The Medieval 'Nights'

     "To erect the palace of The 1001 Nights, it took generations of men, and those men are our benefactors, as we have inherited this inexhaustible book, this book capable of so much metamorphosis," Borges said of one of his favorite books. The palace of The Nights, in the form in which we now know it and enjoy -- which is to say the 19th century Arabic editions printed in Egypt, India and Germany that have served as the basis for all but one of the translations since Galland -- that structure with its spacious pavilions, its charming recesses, its secret chambers and mysterious passages must have been the work of many literary hands, and it must have been the result of a development in Arabic alone that lasted about a thousand years.

     Earliest mention of a text with a clearly antecedent relation to the contemporary work is found in a papyrus dating from the Ninth Century A.D. The papyrus mentions two characters Dīnāzād and Shīrāzād -- later to be Dunyāzād and Shahrazād -- and has a few lines of narrative in which the former asks the latter to tell a story. 1 There is also mention of a title that anticipates the title we now know: "The Book of Stories From the Thousand Nights."

     About a century later two writers, al-Mas'ūdī and Ibn an-Nadīm, mention the same work. In his book Meadows of Gold (Murūj adh-dhahab) the historian Mas'ūdī (d. 956) states that among the books which contained translations of stories from Persian, Indian and Greek sources was a book called "A Thousand Tales" (Alf khurāfah) also known as "A Thousand Nights" (Alf laylah). 2 Mas'udi says that it is the story of a king, his vizier, the vizier's daughter and her slave, and that the last two are called Shirazad and Dinazad. But they are not yet sisters. In his bibliographic work The Catalogue (Al-Fihrist), Ibn an-Nadim, who died around the year 990, mentions a work translated from Persian called "The Thousand Stories." He also gives a summary of the frame story, but he criticizes it as "a coarse book, without warmth in the telling." 3;   Then, for the next seven centuries there are only two even briefer references to its existence. In the 12th century a loan record for a Jewish bookseller in Cairo mentions the title "The 1001 Nights" -- the earliest mention of its present title -- and the Egyptian historian al-Maqrīzī in the early 15th century cites authors who indicate the work was in circulation in Cairo in the late 11th century. 4

     The infrequency of these references, their brevity and their tone all point to the insignificance of the work in the eyes of recognized practitioners of medieval Arabic literature.

     In addition to these testimonies, there is also what could be called the 'material evidence'; those stories in The 1001 Nights that show some relation to other works of medieval Arabic literature and to works of other literatures. Here it will be useful to distinguish between three categories.

     The first category would contain stories that reveal its links with a few specific works in medieval Arabic literature. For example, 'The Story of the Steward' told within the longer story of 'The Hunchback' is roughly the same story recounted as fact by the tenth century author at-Tanūkhī in his book Happiness After Hardship (Al-Faraj ba'd ash-shiddah). It is the story of a husband who offends the delicate sensibility of his wife on their wedding night by forgetting to wash his hands after having eaten a certain spicy stew called zīrbājah. 5 When the same dish is served at a banquet years later and the other diners demand that he eat some of it, the unfortunate man washes his hands one hundred and twenty times, and then tells the story of his disastrous wedding night.

     Another story narrated within 'The Hunchback,' 'The Story of the Lame Young Man,' also shares its plot with stories and anecdotes found elsewhere in the literature. In the other versions the plot also turns on a dish, this time another sort of stew called madīrah, which similarly provokes the recounting of a painful story. However, in 'The Story of the Lame Young Man,' as regards its plot function, the dish of stew is transformed and split into two human characters, into a or judge and his daughter. 6 A madīrah anecdote, always purportedly true, which focuses on a clash between guest and host over the provocative dish of madīrah is fairly widespread in medieval anecdotal literature; an example can be found in al-Khatīb al-Baghdādī's (d. 1071) anecdotal work The Misers. 7 Interestingly, the anecdote there is attributed to the same author, Tanukhi, who has the analogue of the previous story, 'The Story of the Steward,' in one of his books. The story al-Maqamah al-madiriyah in an eleventh century work called al-Maqāmāt by al-Hamadhānī makes use of the same madīrah plot. This story departs from the usual plot of the Maqamat (sing. maqamah) which revolves around a meeting between a gullible narrator and a trickster figure. 8 The eleventh century physician Ibn Butlān also makes use of this plot in his comic work The Physicians' Banquet (Da'wat al-atibbā'). It is also found in an anonymous thirteenth century work al-Hikayāt al-'ajībah -- "Wonderful Stories."

     Finally, more such material links are found in the story 'The Sleeper Awakened,' a story which Galland translates, but which is not found in two of the major 19th century Arabic editions, the Būlāq or the second Calcutta editions. The story is comprised of two parts; in the first part, the main character, Abū 'l-Hasan, is tricked by Hārūn ar-Rashīd into believing that he is the Caliph. In the second part, Abu 'l-Hasan tricks Harun into thinking that he and his wife have died. The first part of the story is also found in a work by a 17th century Egyptian author al-Ishāqī (d. 1650-1). Ishaqi writes when Egypt is a province in the Ottoman Empire, and in his work Akhbār al-uwal fī man tasarrafa fī Misra min arbāb ad-duwal or (roughly) "Accounts of Previous Rulers of Egypt" he gives the first half of the story 'The Sleeper Awakened' as fact in the section devoted to Harun ar-Rashid. The second half of the story seems to be a reworking of an anecdote told of the Abbasid poet/buffoon Abū Dulāmah that is found in the famous work of Abū 'l-Faraj al-Isfahānī, the Kitāb al-Aghānī "The Book of Songs." 9 The relative lateness of Ishaqi makes the occurrence there more interesting from my point of view, for with him we are within a few decades of Galland's discovery of the manuscript of The Nights in Istanbul. Another brief passage in Ishaqi is also of interest in this context. In an account of a visit to a graveyard by an anonymous narrator (said only to be one of the ahl al-latāfah or 'people of refinement'), the narrator states that the purpose of his visit is "to visit the dead and reflect on the lessons of what has passed... and to remember the destroyer of delights, the separator of societies, he who makes orphans of son and daughters..." 10 The exact phrase "the destroyer of delights..." hādim al-ladhdhāt is found at the end of numerous stories in The 1001 Nights, and indeed the version here with mention of the 'maker of orphans' (muyattim al-banīn wa 'l-banāt) is, word for word, the same as the version of this sentence that comes at the end of the last story Shahrazād tells, the story of 'Ma'rūf the Cobbler.' The nature of Ishaqi's work is also telling; much of it is patent fiction passed off as historical and edifying anecdote. These things strongly suggest that Ishaqi knows The Nights in a version very much like the one we know, and, as noted, we are only a few decades removed from the date when Galland purchases his manuscript of The Nights.

     The second category of 'material evidence' contains stories in The 1001 Nights that make use of and revise the plots of extremely well-known stories in Islamic culture; stories about figures like Abraham, Joseph and Solomon are examples. The importance of the distinction between this second category and the first one will be made clear shortly.

     Finally, in the third category are the stories which make use of plots which are even more widely spread, the 'Cinderella' plot, the 'Phaedra' plot and so on.

     What do these links suggest about the development of the text of The 1001 Nights at any particular stage in the Middle Ages? Unfortunately, not very much. The latter two categories of material tell us nothing at all since the material is pervasive throughout the period. With regard to the first more specific category, the safest assumption would seem to be that the storytellers involved in the creation of The Nights sometimes made use of 'factual' anecdotal collections for plots, revising them freely to suit their purposes. But even this modest conclusion must carry a caveat.

     The earliest manuscripts of The 1001 Nights date from the fourteenth century, and most of the works cited above for containing analogues are earlier. Yet as we have seen, on the basis of the testimony of earlier authors, we know that some sort of collection with a title The Thousand Nights existed centuries prior to the fourteenth century. So lacking any knowledge of what the book contained in, say, the tenth or eleventh centuries, it is not absolutely certain that material moved only in one direction, out of established writers and works and into The Nights. For, a priori, is not impossible that a common store of material was drawn upon by an author like Tanukhi and a 1001 Nights storyteller. Or a third possibility; it is not even out of the question that material might have moved in the other direction, out of The Nights and into the 'factual' works of a writer like Tanukhi. Writers do lie after all. In fact, in some instances in Happiness After Hardship I think this third possibility is the most likely one, that it is Tanukhi who is 'borrowing' from some version of The 1001 Nights. For example, in the first chapter of that book Tanukhi tells, as fact, a brief story about a traveler who is shipwrecked. The story has two pieces. In the first part, a voice shouts at this man and his fellow travelers that they should throw their money overboard in order to gain a piece knowledge that will be of spiritual benefit to them. But only the one man does so. Then, when a storm destroys the ship, he is saved while all the others drown. In the second part, the saved man washes ashore on a desert island and finds a subterranean chamber belonging to a fierce jinni which contains a treasure and a beautiful girl (also shipwrecked). 11 While these elements are found in various combinations in many stories in The 1001 Nights, this story is basically that of 'The Story of the Second Qalandār' told in 'The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad.' In this case, since the story is a patent fiction for which he gives no sources, it seems likely that Tanukhi has borrowed the second part from one of two places, either from some version of The Nights or from a store of narratives (perhaps as yet unwritten) which The Nights also draws upon. This he joined to a Sufi conversion story. In view of its similarity to 'The Story of the Second Qalandar,' it is tempting to say that the first case is what happened, and that, therefore, 'The Story of the Second Qalandar' must have existed in the tenth century. But given the ubiquity of these plots and motifs, given the instability of the texts, especially in a manuscript culture, and given the question of oral and written versions and their possible interaction -- given all these factors, who can say for certain what happened in any particular case?

     Thus, while the 'material evidence,' its demonstrated links with other works, may tell us something about what sort of material furnished the raw material for the storytellers of The 1001 Nights, and how they reworked it, that evidence revals less, in my opinion, about the specific content and shape of the text at any particular stage prior to the fourteenth century.

     This sums up what we know of the history of The 1001 Nights until the year 1704. In that year, Antoine Galland began to publish his translation of a manuscript he had purchased in Istanbul while serving there as an assistant to the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Its immediate popularity and its title proved fateful. Galland's work contained 281 nights; given the title, his readers wondered when the other 720 nights would be published. That the number 1001 for much of its history simply meant 'a lot' is a safe conjecture in view of the rather free use of numbers in medieval Arabic literature. However, the number proved fateful, and the subsequent history The 1001 Nights followed 'the path of the signifier,' so to speak. From that point on, the work's dual versions in European translations and in Arabic manuscripts become intertwined in a very complicated relation, with its popularity in Europe creating a demand for a 'complete version' -- that is, a work with 1001 Nights, though whether an Arabic manuscript with 780 more Nights worth of stories existed at that point is open to debate. In any event, it can be shown that this demand also shaped subsequent Arabic editions.

     That story has been told and analyzed in detail by Muhsin Mahdi in the work cited in a previous note and interested readers should refer to it I would caution them, however, about Mahdi's conclusions about what stories should be regarded as making up The 1001 Nights, even though his argument has little importance for the readings which follow. In my opinion his conclusions are wrong because they proceed from mistaken assumptions about what sort of book The 1001 Nights was in the medieval period.

     Mahdi's book is a detailed study of Galland's translation and of the subsequent interaction between his and other European translations and Arabic editions. Prior to this work he devoted years to the study of Galland's manuscript sources, some of which are now lost, and to the reconstruction of a prototype manuscript for The 1001 Nights. His conclusions as to what stories belong in The 1001 Nights rest on these two bases. Mahdi shows how European demand for a 'complete version' of the work, that is, one with one thousand and one nights -- which the work probably did not have through most of its existence -- led to the creation of Arabic manuscripts in the 18th and 19th centuries that delivered more nights and more stories. Thus, as Mahdi puts it, the book came to be a "catch all" for popular narratives to meet that European demand.

     His reconstructed manuscript is a very interesting Arabic text, a pleasure to read, and faithful in Mahdi's view to the presumed antecedent of Galland's manuscript, a 14th century Syrian manuscript. Comparison of that presumed 'original' with the Bulaq edition and Macnaghten's Second Calcutta, which are based on later Arabic manuscripts, leads Mahdi to conclude that a huge number of the stories in modern versions of The 1001 Nights do not 'belong' in it. Thus Mahdi's version of The Nights and a 19th century Arabic edition like Bulaq confront each other as uncanny doubles with a claim to the same name; it is rather like the Amphitryon-like moment in 'The False Caliph' when Harun ar-Rashid is confronted with his double in the form of the false caliph.

     While Mahdi's investigations have done much to clarify how the book came to exist in the form we know it now, only the logic of the specialist could impel someone to reach a conclusion like his; that stories such as 'The Seven Voyages of Sindbad,' or 'Aladdin and His Lamp' do not 'belong' in The 1001 Nights. At this point in its history, this seems rather like mounting a campaign to change the name of the West Indies to rectify Columbus' error. The most recent English translation of the work based on Mahdi's manuscript illustrates my point..

     In 1990, Husain Haddawy published a translation The Arabian Nights which was based on Mahdi's reconstructed manuscript.12 In his introduction to his translation Haddawy subscribed to Mahdi's position; he writes of the Egyptian manuscript tradition that it "produced an abundance of poisonous fruits that almost proved fatal to the original" (xii). 'Aladdin and His Lamp,' he tells us, must be regarded as a "forgery" (xiii). Five years later, however, Haddawy brought out a second volume, The Arabian Nights II containing -- yes, the 'forgeries' and 'poisonous fruits.'13

     For my part, the diversity of stories in the later manuscripts does not bother me, and I think, in any case, there is somewhat more unity to be found in the modern book than Mahdi is ready to allow. Even later stories like 'Jūdar and His Brothers' show features that relate them stylistically and thematically to earlier stories. But more importantly, given the general scorn on the part of the medieval Arabic literary elite for outright fictions, we should be happy that the book did act as a kind of 'catch-all' for stories. For, setting aside the popular sīrahs like ''Antar' and his kin (which are admittedly are not to my taste), if a story did not find its way into The 1001 Nights it likely did not survive. 14 Beginning probably from a core of translated and reworked stories, the book must have grown by process of accretion -- the Ottoman royal palace Topkapi may furnish an architectural image for the process; what were originally independent structures are gradually joined together. And what we know of the later history does not seem to depart from this pattern. In so far as the later additions preserve more stories, I think they are welcome additions to the palace. After all, in such a vast structure, if one does not care for a certain passage, move along.

     For the reader who is interested in a more detailed history of the text, there is a fairly extensive literature. Unfortunately, much of it is printed in old and obscure journals. Besides Mahdi's work, a few of the more important works in English and French may be mentioned here. The article in the new edition of The Encyclopedia of Islam under its Arabic title Alf laylah wa laylah is a good place to start. And Robert Irwin devotes a chapter in The Arabian Nights: A Companion (New York 1995) to both the development of the Arabic work and its European editions. I would recommend Irwin's whole book without hesitation; it is an excellent work. Irwin also offers a very intelligent critique of Mahdi's conclusions, pp. 57-62 -- which perhaps is as much as saying that our doubts about Mahdi's conclusions are much the same. The first chapter by Andre Miquel in the work Les mille et un contes de la nuits (Paris 1991) speculates in a very interesting way on the reasons for the 'eclipse' of the work in Arabic in the Middle Ages. Mia Gerhardt's book, The Art of Storytelling, published in 1963, also discusses the history of the work, though her account is superseded in some degree by recent work. Lastly I will mention a book by David Pinault; Story-telling Techniques in The Arabian Nights, which tries to show us how the storyteller worked based on detailed examination of differences between manuscripts.

     In my view, despite the antiquity of many of the plots in The 1001 Nights, the stories as we have them now seem to wear the garb of the late medieval period in the Arab-Islamic world, the eras of the Mamluks and the Ottomans, that is. Thus, stories about the Abbasid Caliph Harun ar-Rashid, who ruled about six centuries before Ottoman Turks established their power, may reflect popular notions about how an Ottoman sultan lived in the 15th century rather more than they reflect such images of the way Harun lived six hundred years earlier. Not that ornate palaces, gardens, wine drinking, cup bearers and slave consorts were not features of the Abbasid court, but as found here these features often seem like those of the Ottomans. An obvious example comes in the frame story, in the scene in which King Shahriyār's wife commits adultery in the garden with a black slave; the lover, the enclosed garden are stock elements in any Ottoman Turkish gazel or love poem. On the general question of the work's historical context I might finally remark that the Ottoman period is viewed in the Arab world now as one of cultural decadence, a view propounded by Arab nationalism. However, the very existence of this book is testimony, I think, to great cultural vitality in that period.

     The reader at this point may well wonder on the basis of the previous discussion of the various versions of The Nights which Arabic text or texts (and which translations) are in my view the 'real' Nights. My answer is simple: all of them. The 1001 Nights is a multiple text, and I see no reason to exclude any standard Arabic editions or any of the translations based on it no matter how controversial they may be. Hence, while I have for the most part used MacNaughten's Second Calcutta edition, I have made free use of other editions (and of various translations) as it suited my purposes here.

     So much for literary history. Much more important for this study are the reasons why the book had such a shadowy existence in the pre-modern Arabic literature. That is to say, the historical problems posed by the book's orphan-like existence in Arabic literary culture are of less importance for what follows than the characteristics of the book that made it an orphan. These call for some discussion here, for, as I have said, my readers should know that The 1001 Nights is an exceptional, even aberrant work with respect to some of the most important conventions of medieval Arabic literature. 15 Hence, that the stories say the things I contend they do stems in many ways from the fact that this work is the 'repressed' of the literature. The factors which contribute to this status may be discussed under three headings; its genre, its linguistic style and its content. Foremost is genre, and this raises the question of the place of narrative in medieval Arabic literature.


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