, a group of beautiful women seduce the men, some of whom try to climb over but then fall to their deaths. The women are marionettes, worked by magic and set as bait. The pious leader of the expedition warns those who remain about this ruse, and they enter the city, where they find a ghastly scene. The citizens are all dead, supposedly from a famine, but their corpses are stuffed and propped up where they once lived: a sort of grim taxidermy museum. “Dying is here made perpetual,” writes Andras Hamori, professor emeritus at Princeton University. Even the city’s queen, Tadumra, is a simulacrum meant to fool the onlookers, with her eyeballs removed and reattached after the sockets were filled with quicksilver.

Of course, the “City of Brass” warns readers that no one can cheat death — but also that death can look a lot like life. Appearances can be deceiving, and hence the need to discern truth from falsehood. The way to do this, the story implies, is through piety. The lifeless yet lifelike city of Brass contrasts with a second metropolis, Karkar, where a bright light glows from the sea on the evening before Friday, and the residents are devotees of Khidr (the Green Man), a pious sage and protector in Islamic lore. The ruler of Karkar gives the explorers fish to eat — the opposite of famine in the City of Brass — and 12 brass bottles containing the fractious jinn. The party returns to Damascus, releases the jinn and divides treasure among the people.

Though largely ignored in the West, “The City of Brass” has had its share of admirers. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem of the same title in which he praises traditional British values, those “impregnable ramparts of old,” and pans the Liberal government’s high taxes and social reforms he thinks will ruin them. In 2017, S.A. Chakraborty published a fantasy novel called “The City of Brass” about a con artist from Cairo named Nahri and her strange adventures with a jinn warrior named Dara, in a faraway land called Daevabad. These and other works have brought an intriguing yet unknown story to readers but, like the original “City of Brass” itself, remain largely off the beaten path.

By contrast, other early Arabic “Nights” have no clear moral. If anything, they offer something like an anti-moral, let alone those tales that exist purely to delight and shock. Consider a case from “The Hunchback Cycle,” in which four characters — a tailor, a physician, a steward and a broker — each tell their story in the order they appear. The steward reports about a cloth merchant who never ate a plate of zirbaj, a Persian sweet-and-sour meat or chicken dish, until he had washed his hands 40 times. One day, this finicky epicure falls in love with a young woman, the stewardess to one Lady Zubayda. But at their wedding party, the groom neglects to wash his hands for zirbaj, mistakenly fed to him by the cook.

What happens next depends on the version of the story. In one retelling, from the 10th-century collection of pious tales “Al-Faraj bad al-Shidda” (“Relief After Grief”) by the judge and litterateur al-Muhassin ibn Ali al-Tanukhi, the steward’s new bride recoils from the smell and scolds her husband for his “low” manners. He swears to wash his hands 40 times before eating zirbaj from then on, after which they make peace. The lesson is clear: Virtue, including good table manners, is its own reward. But in the “Nights” version, the steward’s wife has what one might call a conniption. She demands her husband be flogged and his thumbs sliced off, in keeping with the mutilation seen in all “The Hunchback Cycle” stories, after which — incredibly — they are reconciled.

It’s hard to know how to take this. The “Nights” bankrolls violence both in the wife’s reaction and the husband’s punishment, putting up an exaggeration for its own sake. As the Arabic scholar Sarah bin Tyeer observes, this “creates more appeal and curiosity on the storytelling level and is more memorable than ‘model behavior’” seen in al-Tanukhi’s sanitized version. In the end, the story may serve as nothing more than pure spectacle. That said, if the reader learns anything, again following Bin Tyeer, it seems to be the reverse of al-Tanukhi’s tale: This is what you get for bad behavior.

“It was Galland’s French translation that rescued the ‘Nights’ from the obscurity that it had fallen into in the Arab lands, and assured its lasting reputation throughout the world.” What should one make of this claim by the novelist Robert Irwin, from the preface to “Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange”? A claim that smells like the Orientalism Irwin defends elsewhere, namely in his book “Dangerous Knowledge”? It seems to invite dismissal as Western-centric claptrap, except for one thing: It’s entirely true.

While a core of tales does persist over time — and although medieval records verify their circulation, for example, in a 12th-century Cairene Jewish bookseller’s loan record or the 15th-century historian al-Maqrizi’s “Kitab al-khitat” (“The districts,” an architectural and political history of medieval Cairo) — all pre-18th-century texts of the “Nights” themselves are a hugger mugger assortment of add-ons, tamperings and embellishments. They show that “the collection was never entirely fixed in either size or content,” writes the Arabic scholar Dwight Reynolds, “but rather that medieval redactors continued compiling their versions.” This may come from long-standing contempt for the “Nights” among Arab elites. Ironically, and for different reasons, the two best-known Arabic texts in the West, namely “The 1,001 Nights” and the Quran, aren’t what most Arabic readers, for most of Arabic history, thought of as belles lettres.

In the case of the “Nights,” Arab readers saw them as folklore rather than highbrow fare. Even a scholar like the 10th-century thinker Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi quotes the view that “Hizar Afsan,” the Persian source of the “Nights,” is full of “khurafa” (superstition). This is to say nothing of Muslim puritans such as the 13th-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya, who lashed out at popular stories like the “Nights”; his student Ibn Kathir called works like “The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman” (“Sirat Dhat al-Himma”) “lies, falsehood, stupid writings, complete ignorance and shameless prattle which is only in demand by fools and lowly ignoramuses.” Instead, premodern Arabic readers esteemed poetry, especially the “qasida” ode used to praise rulers, flaunt glorious deeds and abuse one’s rivals. For prose, they looked to chancery epistles, that is, official government correspondence penned in flowery prose. Neither genre travels well in the modern West, which is why most Westerners don’t know them.

By contrast, the “Nights” hit European bookshelves just as a new wave, fairy tales, was washing over the continent, hence why Galland’s version took off like a meteor and why, following Irwin and others, it was Galland’s spark that rekindled passion for the tales in the Middle East, just as it engrossed Europeans in those tales for the first time. As European analyses, translations and adaptations of the “Nights” bloomed like algae in Galland’s wake, so too did Arabs and others in the Middle East find new ways into the stories.

An early landmark was the 1835 Bulaq edition of the “Nights,” upon which all modern editions and translations are based. It was this text, writes the “Nights” expert Ulrich Marzolph, that “put an end to the development of the work’s Arabic text,” after being in flux for more than a millennium. Academic “Nights” studies found their footing with the 1939 doctoral thesis of Suhayr Qalamawi, supervised by the Egyptian “dean of literature,” Taha Hussein. Qalamawi’s work spawned interest in the “Nights” vis-a-vis modern fiction, which formed the subject of a 1979 conference in Fez, Morocco. Women authors reframed the stories with a feminist lens, such as Widad Sakakini’s claim in “Insaf al-marah” (“Doing women justice”) that Shahrazad’s femininity and storytelling were weapons to contain the patriarchy. And in 1989, the Iraqi journal Al-Turath al-Shabi (Popular Heritage) devoted a whole issue to the “Nights,” while in 1994 the Egyptian critical quarterly Fusul (Passages) published three full issues about “Nights” scholarship.

But the Middle East’s attention to the “Nights” doesn’t stop at the ivory tower. It also inspires novelists and filmmakers, who have recast the tales in a new light. A famous case is the 1979 novel “Layali Alf Laylah” (“Arabian Nights and Days”) by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz, who adapted the “Nights” as an allegory of 1970s Egyptian politics; his retelling has been compared to the magical realism of Latin America. Halah Kamal and her several co-authors reimagined Shahrazad as a feminist hero in the 1999 book “Qalat al-rawiyah” (“Thus spoke the raconteuse”).

The Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun draws on “Nights” motifs like dreams, shapeshifting, the blind storyteller and the unfinished manuscript in his 1985 postcolonial novel “L’enfant de sable” (“The Sand Child”). “In Morocco,” said Ben Jelloun in 1992, “reality transcends fiction. One cannot imagine the completely crazy reality of this country. The ‘Thousand and One Nights’ are metaphoric; it occurs in the realm of the imaginary, but it is still true and expresses part of the real. The Moroccan people have an extraordinary fantasy which transcends reality.”

Even stronger is the grip of “Nights” performances in movies and television. At the same time that Hollywood was having its so-called golden age with films like “The Thief of Baghdad” (1940, 1961) or “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1973), Arab cinema also had its share of “Nights”-themed creativity. Egyptian movies called “Elf Laila wa Laila” (“The Thousand and One Nights”) came out in 1941, directed by Togo Mizrahi, and 1964, directed by Hasan El-Emam. The 1941 film starred the musical theater legend Ali El-Kassar, who was best known for playing Ali Baba in another Mizrahi production, 1942’s “Ali Baba wa Al Arbain Harame” (“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”). These movies have a comedy-musical feel that raged in both Hollywood and Egyptian studies at the time. Mizrahi’s work especially, argues the scholar Deborah Starr, evokes both Cairo’s Egyptian nationalism and its pluralist cosmopolitanism, using themes of masquerade and mistaken identity to forge a hopeful vision of the future.

Of course, the “Nights” are also fodder for one of the Middle East’s greatest art forms: the “musalsal,” a telenovela or television drama. These shows involve period pieces that run during the holy month of Ramadan and are much like Christmas movies in the West, offering an excuse for family and friends to gather, chat and enjoy a meal. Since at least the 1980s, TV dramas throughout the Muslim world have retold stories from the “Nights.” Recent shows include the 2007-2009 Indian drama “Aladdin”; the Turkish drama “Binbir Gece” that ran during the same period; and the 2015 Egyptian telenovela starring the Lebanese singer Nicole Saba as Shahrazad.

In fact, the social function, the personal touch, seen in Arab TV drama may be the most powerful and lasting legacy of the “Nights.” Children in the Middle East watch the tales at home and read them in the classroom. They hear “Nights” allusions in everyday talk and in the street. “On your walk home from preschool,” says the Egyptian-Canadian novelist Omar El Akkad in an email interview, describing how the “Nights” hang over everything in Egypt, “you might pass some fried chicken place that inexplicably used Ali Baba as a mascot; or some grown-up might work a Sinbad reference into a joke about a family member trying to move to the West.”

Here is a key contrast between the “Nights” in the East and West. Beloved though they are to Europeans and North Americans, those readers can’t claim the tales as a direct heritage, not in the way that, say, a native Arabic speaker raised in the Middle East can. It’s not Aladdin and Sinbad, but rather Hercules, Cupid, Oedipus, Thor — figures from Greek, Latin and Norse myth — that are the referential brine in which Western culture is steeped. And even granting Aladdin and Sinbad their place, as noted, these aren’t the tales that made up the “Nights” for most of its history.

El Akkad tells his own personal “Nights” story in the preface to the most recent English version, translated by Yasmine Seale and published in 2021 by W. W. Norton. It carries the double title “The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales From 1001 Nights,” with “1001 Nights” standing for the early core of Arabic tales, and “Arabian Nights” denoting later French stories added by Galland. This division, plus the rich footnotes and visual art that surround it, is one of the work’s great gifts. Seale and editor Paulo Horta marry an academic view of the text with the plain joy of storytelling, which tracks with how people in the Middle East see the “Nights.”

“Even when my uncles would tell me stories from the Nights,” El Akkad recalls over email, “they would start freelancing details (something I didn’t realize until years later). There was no orthodoxy about it, it was like a communal storytelling toolkit, you could make of the tales whatever you wanted.”

But for El Akkad, the most important raconteur was his father, who as a young boy would sneak into El Fishawy coffeehouse, deep in the maze-like Khan El-Khalili bazaar of old Cairo, and listen to poets, singers and painters trade stories and barbed verses into the night. Two things about this heady broth have stuck with El Akkad through the years. On the one hand, there is the way his father, who died young, lit up when he recalled those heady salons. And, on the other hand, there’s the fact that no record of the meetings remains other than his father’s word.

“I’ve thought about this a lot over the years,” El Akkad says, “because maybe the story my father told me wasn’t true. Or maybe over the years I’ve subconsciously mutated it into what I need it to be, or maybe some other kid sitting on the café floor during those sessions has an entirely different recollection of what happened. In some ways, that diaphanous quality terrifies me. I want for certainty, but I don’t have it. … We are all vessels of memory, and art is the pouring.”

In the end, the joint freedom and terror of uncertainty may be what the “Nights” really stand for. Fuzzy memories invite us to fill the gaps or, as in the tale of poor Abu Hasan’s flatulence, to etch them in stone with a historian’s severity. Whichever path one takes, they both stretch into the past, heading for the old problem of once upon a time.

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