1001 Nights or Arabian Nights or The 1001 Nights of Scheherezade is a collection of Islamic folk tales that can be traced to early Persian and Indian cultures. The stories, similar to Homer’s tales or Aesop’s Fables, were passed down orally for generations and gradually absorbed parts of different cultures including Arabic and Islamic cultures.
The legend is that a powerful ruler discovered he had an unfaithful wife. In response to her adultery, he puts her to death and swears off future marriages. The ruler, however, does not wish to condemn himself to a life of celibacy, so he proceeds to marry a succession of virgin women only to execute them the morning after the wedding night. Finally, the only woman in his kingdom left to marry is the daughter of his advisor, Scheherezade. Scheherezade is a crafty woman and devises a scheme to keep herself alive. Each night she will begin to tell a story, but does not finish it until the following night. Thus, her husband postpones executing her in order to hear the end of the story. For 1001 nights, Scheherezade continues to tell tales until the ruler decides that he will not execute her.
I have to agree that Scheherezade’s storytelling had an odd grip on me, too. Even as I complained that the stories seemed to drag out forever, I wasn’t willing to put the book down and read something else. I was fascinated by the stories, even when I was ready for them to be over.
The stories Scheherezade tells vary widely, many encompassing some sort of moral teaching. The most famous are the tales of Aladdin and His Magic Lamp and Ali Babba and the Forty Thieves. Also recognizable were the Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. The tales are full of Jinnis and magic, hidden caves, and wondrous wealth. Some are long, some are short; some are about the powerful and wealthy, some are about the poor. There isn’t much in the way of one encompassing theme, but there is a sense of unity among the collection.
I enjoyed this peek into Arabic and Islamic culture. Unlike many collections of European folktales, themes were not automatically recognizable to me. It was clear to me as the reader that although I am familiar with some of the narratives, they come from a clearly different culture. These stories feel “other” to me, but not at all in a negative way. It is the same feeling I get reading Chinese folk stories and even some Russian stories. It is a different territory from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson – that seem to resonate with me culturally even when I’m not familiar with the story. Its always good to take some time to get away from that which is familiar and explore something entirely “other.”
Like most folk stories at their roots, I’m not sure I’d call these stories child-friendly. If Disney had made Aladdin to look much like the tale recounted here, no parent would let their child see it! There isn’t anything abundantly crass (these aren’t the Canterbury Tales), but there is gruesome death, deceit and plenty of hanky-panky.
The most challenging thing about 1001 Nights is that often I felt like there was some sort of moral lesson I was supposed to extract from the story that I didn’t. Sometimes I felt like the narrative was tending toward being very anti-female (what with all the adulterous wives and the like), but I got to the end feeling like Scheherezade was a bit of a heroine. There was so much cultural context I’m sure I didn’t understand that I missed much of whatever moral I was supposed to get out of many of the stories.
If you’re interested in folk tales or Arabic culture, this is a great read. I’ve asked myself a few times if its appropriate for me to read literature from non-Christian cultures that glorifies other gods. Does reading the words “Inshallah” (meaning “if Allah wills it”) have some sort of negative effect on my spirit? I think because we live in a world where Islam is such a hot-button-issue, I actually thought about this topic. Islamic literature isn’t the only literature that falls into this category. Ancient Greek literature does - is it okay to read the words “Praise be to Zeus?” I’d never asked myself that before. I’d never asked myself if it was okay to read ancient Norse myths, or Native American tales, and so on.
It was something I challenged myself to think about. Why should I be okay with reading ancient Greek plays and feel uncomfortable with ancient Arabic/Islamic stories? The short answer is, I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable. It is important to have exposure to other cultures, it is important to understand other cultures. The best way to have both of those things is to dive straight into the original source. So go for it – explore something new today.
What are you reading today?