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.

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5 Comments | Leave a comment
  1. LJZumpano says:

    Can anything or anyone defeat a well educated American? A thirst for knowledge must be part of the exceptional American gene. Thanks for the insights above. One more piece of information to ponder and add to the pool. I am convinced that though we may have been sleeping for a long time, we are waking up and by the time we’ve saved our country, the wealth of what we have learned will prepare us for the next step, making America even better than we could have dreamed.

  2. Nemesister says:

    @LJZumpano
    That was a refreshingly positive outlook on the whole shebang. I feel better already.

  3. trevy says:

    I’ve read the Arabian Nights. A copy of it is on my bookshelf now. They’re good stories. But, in them, muslims are good people while Jews and Christians are bad.

    Just like how they feel now.

  4. thierry says:

    the burdon translation of the so called ‘ arabian nights’ makes of it a work of fetishized european Orientalism .it says more about burton- who was lashing out at Victorian puritanism and surely also liked the fact that he could get laid more in this other culture- than it does about, uh, ‘ arabs’.

    the depictions are more in tune with the lifestyles of the ottoman sultans, who were not arabs, and who are viewed largely as having been depraved and decadent in the arabized muslim middle east. it in no way can be taken as a serious exposition on muslim ethical views- they’re scatter shot, randomly thrown together fairy tales . one might as well take mother goose as the last word on christian belief , practice and social mores.

    ‘Moreover they have condemned its obsessive focus on eroticism and the strong imprint of the translator’s interests and personality. The translation is regarded as an eccentric ego- trip, Burton wanting to show off his erudition, linguistic proficiency, and personal inclinations by publishing a highly personal reworking of the text.”
    1001 Nights Encyclopedia, Vol. 1 , p. 507. Ulrich Marzolph, Richard Van Leeuwen, Hassan Wassouf

    he resolved his difficulties with translation by relying on the translation skills of another man- john payne. he had it printed privately to avoid being tossed into jail. his wife released the victorian safe version after his death. she also destroyed many of his papers to ‘ protect’ his honor. some people think he was a sufi. burton called sufism the ‘ Eastern parent of Freemasonry’. he was a freemason. sufis were the original post monotheism Deists.

    from the first translation into western languages(french ), stories were added and subtracted mostly to satisfy western readers with scant regard for authenticity. the most famous stories- aladdin and the lamp, ali baba and the 40 thieves, sinbad- are not in the arabic manuscripts and thought to have been made up by the western translators like antoine gallant. even in the ‘original’ flawed arabic (there is a massive gulf between classical written arabic and spoken dialects with ‘the arabian nights’ hovering strangely between the two. it is difficult to translate on this base alone) it’s an anomoly, a mish- mash of sufi, persian, hellenistic , egyptian, jewish, and indian tales none of which can be taken as reliable sociological studies of mores and attitudes. that the 18th and 19th c translations are colored with the attitudes and prejudices of the western translators is an understatement. 100s of years latter people are still debating the sources, the translations, and their legitimacy.

    the arabic manuscripts date from medieval times , hardly ‘ancient’ . the 1001 nights has always been far more popular in the west than in any muslim or arab speaking country . some of the tales are based on sufi poems and tales. the one you have here for instance with the enclosed gated ‘garden’ or space, the slave and depictions of open female carnality- though filtered through the prism of a rabidly patriarchal culture- is a common motif. in the really ancient world, entry into paradise, heaven- into the walled garden- was often depicted in terms of a sexual act- thus the erotic nature of some of the content although its questionable whether the muslim arab writers understood the deeper meanings of sufi mystical metaphors and their feminine concept of the god, something the sufis themselves often obscured so as not to be branded heretics. islam has always been devoid of the pro-celibacy anti- sexual pleasure leanings of the early christian church fathers.

    muslim culture is not ancient .

    if some knew what ‘Open Sesame’ said in relation to a ‘cave’ really meant to an ancient egyptian …they’d be horrified or excited….maybe both.

    no skin color has been immune from being made a slave. every extant religion today has had a period where it condoned slavery. people barely understand or recognize true slavery in the modern world- it’s a joke to think they could understand it within the context of another time and culture wherein white people enslaved other white people or free born muslims begged to be sold into the malmuk military slave class which controlled egypt. humans exploit other humans- always have, always will.

    • Maynard says:

      Thierry, you address questions that I’d wondered about: How accurate was Burton’s translation, and to what extent were the Tales reflective of the Persian/Arabian/Muslim/whatever culture? From a casual glance (I’m not a scholar of these things!), I didn’t see Burton severely challenged, and his translation seems to still be favored; therefore I assumed it didn’t stray far from the mark. Yes, I can understand that a sleazy translator might, for example, substitute “blackamoor” for “servant” in order to force the tale into a framework that would be acceptable to Victorian sensibilities; however I figured that those sort of liberties would have sidelined this translation over the years. But I’m not arguing with your assertion to the contrary; I’m just noting why it wasn’t obvious to me. As to what the Tales say of the culture…well, that depends upon how widespread they were. Yes, it seems to me that Mother Goose does have a lot to say about our culture; anything that makes the rounds tells you something about the customs of an era. If Martians came to Earth, they would learn more about us from reading Mother Goose (or the Arabian Nights) than listening to the debates at the United Nations. Ha ha, yes, I admit using the word “ancient” in reference to a mere thousand years or maybe less, which isn’t a big enough number to justify that description; I got a bit hyperbolic in making the point, in that the Tales predate the West as we know it and America in particular. Yes, Muhammad died in 632 AD, so he’s much junior to Jesus not to mention Moses; Islam barely predates Scientology. And it’s true that slavery didn’t equate to skin pigmentation, and of course the “slavery” of the culture and the day wasn’t quite the same as the slavery of the plantation. My understanding is an Islamic slave could *sometimes* do quite well; in some cases the “slave” might be more akin to having a job; albeit a job from which one could not resign. Correct me if I’m wrong. But every culture has its class distinctions and its taboos. The tales of the Old Testament are familiar to us also. Anyway, I appreciate hashing over these issues, which of course are far too big to sort out in detail, but it’s the sort of stuff that we all should at least be exposed to. Ha ha, your mention of humans historically exploiting other humans reminds of the joke that supposedly came out of Communist Russia: “In the West, the Man exploits Man. But here in Russia, it’s the other way around.”

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