A multicultural post by Maynard
The legendary collection of fables from the ancient Muslim world, 1001 Arabian Nights, dates back over a thousand years. It includes such classic stories as Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. The popular English version was translated in the 1880’s by the famous English explorer Richard Francis Burton. This text is available at Amazon and also online.
Some of the text that follows is not appropriate for prime time viewing. Please continue only if you will not be troubled by “mature” discussions.
A couple years ago, I attended a local theatrical production of “1001”; a drama based upon “1001 Arabian Nights”. It was a challenging juxtaposition of the ancient fables against a modern American backdrop. I would quibble with some of the linkages, but I respected the effort. The dramatic translation worked because people today are as they always have been: Creatures tempted to do the wrong thing in spite of knowing the right thing.
Nothing that I say here is intended to bash Muslims. I think it’s obvious that the modern culture of Islam has gone horribly awry in its failures to mend its own transgressions; however I speak here of individuals rather than cultures. The “1001 Nights” are tales of individuals, and as such we can relate to them.
The tale begins when Shahryar, the Persian king, goes to visit his brother. As his caravan departs, he pauses to surprise his beloved wife with a final farewell, only to discover that she is already in the arms of her servants. He slays her in a blind rage, and then descends into a sort of madness. Given the unfaithfulness of women, he makes a terrible resolution that his future brides will die after one night with him; thus their fidelity unto the grave will be maintained.
The honest reader will acknowledge a certain logic, and even gallows humor, in the king’s insanity. Haven’t we all faced an unthinkable betrayal somewhere along the line? We understand the rage, and the need to lash out at…someone or anyone.
We also understand that lashing out at the wrong person has consequences. In Shahryar’s case, he becomes feared and unpopular. Finally, Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter, insists that she be wed to Shahryar. She has an idea for how Shahryar’s murderous rampage might be brought to an end, and she’s willing to bet her life that it will work.
Scheherazade’s plan is this: She tells a compelling story every night. Because her tales cannot quite be brought to a conclusion, and because they are interlinked with other tales that must be told, and because of the compelling nature of her storytelling, she hopes she can coerce the king to, every day, put off her execution until the morrow. The text of her tellings is the “1001 Nights”.
Just as we can all relate to the frame of the “1001 Nights”, so do the individual stories seem familiar. There are tales of greed and infidelity and good and evil.
In fact, I might say some of the stereotypes of these stories are disturbingly familiar. America has stood accused in some circles of being the sole offender against the African people. Of course slavery was an ancient and global evil, and the historical Islamists were slavers as well. (Indeed, Islamic slavery continued into the 20th century.) The “1001 Nights” repeatedly reflects this attitude towards the dark-skinned people. For example, from “The Tale of the Ensorcelled Prince” (“ensorcelled” means “enchanted” or “bewitched”):
I rose and followed her as she left the palace and she threaded the streets until she came to the city gate, where she spoke words I understood not and the padlocks dropped of themselves as if broken and the gate leaves opened. She went forth (and I after her without her noticing aught) till she came at last to the outlying mounds and a reed fence built about a round-roofed hut of mud bricks. As she entered the door, I climbed upon the roof, which commanded a view of the interior, And lo! my fair cousin had gone in to a hideous Negro slave with his upper lip like the cover of a pot and his lower like an open pot, lips which might sweep up sand from the gravel floor of the cot. He was to boot a leper and a paralytic, lying upon a strew of sugar-cane trash and wrapped in an old blanket and the foulest rags and tatters.
She kissed the earth before him, and he raised his head so as to see her and said: “Woe to thee! What call hadst thou to stay away all this time? Here have been with me sundry of the black brethren, who drank their wine and each had his young lady, and I was not content to drink because of thine absence.” Then she: “O my lord, my heart’s love and coolth of my eyes, knowest thou not that I am married to my cousin, whose very look I loathe, and hate myself when in his company? And did not I fear for thy sake, I would not let a single sun arise before making his city a ruined heap wherein raven should croak and howlet hoot, and jackal and wolf harbor and loot; nay, I had removed its very stones to the back side of Mount Kaf.” Rejoined the slave: “Thou liest, damn thee! Now I swear an oath by the valor and honor of blackamoor men (and deem not our manliness to be the poor manliness of white men), from today forth if thou stay away till this hour, I will not keep company with thee nor will I glue my body with thy body. Dost play fast and loose with us, thou cracked pot, that we may satisfy thy dirty lusts, O vilest of the vile whites?”
The original text provided quite a challenge for Richard Francis Burton, who was translating the stories for Queen Victoria’s England. It eventually split into two versions, one “unexpurgated” for gentlemen, and the other suitable for the delicate ears of ladies. The unexpurgated tales are indeed quite raw in places, even by modern standards.
So here you have, from an ancient time in an ancient land and an ancient culture, the same damned stereotypes (i.e., lusty, low-class black men; emasculated, high-class white men; lusty, masochistic white women betraying the latter in favor of the former) that plague the modern world, and for which we are constantly made to feel guilty. I don’t know about you, but this history strikes me as interesting. What does it mean? I’m not trying to jump to any conclusions, except the previously-mentioned assertion that we (“we” being America or Western culture) didn’t invent these ideas. Some racists may suggest that the ancient history of such stereotypes validates them. But of course there are also pervasive ancient prejudices and libels against, for example, the Jews, and these are obvious nonsense. So simply because a thing was “observed” and widely believed long ago doesn’t say anything about its validity.