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The Heights of One Thousand and One Nights: Arab Folklore at its Finest

posted on: Apr 30, 2021

By: Holly Johnson/Arab America Contributing Writer

Think back to a much simpler time in your life, when the biggest thing you had to worry about was which cartoon you would watch first on Saturday morning as you sank your teeth into the first bite of the sugariest cereal you could find (or that your Mom would let you buy; shout out to my dad who helped me smuggle the family size box of Fruity Pebbles into the shopping cart every three weeks).

When you settled into your customized princess (or superhero) sheets at night, what fairy tale enthralled you before drifting off into a fantasy world of your own? For some, stories of the young damsels in distress at the hands of swarmy stepmothers, intolerable beasts, and wicked witches nestled deep among the trees permeated the night air, sending a chill of fear, or the tingle of love down their spine. For others, the tales of Ali Baba and his forty thieves, and Aladdin’s effervescent lamp lit up their childhood like a proverbial firecracker on the Fourth of July.

The Birth of Folklore

Arab culture is filled with traditions and colorful stories passed down through generations orally and through written word. Therefore, it is no surprise that fairy tales are a commonality in Arab households worldwide. One of the most popular collections of fairy tales known throughout society is the collection of Middle Eastern folktales titled “One Thousand and One Nights”.

Sometimes referred to in English versions as simply, “Arabian Nights”, or “Arabian Nights’ Entertainment” (depending on the edition in question), the work features over a thousand short stories collected by various authors over numerous centuries across North Africa, Central and South Asia, and the lands of the West.

1470 Mamluk Treatise/Nicholas Petrou

Persian Origins

Many of the stories can be traced to Middle Persian Literature/Pahlavi Persian Work (9th and 10th century CE), while it has been theorized that others are from Mamluk and Abbasid eras. Mamluk Sultanate, a medieval realm turned caliphate, ruled Egypt from the overthrow of the Ayyubid dynasty to 1517 and the Ottoman conquest. Spanning the Levant and Hejaz, along with Egypt, a significant emphasis was put on the unique qualities of art, including literature, with a plethora of artists heralded as divine creators.

In comparison, Abbasid, a dynasty founded on Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Abassibn Abdul-Muttalib, succeeded the Islamic prophet from Muhammad himself. Ruling as caliphs from Baghdad from 750 to 1258, and again from 1261 to 1517, the collection of folktales featured in One Thousand and One Nights contain overt elements of Islamic philosophy in their characterizations and plots.

Although the collection features a multitude of stories, a common theme throughout the assembly is the initial story of ruler Shahryar and wife, Scheherazade as they navigate through the tumultuous valleys and mountain peaks of life. Referred to as a ‘frame story’ in modern literary circles, the use of such in this early piece of work is truly revolutionary and is often cited as the evolutionary beginning of subtle thematic techniques. While the most popular stories of the collection include Aladdin and the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, one doesn’t have far to dig to find hidden gems.

Iconic Literary Themes

Along with the use of a “frame story”, One Thousand and One Nights is often studied and beloved for its use of vivid detail and imagery, seemingly enveloping the reader into its world of magic, triumphs, and tribulations. As is common in Arab culture, each tale is inextricably tied in with themes of fate and destiny, as one is often portrayed as having a ‘set’ course in life, a pre-determined path that is reached through several stepping stones which are overturned exactly when/how they should be in order to reach the final destination. Coincidence and self-fulfilling prophecy are also common throughout the works, as characters grapple with understanding whether occurrences in their lives are works of a higher power or mere coincidence that is not meant to truly understand.

Ali Cairene and the Haunted House of Baghdad/One Thousand & One Nights

Ghouls (The Not so Friendly Kind)

Surprisingly, horror and paranormal fiction are present in this intriguing folklore, making One Thousand and One Nights the earliest surviving work of literature to portray ghouls. In the tale, Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad, the house in question is haunted by jinns (modern-day genies). Thought of as supernatural creatures in Islamic and pre-Islamic Arabian theology, jinns are portrayed as the in-between between demons responsible for misfortune and diseases supportive, benevolent creatures who neither cause harm nor good, yet are present. A similar focus on the supernatural is also evident in the story, The History of Gherib and his Brother Agib, in where Gherib (a wayward prince) fights off a gang of callous ghouls eventually enslaving them and converting them to Islam.

If science fiction interests you, you’ll be happy to note that One Thousand and One Nights even features elements of science fiction and fantasy that are not only groundbreaking for their time but entertaining in the era of CGI. From Bulukiya’s quest for the herb of immortality leading him to a journey through Paradise (Heaven), Hell, and through various intergalactic cosmos in The Adventures of Bulukiya to Abdullah the Fisherman’s (Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman) sudden ability to breathe underwater leading to a discovery of an underwater society featuring primitive communism, One Thousand and One Nights is abounding with creativity and innovation, based on concepts of the human experience.

Whether the irresistible charm of One Thousand and One Nights has brought you amazement one time, or 100, we encourage you to re-discover the hypnotic charm that its pages offer, and think of the comparisons and similarities its characterizations bring to modern Arab culture.

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