The Thousand and One Nights
Excerpt from The Thousand and One Nights
Published in Stories from the Thousand and One Nights: The Arabian Night's Entertainments, 1937
"The King, hearing these words, and being restless, was pleased with the idea of listening to the story; and thus, on the first night of the thousand and one, Shahrazad commenced her recitations."
T he Thousand and One Nights, better known in the West as The Arabian Nights, almost needs no introduction. There is hardly a person alive who has not been enthralled by one of its tales, particularly the three most famous: "Ala-ed-Din [Aladdin] and the Wonderful Lamp," "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and "Sinbad the Sailor." Out of the hundreds of other tales that form the book, perhaps the most well known is the "frame story"—that is, the story that provided a larger context or meaning for all the tales.
It seems that a certain king came to distrust all women after he discovered that his wife had been unfaithful to him. He therefore resolved to sleep with a different wife every night, then have her beheaded in the morning. But one wife, Shahrazad (SHAR-uh-zahd) or Sheherazade (shuh-HAIR-uhzahd), outsmarted him. On her first night with him, she began telling a tale, but when dawn came she was not finished. The king was intrigued, and therefore he kept her alive until the next night—when she would do the same thing again. She kept this up over the course of more than three years, during which time she produced three male heirs, and at the end of 1,001 nights, the king gave up on his original plan and let her live.
From the standpoint of personal and individual life, the frame story is interesting for what it reveals about men and women. In almost any culture, it is a man's ultimate humiliation to discover that his wife has been cheating on him, but the Muslim world of the Middle East was (and is) even more male-dominated than most societies; thus the king's humiliation at discovering his first wife's unfaithfulness was all the worse. And given the striking imbalance of male and female power that prevailed in that place and time, Shahrazad's calm wisdom is all the more impressive.
The Thousand and One Nights
Better known in the West as The Arabian Nights, the collection of tales known as The Thousand and One Nights delighted audiences in the Middle East for centuries before Europeans discovered them. The tales had no single author or source; rather, they were collected from Persian, Indian, and Arabian stories that had been passed down orally for generations.
The first collected version of 264 tales appeared in Persia (modern Iran) during the a.d. 900s. By that time, the "frame story" concerning Shahrazad (SHAR-uh-zahd)—a version of which is excerpted here—had been added to provide a larger context or meaning for all the tales. Over time, new stories were added, and by about 1450 the tales had assumed more or less their present form.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Thousand and One Nights
- Though the sources of The Thousand and One Nights include tales from Persia (modern-day Iran), India, and Arabia, the tale of Shahrazad is almost certainly Persian. One way scholars know this is through the names, which are drawn from Farsi, the Persian language. Shahriyar (SHAR-ee-yar), the name of the king, means "friend of the city"; and his brother's name, Shah-Zeman, means "king of the age." Samarkand (sahmur-KAHND) is an ancient city on the Old Silk Road, a trade route that connected Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. Today it is part of Uzbekistan, a nation in Central Asia.
- The following passage has been significantly condensed; the original is four times as long, containing lengthy descriptions of Shahriyar's wealth, the Wezir's (or government official's) trip to see Shah-Zeman, and other details not important to the larger story. After Shahriyar returns from his hunting trip and discovers that his wife has been cheating, he and Shah-Zeman travel far away and meet a woman who also cheats on her "man"—only this man is a genie. After this, they return, and Shahriyar kills his wife. Also, before Shahrazad's father allows her to marry Shahriyar, he tells a lengthy story that has also been omitted.
- Despite the collection's reputation as tales for children, The Thousand and One Nights contains a number of stories that should be labeled "Parental Discretion Advised." The following passage hints at a number of sexual details that are presented more openly in other tales from the collection.
- Modern readers may find racist overtones in the fact that when the wives of both Shah-Zeman and Shahriyar cheat on their husbands, it is with black slaves. There was an unquestionable tension between the Muslim peoples of the Middle East and African slaves, who they called "Zanj," and this probably influenced the depiction in this story. However, if a person chose only to read things that agreed with the prevailing morality of their own time, many valuable books from the past would be off-limits. Also, it is always worthwhile to be reminded that Europeans and their descendants in America are not the only people who have been guilty of racism.
Excerpt from The Thousand and One Nights
… It is related (but God alone is all-knowing, as well as all-wise, and almighty, and all-bountiful), that there was, in ancient times, aKing of the countries of India and China, possessing numerous troops, and guards, and servants, and domestic dependents…. Hewas called King Shahriyar: his younger brother was named Shah-Zeman, and was King of Samarkand. The administration of their governments was conducted withrectitude, each of them ruling over his subjects with justice during a period of twenty years with the utmost enjoyment and happiness. After this period, the elder King felt a strong desire to see his brother, and ordered hisWezir torepair to him and bring him….
[Having been thus summoned by his brother, Shah-Zeman] … sent forth his tents and camels and mules and servants and guards, appointed his Wezir to be governor of the country during his absence, and set out towards his brother'sdominions. At midnight, however, he remembered that he had left in his palace an article which he should have brought with him; and having returned to the palace to fetch it, he there beheld his wife sleeping in his bed, and attended by a male negro slave, who had fallen asleep by her side.
On beholding this scene, the world became black before his eyes; and he said within himself, If this is the case when I have not departed from the city, what will be the conduct of this vile woman while I amsojourning with my brother? He then drew this sword, and slew them both in the bed: after which he immediately returned, gave orders for departure, and journeyed to his brother's capital.
Shahriyar, rejoicing at the tidings of his approach, went forth to meet him,saluted him, and welcomed him with the utmost delight. He then ordered that the city should be decorated on the occasion, and sat down to entertain his brother with cheerful conversation: but the mind of King Shah-Zeman was distracted by reflections upon the conduct of his wife…. His brother observed his altered condition, and, imagining that it was occasioned by his absence from his dominions,abstained from troubling him or asking respecting the cause, until after the lapse of some days…. Shahriyar then said, Iwish that thou wouldest go out with me on a hunting excursion; perhaps thy mind might so be diverted. But he declined; and Shahriyar went alone to thechase.
Rectitude: Rightness or justice.
Wezir (or vizier)
Wezir (or vizier): A high governmental official.
Saluted him: Waved to him.
Abstain: To force oneself not to do something.
Now there were some windows in the King's palace commanding a view of his garden; and while his brother was looking out from one of these, a door of the palace was opened, and there came forth from it twenty females and twenty male black slaves; and the King's wife, who was distinguished by extraordinary beauty and elegance, accompanied them to a fountain, where they all disrobed themselvesand sat down together. The King's wife then called out, O Mes'ud! and immediately a black slave came to her, and embraced her; she doing the like….
When his brother returned from his excursion, and they had saluted each other…. [Shah-Zeman] repeated to him all that he hadseen. I would see this, said Shahriyar, with my own eye. Then, said Shah-Zeman,give out that thou art going again to the chase, and conceal thyself here with me, and thou shalt witness this conduct, andobtain ocular proof of it.
Shahriyar, upon this, immediately announced that it was his intention to make another excursion. The troops went out of the city with the tents, and the King followed them; and after he had reposed awhile in the camp, he said to his servants, Let no one come in to me. And he disguised himself, and returned to his brother in the palace, and sat in one of the windows overlooking the garden; and when he had been there a short time, the women and their mistress entered the garden with the black slaves, and did as his brother had described, continuing so until the hour of the afternoon-prayer.
… Shahriyar caused his wife to be beheaded, and in like manner the women and black slaves; and thenceforth he made it his regular custom, every time that he took a virgin to his bed, to kill her at the expiration of the night. Thus he continued to do during a period of three years; and the people raised an outcry against him, and fled with their daughters, and there remained not a virgin in the city of a sufficient age for marriage. Such was the case when the King ordered the Wezir to bring him a virgin according to his custom; and the Wezir went forth and searched, and found none; and he went back to his house enraged andvexed, fearing what the King might do to him.
Now the Wezir had two daughters; the elder of whom was named Shahrazad; and the younger, Dunyzad. The former had read various books of histories, and the lives of preceding kings, and stories of past generations: it is asserted that she had collected together a thousand books of histories, relating to preceding generations and kings, and works of the poets: and she said to her father on this occasion, Why do I see thee thus changed, and oppressed with solicitude and sorrows? It has been said by one of the poets:
Tell him who is oppressed with anxiety, that anxiety will not last: As happiness passeth away, so passeth away anxiety.
Give out: Spread the word.
Obtain ocular proof
Obtain ocular proof: In other words, "see it with your own eyes."
When the Wezir heard these words from his daughter, he related to her all that had happened to him with regard to the King:
upon which she said, By Allah, O my father, give me in marriage to this King: either I shall die, and be a ransom for one of the daughters of the Muslims, or I shall live, and be the cause of their deliverance from him.I conjure thee by Allah, exclaimed he, that thou expose not thyself to such peril. But she said, It must be so….
… Now she had given directions to her younger sister saying to her, When I have gone to the King, I will send to request thee to come; and when thou comest to me, and seest a convenient time, do thou say to me, O my sister, relate to me some strange story tobeguile our waking hour. And I will relate to thee a story that shall, if it be the will of God, be the means of procuring deliverance.
I conjure thee by Allah
I conjure thee by Allah: In other words, "I command you in God's name."
Beguile our waking hour
Beguile our waking hour: In other words, "to pass the time."
Her father, the Wezir, then took her to the King, who, when he saw him, was rejoiced, and said, Hast thou brought me what I desired? He answered Yes. When the King, therefore, introduced himself to her, she wept; and he said to her, What aileth thee? She answered, O King, I have a young sister, and I wish to take leave of her. So the King sent to her; and she [Dunyzad] came to her sister, and embracedher, and sat near the foot of the bed; and after she had waited for a proper opportunity, she said, By Allah! O my sister, relate to us a story to beguile the waking hour of our night. Most willingly, answered Shahrazad, if this virtuous King permit me. And the King, hearing these words, and being restless, was pleased with the idea of listening to the story; and thus, on the first night of the thousand and one, Shahrazad commenced her recitations.
What happened next …
Shahrazad, as the story eventually reveals, outwitted Shahriyar, stringing him along for more than three years. By then she had given him three sons, and the king, who had come to love her deeply, abandoned his earlier plan to kill off his wives.
The first translation of The Thousand and One Nights into a European language appeared in the early 1700s, thanks to the French scholar Antoine Galland (an-TWAHN guh-LAWn; 1646–1715). Galland added several stories he had collected from other Middle Eastern sources—stories not found in the original versions of The Thousand and One Nights. Among these are two of the most famous: "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" and "Ala-ed-Din [Aladdin] and the Wonderful Lamp."
The Thousand and One Nights on Film
More than a hundred movies about The Thousand and One Nights, or one of its tales, have been filmed over the years—including a version of Ali Baba released in 1907. One of the most well known ones among modern audiences, of course, is Disney's Aladdin (1992), but that is only one of some fifty movies concerning "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp." Half as many more films concern "Sinbad the Sailor," and an equal number focus on "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves."
A sampling of titles illustrates the wide appeal of The Thousand and One Nights: Ali-Baba und die 40 Räuber (Germany, 1922); Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves (United States, 1937); Sinbad contro i sette saraceni (Sinbad Against the Seven Saracens, Italy, 1964); Senya ichiya monogatari (One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Japan, 1969); Priklyucheniya Ali-Baby i soroka razboynikov (Adventures of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Soviet Union, 1979); and Scooby Doo in Arabian Nights (United States, 1994).
The Thousand and One Nights has added immeasurably to the shared culture of the world, providing people in the Middle East, Europe, and other places with a common set of stories and symbols. Because of these stories' popularity, half the world knows about genies, magic carpets and lamps, and the phrase "open sesame." The stories have also greatly expanded awareness of Middle Eastern culture, and of the Islamic religion, among peoples of other cultures.
Did you know …
- One of the most beloved pieces of music in the world is Sheherazade (1888), a suite, or series of pieces, by the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (NEE-koh-ly RIM-skee KOHR-suh-kawf; 1844–1908). Various sections of the suite provide musical representations of different stories, such as that of Sinbad. Throughout, a gentle violin indicates the voice of Shahrazad, telling her tales.
- Use of frame stories goes back all the way to the Metamorphosis by the Roman poet Ovid (AH-vid; 43 b.c.–a.d. 17). In medieval times, it made notable appearances not only in The Thousand and One Nights, but in the Decameron of Boccaccio (boh-KAHT-choh; 1313–1375) and the Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342–1400). In modern times, frames have been used in works such as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" by Mark Twain (1835–1910) or the movies The Princess Bride (1987) and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). In these modern works, the frame wraps only one story, not many; and in the last example, the characters in the frame story continue to develop along with those in the "main" tale.
For More Information
Burton, Richard Francis. The Arabian Nights' Entertainments, or the Book of A Thousand Nights and a Night: A Selection of the Most Representative of These Tales. Edited by Bennett Cerf. New York: Modern Library, 1997.
Lane, Edward William, translator. Stories from the Thousand and One Nights: The Arabian Night's Entertainments. Revised by Stanley Lane-Poole. New York: Collier, 1937.
One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Translated by Geraldine McCaughrean. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Stewart, Desmond and The Editors of Time-Life Books. Early Islam. New York: Time-Life Books, 1967.
"Thousand and One Nights." BiblioBytes. [Online] Available http://www.bb.com/looptestlive.cfm?bookid=796&startow=2 (last accessed July 28, 2000).