alf layla wa layla
By Hanan Ramadan                       []

The Thousand and One Nights (alf layla wa layla) or The Arabian Nights, as they came to be known, owes its origins to three distinct cultures and storytelling traditions: that of India, Persia and the Arab world. The Arabian Nights first appeared in its Arabic form around 850 AD and it has been considered a remarkable mystery in Classical Arabic Literature. Although many scholars deny its literary importance, The Arabian Nights can be viewed as a valuable source of Middle Eastern social history, being composed of the most extensive and intimate recordings of the medieval Islamic period. Generations of Arabic readers have appreciated the versatile and imaginative use of Arabic and the mixture of the classical and colloquial language in many of the stories, a style which helped diversify the characters from the narrative.

While chroniclers from the 10th century maintain that the tales were derived from a Persian book of folk tales called, 'Hazarafsaneh' (A Thousand Stories) the exact origins of The Arabian Nights is not certain and academic opinions are divided. Like many folk tales, The Arabian Nights may have originated from true stories which were embellished over time for entertainment value. The success of The Arabian Nights stories over many other forgotten folk tales may be due to their blend of popular themes; heroic and romantic adventures are littered with mystery, old wisdom and exciting struggles between good and evil.

Two of the most popular stories in The Arabian Nights are those of 'Shahriyar and Shahrazad', the first and main story, and 'Sinbad the Sailor'. The tales bear three main elements or notions which are typical of all the stories in the collection: 1) If there is a problem, there is a solution; 2) Endurance can enable a crisis to reach a resolution; and 3) Fantastic elements help the protagonists to maintain their endurance.

In the story of Shahriyar and Shahrazad, the reader is introduced to Shahriyar, a mythical king, who upon discovering his wife's infidelity has her put to death. Henceforth, fearing further sexual betrayals, he only weds virgin brides whom he takes to his bed for a single night and has beheaded the following morning. The story reaches its crisis as the king's murderous actions threaten the lives of all the girls in the kingdom. The solution comes from the clever and beautiful Shahrazad, who volunteers herself to be the king's next wife and strikes a bargain with him by which he will not put her to death until she has told him a story. Her story, or stories, since many tales are interwoven and imbedded into the first, lasts for two years and 271 days, if we are to take the 1001 nights literary. The continuous story-telling manages to captivate the king's attention and hold his patience with its fantastic and mysterious tales, its vivid descriptions and breath-taking heroism. Shahrazad's story-telling is in itself a heroic and life-saving device, which finally forces the king to spare the wise and courageous girl's life.

Wisdom is seen as a powerful if not invincible tool in many of the stories, not least in the story of Sinbad the Sailor. As in the tale of Shahriyar and Shahrazad, Sinbad's story comprises of many other stories which the hero relates to a gathering of noblemen in the form of seven adventures. On each land or sea voyage, Sinbad comes across foreign lands and strange creatures, which allow him to show his intelligence and courage. On every journey, Sinbad reaches a crisis as he braves a dangerous creature or an evil tyrant but he always finds a solution by using his ingenuity, his diplomacy and his strength. Sinbad does not rely on the power of destiny or on God, instead the hero takes matters into his own hands, risking devastating consequences which, luckily, bring with them great rewards. After every story, Sinbad manages to return safely to Baghdad and so one story ends and another begins forming a dramatic and exciting cycle of heroic acts.

While The Arabian Nights knew great popularity throughout the Middle East, it was rapidly translated into a number of other languages, showing its early appeal to non-Middle Eastern readers. Although the subtleties of language are unfortunately lost in translation, the exotic and romantic imagery provided great inspiration for the Western travellers, writers, artists and poets of the 18th and 19th centuries whom we refer to as 'Orientalists'. This period saw a surge of interest in the Middle East and Persian poems such as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Nizami's Khamsa and the Shahnameh were translated or re-translated, often accompanied by illustrations. Romantic poets such as Coleridge, Tennyson, Shelley and Byron were greatly inspired by the mysterious and magical East. 'Arabian' imagery, Middle Eastern history and folklore also provided painters such as Delacroix and Lord Leighton with endless inspiration. Writers such as Walter Bagshot appreciated the wild exoticism of the tales, comparing them to the drab realities of Europe in the age of the railway and the gas lamp. During the later 19th century and 20th century, the Western obsession with The Arabian Nights themes was still strong, as we see from Leon Bakst's Russian Ballet designs for Scheherazad and the endless cartoons and Hollywood films from the forties and fifties which are based on the adventures of Sinbad, Aladdin and other stories from, or based on The Arabian Nights.

As we begin the 21st century, the influence and subsistence of The Arabian Nights legacy can still be felt, whether it is in literature, art, music or fashion. The timeless tales of ingenuity and heroism offer universal and positive appeal to the heroic, Bedouin fantasies of Arabs and Westerners alike.