Arabian Nights is basically a collection of Muslim fairy tales — except they are racist, sexist, and often make no sense.

 

The Basics

Title: Arabian Nights
Author: Anonymous
Rating (of 5)♦ ♦ ♦ 
Year published:
Pages: variable (the version I read was 590)
First sentence: A long time ago there was a mighty king of the Banu Sasan in the lands of India and China, and when he died, he left only two sons, one in the prime of manhood and the other still a youth, both brave cavaliers.

Summary

The collection of tales — all from the Islamic Golden Age — that makes up Arabian Nights is held together by a framing story involving Shahryar and Scheherazade. Shahryar, a king, gets a visit from his brother. He discovers that his brother’s wife is cheating on him (with a Moor). He is shocked, but then discovers that his own wife is cheating on him (again with a Moor). So he executes her and decides that all women are terrible sluts. His solution is to marry a different woman every night and have her put to death in the morning before she can dishonor him. Against the wishes of her father, the vizier, Scheherazade agrees to marry the king. On the first night, she tells him a story. He is engrossed and when the sun rises she says she must leave off her story. He spares her life to hear the rest of her story — and she uses her storytelling to keep herself alive for the next 1,001 night, at which point he tells her he already decided not to kill her some time ago. The bulk of the book is the tales that Scheherazade tells over the 1,001 nights, although often those stories have frames and so, at times, there are stories within stories within stories.

There is no set collection of stories that comprises Arabian Nights, so different editions generally have a slightly different selection. Aside from the framing tale, “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor,” “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and “The Fisherman and the Jinni” are all staples (although the first three of those may actually have been unrelated Arabic folklore added to Arabian Nights by translators). (One collection, Richard Francis Burton’s 1885 publication, included 10 volumes of tales. I did not read that one. Oh hells no.)

Reaction

I understand that these stories were written hundreds of years ago. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to be a little appalled by the sexism and racism that is so ubiquitous in the book. The first story, “The Story of King Shahryar and His Brother,” the one king is pissed that his wife is cheating [with a black man] until he finds his brother’s wife is also cheating [with a black man]. In fact, the framing story is that of Shahryar and Scheherazade. So the entire plot — the fact that Scheherazade needs to tell 1,001 nights of stories — is kicked off by women and black men being sluts and cuckolds, respectively. And those themes continue throughout the entire thing. Arabian Nights seems to be set in a world where the majority of women are cheating whores and every single black man is a wife-stealer.

Also problematic for me was the fact that often shit just didn’t make sense. One story that is a great example of this is “The Tale of the Foolish Weaver.” There is a weaver who attends a wedding feast, sees many rich people, and realized that he could do better in another profession. As he is thinking this, he watches someone climb up a high wall and impress the crowd by jumping off it and landing on their feet. He decides he wants to show everyone that he can do that, too. So he jumps off the wall — and breaks his neck and dies. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Jumping off walls is not a job search strategy.  (If it were, I should be guaranteed employment for life because a number of years ago I jumped off a gorge. I should note, though, I did not get a full-time job for another seven years, so clearly it didn’t work as a job search strategy.) There is no causation or correlation in this story — and it’s not just this story. There are other tales or sections of tales that are equally lacking in causation or anything resembling it.

The other annoying thing about this book was that I had Aladdin songs in my head the ENTIRE time I was reading it. Interestingly, though, the Aladdin story was actually better in the Disney version. You might expect that Disney would destroy a classic in the process of adding obnoxious music and making it kid-friendly, but they changed the plot in one critical way that made the story much better. In the original version Aladdin has unlimited wishes; in the Disney version part of the conflict is the knowledge that he only has three wishes. I think that additional pressure significantly adds to the story. Admittedly, catchy songs kind of add to it, too, and now I can’t get then out of my head.

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2 thoughts on “Arabian Nights Review

  1. Having read this, I guess it’s also a good thing then that we’ve never gotten a faithful version of Sinbad, considering how many times Hollywood has done that character as well. Even Ray Harryhausen when he made his first Sinbad movie in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (and one of my favorite movies of all time!) said something along the lines of Sinbad as he was depicted in The Arabian Nights wouldn’t have flown with modern audiences, let alone ones from the 1950’s, and had to tweak his character a bit. The closest he ever got was the version played by John Philip Law in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, who was given to quoting various Islamic proverbs like, “Trust in Allah. But tie up your camel!”

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