A Thousand Nights and One Night
by jaimie l. elliott
Not Just One Night...
When the hearts of kings are broken, their morals can turn suspect
and the consequences horrific. One day, Shahzaman, the king of
Samarkand, began a journey to visit his older brother King Shahryar in
Persia. Forgetting something, Shahzaman returned to his palace that
night only to discover his wife in bed with a black servant. Enraged,
he promptly executed them both with one powerful stroke of his sword.
Thus troubled, he went on to complete his trek to see his brother.
There, as he awaited Shahryar's return from hunting, Shahzaman
witnessed an even worse betrayal: Shahryar's wife and women slaves
engaged in a raucous orgy with a number of black male slaves.
Figuratively emasculated, Shahryar became a misogynistic sonofabitch
of the highest order. He first beheaded his wife and the slaves. Then,
for the next three years, he married a young virgin each day, had his
way with her that night, and beheaded her the next morning. Not
surprisingly, the supply of young virgins dwindled . The wazir's
daughter, Shahrazad, offered herself for marriage, much to the distress
of her father. That night, after being intimate, Shahrazad began a
tale, but "...[she] saw the approach of morning and discretely
fell silent". Curious on how the story ends, the king allowed her
to live another day in order to learn the conclusion.
And so Shahrazad strung along Shahryar, always starting a story that
would not finish by dawn. She did this not for one night, not for ten
nights, not for one hundred nights, but for one thousand nights and one
The Content of The Nights
A Thousand Nights and One Night is vulgar, satirical,
humorous, sexist, racist, xenophobic, violent, and brimming with
A Thousand Nights and One Night is also lyrical, profound,
tragic, tolerant, serene, beautiful, and replete with the mundane.
The reason for such contrasts is that it is not one story but a
collection of stories, sourced from Persia, the Arab world, India,
Egypt, and other cultures, all framed under the ongoing plot of
Shahrazad's attempt to entertain her husband and avoid execution. The
range is immense, from simple, short fables to layered epics, from
crude comedies to romantic tragedies. Nothing is too taboo and nothing
too grandiose for the Nights. There are even
stories-within-stories as protagonists relate their own episodes. The
result is a satisfying olio that is amazingly complex, especially
considering it is a work of antiquity.
The techniques leveraged have fascinated writers for centuries. The
story-within-a-story is famously illustrated with The Tale of
Sinbad the Sailor, an epic adventure derived from The
Odyssey, where Sinbad recounts each of the seven voyages as a
separate story. The Nights also relies heavily on allegory and
foreshadowing. For example, physical beauty is often a manifestation of
spiritual beauty, and the destinies of princes and princesses are
ordained by Allah. However, as befits its complex nature, exceptions--
such as told in the story of Aziz and Azizah where the focus
on physical beauty and sexual gratification lead to tragic
repercussions for all-- demonstrate a literary maturity not normally
seen in ancient texts.
Fantasy is a common undercurrent. Jinn and ifrit often act as
catalysts for stories, sometimes bringing together lovers from across
the world or causing mischief to humankind. Magical items and secret
caches of treasure, guarded by riddle or beast, are frequent motifs.
Islam is a central tenet for everything, although its tolerance for
other religions can vary greatly, even within the same story. In
The Tale of King Umar Al-Numan, Ibrizah, the warrior
daughter of a Christian King, is praised for her prowess, beauty, and
wisdom, even as Christians are derided for putting excrement in their
hair. The nobility of a Muslim is questioned when King Umar drugs
Ibrizah and rapes her while she sleeps. Deprived of her virginity and
the secret to her strength, she dies tragically at the hand of her
slave as she attempts to return to her Christian family.
In addition, the poetry is expressive and commonplace, and is
discussed in the next section.
The Poetry of the Nights
His ink was blood and his good lance at rest
A ready pen
For fair calligraphy;
It wrote red songs in praise of victory
Upon the white papyrus of the breast
Of other men.
- The Tale of Sweet-Friend and
A man lifts up his arms
Asking that bliss
A woman lifts her legs in the air
With the same prayer.
Is it not odd?
- The Tale of Kamar Al-Zaman and
Both Persia and the Arabic world are famous for their poetry. The
Nights is a wonderful collection of these versifications. Many
stories contain at least one poem. And, as with the stories, there is
great variety in terms of substance. The use of imagery and rhyme are
evident, although rendering it in English relies on the skill of the
translator since English is not conducive to rhyming (a difficulty found
in many translations of epics into English).
It is not uncommon for poetry to be integral to a story. In The
Tale of the Six Different Coloured Girls, the female concubines, at
their master's behest, compete in a poetry contest where each extols
her virtues while critiquing the others. In other stories, a character
demonstrates his or her wisdom and elegance by composing poems
appropriate to the moment. Poems are also used to relate an anecdotes
or proverbs. Sometimes they are used for comedic effect. Poetry is a
powerful, versatile tool in the Nights and used to great
Spelunking the Mythology
A Thousand Nights and One Night is a juggernaut in the world
of literature. Its impact cannot be overstated. It has influenced
countless writers and poets that continues into modern times. It has
left an imprint on fantasy, horror, and crime fiction genres. Many
varieties of the Nights exist, having evolved over time since
before 900 AD, so it is not possible to identify a canonical version. I
personally recommend Dr. J. C. Mardus' narration.
The Nights is also heavily represented in the entertainment
industry. A number of films and television programs are based on the
Nights or the stories within. One notable set of examples were
Ray Harryhausen's three Sinbad movies: The 7th Voyage of
Sinbad, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Sinbad and
the Eye of the Tiger. More recently, in 2000, ABC created the
lavished miniseries Arabian Nights that would garner an Emmy.
And Disney once again corrupted the original story by producing
Aladdin, one of the most successful animated features to date.
Here is a good site
that describes the difficulty of translating Arabic poetry into English.
entry is a good starting point for those interested in A
Thousand Nights and One Night.
Dr. J. C. Mardrus (translated by Powys Mathers); The Thousand Nights
and One Night vols. I-IV, 1964, Routledge
© 2009 Jaimie L. Elliott
Elliott currently resides in Marietta, Georgia where he spends much of
his time working as a project manager for IBM. His first
love is fantasy, although he dabbles in poetry and
literary fiction as well. He won first prize in the short
fiction category in the Georgia Writers Association yearly
contest and has been published in Aphelion numerous times.
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.