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Origins of 1001 Arabian Nights

posted Aug 4, 2015, 8:29 PM by Admin NSProductions   [ updated Aug 4, 2015, 8:45 PM ]
I just conducted an extremely scientific poll. And by that, I mean I asked my Facebook friends whether or not they knew who Scheherazade is. The results are still trickling in, but when I finally gave up and started writing this post, about 66% of responders said “yes” and about 33% said “no”. Then I asked the cast and crew of our show to do the same. I realize that since we have a lot of the same friends, the scientific nature of this poll just plummeted due to my really poor research methods. But I’m a musician and a theatre person, not a statistician. For reals, what do you want of me? Anywho, the cast and crew had pretty variable results. Some had levels of “no” up to about 65%, some only around 35%.

I’m not very surprised at how many said no. When I was teaching high school, it seemed to me that a startlingly large percentage of my students didn’t know stories that I just thought EVERYONE knew. I’d think to myself, “This is our cultural heritage! How do people not know about this?”

But what if I asked, “Who has heard of Aladdin?” or “How about Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves?” I bet we’d get a whole bunch more yesses. Well, let’s see about how this is all related.

To clear it up for those of you in the “no” category, here’s who Scheherazade is. She is the heroine of an extremely old collection of tales from India, Persia, Syria, and Egypt. And by extremely old, we mean references to it in the 700’s. The story goes like this: a wealthy and powerful Sultan discovers his brother’s wife is unfaithful, and then that his own wife is unfaithful. The Sultan has his wife and her partner executed. He concludes that all women must be unfaithful and then goes on a reign of terror. Each day, he marries a wife and then has her executed in the morning before she can betray him. This goes on for an alarming amount of time until finally a brave and clever woman volunteers to be the next wife, determined to stop the murders. This brave and clever woman, my friends, is Scheherazade. Before the Sultan has a chance to kill her, she starts telling her sadistic, serial-killing, revenge obsessed husband/monarch the most interesting story. Just at the climax of the tale, she says she is tired and must go to sleep. But if the Sultan would like to hear the end, she’d be happy to tell it the next evening. The Sultan’s curiosity is piqued (it was before TV after all) and lets her live. He probably said, “I’ll likely kill you in the morning,” But the next night, she finishes the story, much to the Sultan’s enjoyment and then starts another. I think you get the idea from here. Every night a new, fascinating story and Scheherazade saves her life again. This goes on for a thousand nights, after which the Sultan decides this Scheherazade lady might not be too bad and lets her live.

Of necessity, Sultan and Scheherazade become less and less important characters in the story and the tales become the focus of the work. But some pretty interesting things happen in the tales. There are only a very few stories that repeat characters. Almost all of them are completely new plots and characters. That’s a huge number of short stories! Also, think of the structure of the whole work – it’s a fictional character (Scheherazade) making up stories about other fictional characters (a story within a story). But it doesn’t stop there. In several of those stories, characters make up stories about other fictional characters, making layers and layers of story-telling. For example, the Tale of the Fisherman and the Jinni (which we’re using), embeds in it another tale, and within that, 3 more tales! It’s pretty cool. Murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, comedies, horror stories, sci-fi and fantasy: all sorts of things come up in this collection.

Strangely enough, the Arabian Nights are not particularly well regarded in the Arab world. According to Robert Irwin, "Even today, with the exception of certain writers and academics, the Nights is regarded with disdain in the Arabic world. Its stories are regularly denounced as vulgar, improbable, childish and, above all, badly written." Well… we like ‘em just fine anyway.

Now for the stuff you’ve all been waiting for: Ali Baba, and Aladdin. Where did these two most famous tales come from? 8th century Syria or 10th century India? Nope. How about 18th century France. Here’s the story: Antoine Galland was making a financial killing translating the tales and selling them one at a time. Every day, the throngs of Frenchmen seeking literary thrills from exotic locales forked over their hard-earned francs for Galland’s translations. But when the tales finally ran out, Galland didn’t want to run out of money. So instead of translating, he wrote two new ones. Thus we have Ali Baba and Aladdin, the least authentic but most popular of the 1001 Arabian Nights.

Sinbad the Sailor is one of the originals though. Sinbad had seven voyages, all of a totally fantastic nature, in which Sinbad always outwits his way to success, adventure, and wealth. The idea that Sinbad was a swash-buckling demi-hero is made up by modern audiences looking for a hero. Sinbad is actually luckier than he is heroic.

So, did you know who Scheherazade is? Some of you did. But almost all of you know some of her stories, whether they are Indian, Syrian or French; from the 8th, 10th or 18th century. What I love about Scheherazade most is her ability to use words, stories and ideas. Even though she’s only fictional, she is a heroine worthy of emulation – she uses her brain, her heart, and her imagination to save her life instead of violence, force, or intimidation. And she doesn’t only save her life, she saves the lives of countless other women who would have fallen prey to the Sultan’s murderous appetite. And even beyond that, her voice echoes down through the centuries. And that’s pretty cool.