Arabian Nights

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Arabian Nights

The work known in the Europe and North America as The Arabian Nights is the translation of an Arabic original, Alf Layla wa-Layla [The thousand and one nights, or The thousand nights and a night]. This classic of Arabic literature has stirred the imagination of European and North American authors and artists, turning the Nights into an unparalleled work in world literature and culture. Replete with danger; murder; tales of sex, love, and treachery; and supernatural beings able to cross continents, the text of the Nights has inspired European and North American artists (e.g., Marc Chagall [1887–1985]), composers (e.g., Rimsky-Korsakov [1844–1908]), novelists (e.g., John Barth [b. 1930]), and short-story writers (e.g., Edgar Allan Poe [1809–1849]). As the most influential literary text to come out of the Islamic world, Nights has played an enormous role in shaping European and North American attitudes to Middle Eastern Islamic culture.

This is not to speak of the enormous presence of the Nights in world cinema. As Robert Irwin points out, "hundreds of Arabian Nights films have been made" (Marzolph 2004, p. 22). The most artistically ambitious cinematic adaptation of the Arabian Nights is most certainly Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il fiore delle Mille e una notte (1974). Pasolini made changes in the structural arrangements of the stories, but his is, of all modern adaptations, probably the only one to have remained faithful to the erotic spirit and omnisexual explicitness of the Arabic original. The animated adventures of Aladdin, immortalized by the Disney Studios (1992, and later sequels) have made the Nights a major element in contemporary mass culture, not only through the films themselves but also through the aggressive merchandising of children's toys and paraphernalia.

The Arabs themselves have not shied from evoking this part of their heritage. Almost from its origins in the nineteenth century, modern Arabic literature has exploited stories from the Nights. Famous stage versions include Tawfîq al-Hakîm's 1934 Shahrazâd and Alî Ahmad Bâkathîr's 1953 Shahrazâd's Secret. The Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi included a radical revision of the frame story in her highly charged The Fall of the Imam (1987). Taken generally modern Arab authors have been more interested in using the Nights to explore political and social problems, including the politics of authorship. They have shied away from the sexual focus of so many of the tales.

Despite its frequent use in modern Arabic high culture, the Arabic original was a middlebrow work, normally transmitted orally by professional storytellers in a relatively accessible form of the language (rather than the ornate, sophisticated Arabic of the high cultural Medieval prose works). Ninth-century references exist to a rudimentary form of the text. Over the centuries layers and stories were added, enlarging it and embellishing upon it. The earliest layer of the Nights is undoubtedly pre-Islamic, with other major additions coming at the time of the Abbasids (c. 750–1250 ce) (with the frequent references to the famous Caliph Harun al-Rashid) and the last major additions came in the time of the Mamluks. (c. 1250–1500 ce)

The translation of the Nights into French by Antoine Galland (1704) used manuscripts as well as other stories that the French Orientalist collected. Translations by British Orientalists, such as Sir Richard Burton (1821–1890) and Edward Lane (1801–1876), helped give the Nights a place in English literature alongside the one that Galland had created in French.

The frame story of the Nights is also the best known and most often retold. It is a story of sex and betrayal. The Arabian Nights revolves around the tale of two ruler brothers, Shahriyar and Shahzaman, who are both traumatized by the infidelity of their wives. Seeing his wife in the midst of a sexual act with a slave, Shahriyar goes off on a trip with his brother who has experienced the same trauma. On their voyage the two brothers are, against their will, lured into sexual acts with a young woman. This woman is herself being held prisoner by an ifrit who had kidnapped her on her wedding night. The lesson the brothers learn is one of sex as betrayal and coercion. Shahriyar proceeds to have his sexual pleasure with a virgin every night and have her executed in the morning. Shahrazâd enters the scene, winning a verbal duel with her father, the vizier, who attempts in vain to keep her from setting foot in a situation that will leave her another victim of Shahriyar. Her self-imposed task is to drastically alter the behavior of this serial-killer ruler. She brings along her sister Dinarzad (Dunyazad in some versions). Shahrazâd's ruse is to narrate a story every night for the king. But Shahrazâd's stories are never completed at the break of day, thus assuring the continuity of her life, as she will carry on her story cycle the next evening. In this way Shahrazâd is able to keep herself and her sister alive. At the end of the text the reader discovers that the storyteller has borne the king three sons. An elaborate marriage ceremony takes place in which Shahrazâd weds Shahriyar, and her sister, Dinarzad, weds Shahzaman. The sexual disturbance with which the text began has been rectified, with the establishment of the patriarchal couple.

The stories Shahrazâd narrates include adventure, chance, dramatic twists, disguises, and rediscoveries. Probably the most consistent topic, however, is human sexuality, both as love and as lust. The full panoply of sexuality is also on display, including orgies, same-sex relations, and play with the physically deformed. The treatment of sexuality in the Nights is strikingly open, even nonjudgmental. When there is a morality present, it is most often one of love, trust, and honesty.

This sexual explicitness is seen as threatening by many in the contemporary Arab world. Between the neo-Puritanism of the Islamists, the heritage of Victorian prudery absorbed under European imperialism, and the shame felt by some secularized Arabs that their culture should be best known by such fanciful tales, the unexpurgated Arabic Nights is generally unavailable in the Middle East. The famous nineteenth-century Bulaq edition is censored in its native Egypt and can only be purchased on the black market.


Aboul-Hussein, Hiam, and Charles Pellat. 1981. Chéhérazade, Personnage Littéraire. Algiers: Société Nationale d'Edition et de Diffusion.

Ali, Muhsin Jassim. 1981. Sheherazade in England: A Study of Nineteenth-Century English Criticism of the Arabian Nights. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. 1991. Woman's Body, Woman's Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. 1997. "Shahrazâd Feminist." In The Thousand and One Nights in Arabic Literature and Society, ed. Richard G. Hovannisian and Georges Sabagh. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. 2004. "Homosociality, Heterosexuality, and Sheherazade." In The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia, ed. Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen. Santa Barbara: ABCCLIO.

Marzolph, Ulrich, and Richard van Leeuwen, eds. 2004. The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

                                  Fedwa Malti-Douglas