Aphelion Issue 290, Volume 27
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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 night.

The Content of The Nights

A Thousand Nights and One Night is vulgar, satirical, humorous, sexist, racist, xenophobic, violent, and brimming with magic.

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 Ali-Nur

A man lifts up his arms to God
Asking that bliss
Be his;
A woman lifts her legs in the air
With the same prayer.
Is it not odd?

- The Tale of Kamar Al-Zaman and Princess Budur

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 effect.

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.

External Links

Here is a good site that describes the difficulty of translating Arabic poetry into English.

The Wikipedia 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

Mr. 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.

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