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One Thousand and One Stereotypes

posted on: Mar 26, 2021

One Thousand and One Stereotypes

BY: Grace Friar/ Arab America contributing writer

What is a Stereotype?

The word stereotype means to over-simplify and over-generalize a belief about a group of people. Arab people within the United States face a popular belief that they are all are terrorists or anti-Western thought due to certain events, negative representation, and cultural ignorance. We all know the modern, negative stereotype of Arab Americans, but what if we take a further step back to a time when little was known about Arab culture and accessible resources for education were limited?

The Arabian Nights, more properly known as One Thousand and One Nights, was one of the most popular storybooks in Europe and North America for nearly 350 years. Compiled during the Islamic Golden Age, these stories represented a rich and multifaceted literary culture of the 8th to 13th centuries. The title “Arabian Nights” comes from the first translation to English in 1706, which first introduced Western audiences to Arab culture without traveling, and subsequently became ethnographic material. Stories created stereotypes of Arab people as barbaric, bound to tradition, lawless, and unfair to women due to these fantastical and larger than life stories being the only exposure to an Arab culture that most western civilization ever experienced.

Illustration History

One Thousand and One Stereotypes

The history and lineage of the illustration show confusion and accidental appropriation due to lack of exposure to Arab culture or whimsical illustrations of the folktales and their magic lore.

The first published edition contained no images but by the late 18th century, engravings by the Dutch artist David Coster were added to publications with comical inaccuracy. Containing no prior knowledge of the difference between medieval European and Islamic cultures, images were created with characters in European dress, sitting on European furniture, and surrounded by European architecture.

Edward William Lane, an ethnographer, published another version of “One Thousand and One Nights” in 1839-1841. Lane had spent a considerable amount of time in Egypt, so his translation of the stories began to reflect Arab culture with considerable accuracy. Lane supplied acclaimed British engraver William Harvey with historical Egyptian and Moorish architecture to copy, making the imagery a complementary educational tool rather than an experience for the imagination.

One Thousand and One Stereotypes
Edward William Lane Illustration, 1839

The first color illustrations of “One Thousand and One Nights” were published in Walter Crane’s 1876 “Aladdin’s Picture Book.” These colorful and imaginative images were tailored to the visual interests of children and usher in a new era of storytelling.

The “Orient” and Modern History

Published by Edward Said in 1978, Orientalism is a study on the Western representation of the Middle East. Which consequently established the term “Orientalism.” Edward Said’s work aimed to open discussion on how the West had negatively portrayed the Arab and Islamic world. And created a negative connotation towards being called an ‘orientalist.’

Defined by Said, orientalism is a discourse of the powerful about the powerless. An expression of “power-knowledge” that is also narcissistic. An example would be a western expert saying Islamic terrorism in Europe. Of the psychology of resentment without explaining why European Muslims might feel alienated in the first place. Since the idea of orientalism sets false stereotypes of weakness and inferiority. Western ideals can quickly become superior, which leads to appropriation, discrimination, and oppression.

Arabian Nights

Tracking back to the idea of The Arabian Nights as the West’s first exposure to Arab culture. The same idea of limited exposure can be brought to modern times. As the “Orient” grew in popularity, Western culture quickly turned to the exotic and romanticized Arab culture for amusement. From 1790-1935, the idea of Arab culture was used to sell cigarettes, chocolates, high art, house décor, entertainment, and more. Eloquent parties were thrown under the themes of Arab culture. Where guests wore clothing reflecting a marginalized idea of Arab people.

One Thousand and One Stereotypes
Shriners Parade, Washington, D.C. This group from Osmam Temple, St. Paul, Minn. 1923. Library of Congress

The Shriners were established, as a fraternity. In 1870 under the name of The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Their chapters were given the title of “temples” and their rituals corrupted many sacred practices associated with Islam. One of the said rituals imitated the pilgrimage to Mecca. As members whispered the password “Mecca” to enter a room where they held meetings after performing a “Grand Hailing Salam” towards the “Orient.”

Today, the stereotypes of Arab people have worsened in the shade of American political interests and geopolitics. Granted 9/11 does not represent even close to a minority of popular sentiment. Many Arab Americans reported suspicion of law and government as they were told to keep “high alert” for suspicious activity. Arab Americans also reported having concerns on how to protest their civil liberties and being harassed by members of the public.

Public Policy Polling

In 2015, Public Policy Polling asked voters if they supported the United States bombing of Agrabah. The fictional kingdom from Disney’s “Aladdin.” The poll reported results according to a political party where 30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats supported the alleged bombing. Considering the American public reflects poor geographic literacy. The article only reports 532 Republicans being questioned. And the extreme beliefs behind American foreign policy, this statistic is still scary.

The poor translation and bastardization of One Thousand and One Nights created the perfect storm for negative stereotypes and Western narcissism. Due to the lack of other ethnographic materials at the time of its publishing. The exotic and romanticized Arab culture fueled the entertainment of a growing secular culture. Which may not have known better than to marginalize a culture. Important works like Edward Said’s “Orientalism” opened a discussion between the powerful and the stereotyped. Which set the tone for today’s education. Modern times have provided plentiful resources to educate the masses on the beautifully secularized world. Now is the public’s time to educate themselves so as to move forward from negative misconceptions and stereotypes.


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