The One Thousand and One Nights, popularly known as The Arabian Nights, is a composite work compiled from Middle Eastern and Indian folklore during the first millennium AD. In its earliest form, its origin was in tales from India and Persia, and then Arab tales were added to it- most of them dating from the period of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. Many of these stories are based around the adventures of the Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid and his vizier (advisor) Ja’far the Barmecide. (Harun al-Rashid was an actual historic figure, although his real-life vizier was Ja’far’s father, Yahya. The real Ja’far was mysteriously executed, although it was possibly for an affair with the caliph’s sister.) Then later, more folk tales from Syria and Egypt have been added to create as many stories in the Arabian Nights to fill up over a thousand nights. I’ve read the Penguin Classics English Translation by Malcolm C.Lyons and Ursula Lyons, with an introduction and annotations by Robert Irwin.
The most famous stories from the Nights that most people would immediately recognise are Aladdin and the Magic Lamp; Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; and the Seven Voyages of Sindbad. The Nights have had a huge influence on Western literature and the arts due to their imaginative appeal and the attraction of the exotic, or the Oriental- from novels and film to Disney cartoons (Aladdin) and video games (Prince of Persia). These stories have this in common with children’s fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, which gave us Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Tom Thumb. As we enter the Christmas pantomime season, Aladdin, along with Cinderella, is a popular pantomime story.
The frame story for the entire One Thousand and One Nights collection is that the Princess Shahrazad (also spelt as Scheherazade) tells a vast number of tales to King Shahriyar to postpone her execution. Every day Shahriyar would marry a new virgin, and every day he would send yesterday’s wife to be executed by beheading. This was done in anger, a form of misogynistic revenge after he found out that his first wife was unfaithful to him. He had killed over a thousand such women by the time he was introduced to Shahrazad, the daughter of his vizier. Shahrazad asks to spend the night with the King, and on the first night begins her first tale. At dawn, she breaks off from her story, and asks permission to be allowed to finish it on the following night. Enraptured by her tale, the King grants her request and so the next night she finishes her story and begins a new one, which she also leaves unfinished by dawn- keeping herself alive by the process. This is the premise for the continuation of the tales.
Stories stand alone, or are part of a cycle; often they are set in a framework of stories-within-stories as storytellers beget further storytellers. There are a vast array of characters (from beggars and caliphs, to barbers and sultans) and locations (caves, underground chambers, mountain peaks, castles, palaces, deserts; the cities of Cairo, Baghdad, Basra) within the Nights, and a broad range of genres: romance, comedy, heroic, supernatural, fantasy, didactic, religious parable and even science fiction, as I will explain.
In my mind, the Nights conjure stories of terrifying turbaned genies (jinnis); magic lamps and flying carpets; warriors leading vast armies; mysterious veiled women; horse-riding Bedouins crossing the sand dunes of endless deserts; towering minarets by twilight beneath a Persian moon; Sindbad encountering weird sea monsters upon his epic voyages; crafty merchants selling their wares at crowded markets. The Nights does not disappoint, it is all of these and more- there are tales of beautiful princesses and handsome princes; locked doors which must not be opened; genies (jinni) and demons (ifrits); sorcerers and magic; clever thieves; disastrous shipwrecks and treks across mountains and deserts. There are also fantastic, mythical monsters such as the Rukh (roc in English): a giant bird which is so huge it can carry an elephant. The end result of such a variety of stories is a fascinating literary melting pot of Arab, Persian and Indian culture.
I have already mentioned Harun al-Rashid, the caliph of Baghdad and his vizier Ja’far the Barmecide. In modern adaptations of Arabian Nights stories, such as Disney’s Aladdin and the video game Prince of Persia, Ja’far has become a sinister and malevolent figure. Although there are evil viziers, malicious sorcerers and frightening jinni aplenty within the Nights, Ja’far is a much more benevolent character in the original tales. He is a trusted adviser to the Caliph, who is a master of disguise. Al-Rashid likes to go abroad in his city of Baghdad at night, for the purpose of seeking out adventures or so that he may hear tales from others dwelling within the city, beyond the bounds of his palace.
Obviously there are close to a thousand tales that I could describe, but I wanted to focus on a small collection of stories that I found most interesting. It is the stories with fantasy and supernatural elements that I most enjoy in the Arabian Nights, and while there are plenty of these there are several which stand out in particular.
There is the story of Ali the Cairene merchant, which is a very early example of a “haunted house” tale, as well as being typical of the many stories within the Arabian Nights describing a character experiencing poverty, who through luck or supernatural means, rapidly gains a fortune. In Ali’s case he has been a spendthrift who has wasted his money. After reducing his family to poverty, Ali abandons them in search of better luck, and travels to Baghdad. After pretending his goods have been stolen, a fellow merchant takes pity on Ali. He gives him a choice of houses to stay in- but the one that Ali chooses is apparently haunted and cursed, and whoever stays there is always found dead the next morning. In a suicide bid, Ali insists he must stay there. In the middle of the night, a disembodied voice speaks to him and says that it has been waiting for him. It asks him if it should send down the gold, and when Ali responds to ask where it is, gold coins pour out on the floor from nowhere. As it turns out, the spirit inhabiting the house was waiting for him especially, and it was Ali’s destiny to receive the blessings of this good fortune since ‘ancient times’. Previous occupants of the house were too terrified to answer, and so the spirit killed them. Ali then seeks out his family again and invites them to share in his new-found wealth.
Another interesting story and a good example of a ‘fantasy’ tale within the Arabian Nights is the story of Abd Allah of the Land and Abd Allah of the Sea. This is about a secret world of water-folk living in the depths of the sea and oceans, a marine civilisation. Abd Allah of the Land is a poor fisherman with a large family to feed, whose only possession is a large fishing net. He is in debt to the baker for food for his family, but every day he takes his net to the sea and catches nothing, until one day he catches a merman in his net, who tells him that his name is also Abd Allah- Abd Allah of the Sea. The fisherman agrees to let the merman go, who in return agrees to be his friend and brings him precious jewels from the bottom of the ocean, which make Abd Allah of the Land rich. Then the merman invites him to visit his people in the sea, giving the fisherman a magic ointment which allows him to walk underneath the waves and within the water without drowning. The water-folk are fascinated by, and laugh at, Abd Allah of the Land because he doesn’t have a tail. At the end of the story the fisherman is abandoned by his strange friend because ‘land people’ mourn when someone dies- the water-folk celebrate a death, because life is only one transitory stage and God ‘has taken back his deposit’.
The Adventures of Buluqiya, as told to Hasib Karim al-Din by the Snake Queen, gives an insight into Islamic cosmology: Earth’s place within the universe is explained by the existence of the following-there is Mount Qaf, which is the mountain at the end of the world and which encircles the Earth, where King Solomon sleeps with a magic ring on his finger; beyond it there is The White Land, where the Muslim jinni fight the Unbeliever Jinni; there are Seven layers of Hell, separated by a thousand-year journey (Jahannam, where Muslims who disobey God’s command and die without repenting are sent; Lazan, for the Unbelievers; Jahim- for Gog and Magog, evil monsters or demons; Al-Sa’ir- for the hordes of Satan; Saqar- for those who abandon prayer; al-Hutama – for Jews and Christians; and the seventh, al-Hawiya, for hypocrites. Hell consists of vast lands of fire and castles, filled with countless torments); The Angel Michael controls the succession of day and night, and behind Qaf there is a mountain range of snow and ice stretching the distance of a five hundred year journey, protecting the world from the fires of hell; beyond that there are forty lands each with their own Angels, part of seven layers held up by another Angel, who is set on a Rock. Beneath the Rock there is a Bull, which is resting on a Fish. Beneath the Fish there is an Ocean, and beneath that a huge region of Air. Below that there is a giant snake called Falaq, who would devour and swallow everything were it not for its fear of God.
Most interestingly of all, I mentioned earlier that there were stories in the Nights that could almost be put into the science fiction genre. There are three in particular that deserve a closer look. The first of these is the Third Dervish’s Tale (also known as the Third Qalander’s’s Tale). He describes his experiences of being shipwrecked on the ‘Magnetic Mountain’, an island of “black stone”, where “God Almighty has set a secret power that attracts everything made of iron”. Also, “by the shore there is a vaulted dome of brass set on ten columns and on top of this is a rider and his horse, both made of brass” This rider kills all who comes his way. Later on in the Dervish’s Tale, there is also a boatman constructed of brass, who automatically rows silently across the sea, “with a lead tablet on his breast, inscribed with names and talismans”. Both descriptions sound like metallic/clockwork automata, or ‘robots’. The Dervish eventually finds himself in a palace with forty girls, the daughters of Kings. There are thirty-nine chambers he may enter, but a fortieth that he must never go into. The women allow him to stay at the palace while they are away, but he must not open the fortieth door. Eventually, his curiosity gets the better of him and he enters the fortieth chamber. He finds a strange ‘black horse’ which he sits on, and when he strikes it, it issues a neigh like ‘rumbling thunder’ and flies off with him, carrying him up into the sky. It sounds more like a flying aircraft than an actual horse. When it finally lands on the roof of another building, its ‘tail’ accidently strikes the Dervish and causes him to lose an eye.
This idea occurs again in the second story in the Nights that I wanted to focus on, which is called The Ebony Horse. Wise men bring gifts to a King and his son, and the third of them brings a ‘horse’ made of ebony and ivory. “When a man mounts it, it will take him to whatever land he wants.” A screw or ‘button’ makes it rise into the air. The prince “started to examine all parts of the horses body…there was a protuberance like a cock’s comb on its right shoulder and another on its left.” When he touches these features, the climb takes him far above the ground or allows him to descend again. Again, it appears that the “Ebony Horse” is some sort of electronic flying craft. Bearing in mind that these stories were created and compiled in the early centuries of the first millennium AD, from the period of the Romans to the Vikings in European history, these details are really interesting.
Keeping with the theme of brass, the final intriguing story in the Arabian Nights with science fiction elements is The City of Brass. Two characters, Musa and Abd al-Samad, go in search of the city, where King Solomon allegedly trapped jinni (genies) in brass bottles. While travelling across the desert, they encounter a giant brass figure who points in the right direction of the city after a button is pressed. On the way there, they then encounter a strange figure- a trapped entity- imprisoned within a pillar half-buried in the sand. This being speaks to them and also confirms they are heading in the right direction of the city. When they and their retinue arrive at the City of Brass, they find peculiar relics and odd devices, remnants of some ancient science. I was also reminded of the Shelley poem “Ozymandias” after reading this particular story, with the echoes of a once-great civilisation. There are preserved corpses in the chambers of the city, including one of a beautiful woman with her eyeballs removed and the sockets filled with quicksilver to give the impression her eyes are moving, and that she is still alive. There are non-speaking brass figures which again appear to be depictions of clockwork automata or robots. These kill Musa and Abd al-Samad’s companion Talib when he wants to steal treasure from the city.
Finally, one more interesting story from the Nights which is worth looking at is The Slave Girl Tawaddud, which is an interesting mini-encyclopaedia of scientific/religious/scholarly thought and knowledge in Persian/Arabian culture during this period.