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Shahazarad’s Storytelling

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
p. 12 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0045

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

When asked what one would bring to a desert island for pure entertainment, many readers would answer The Arabian Nights, known better as The Thousand and One Nights, because of the popular tales of Sindbad the sailor, Alladin and the magic lamp, and Ali Baba and the forty thieves. The elegant stories were told by the sultana Shaharazad to amuse her husband, the king of Samarkand, who threatened her life. In The Thousand and One Nights, the wonderful storyteller tells a different tale each night to save her life.

This translation into English, composed by Husain Haddawy (1990) and based on the text edited by Muhsin Mahdi (1984), offers new treasure to inspire the readers. The collection was edited (with useful commentaries, footnotes, and index) by the multilingual scholar Daniel Heller-Roazen (see the review of his book Echolalias in American Book Review 30[2]: 20–21, 2009). To address serious readers, Heller-Roazen included a number of “Contexts” and “Criticisms” by way of illustration of the tropes and episodes of the poetic episodes of The Arabian Nights. The “modern echoes” of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Sheherazade” (1850), Marcel Proust’s essay from Remembrance of Things Past (1927), Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s A Thousand and One Nights (1907), Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights” (1936), Mia Irene Gerhardt’s essay from The Art of Story-Telling (1963), Tzvetan Todorov’s “Narrative-Men” (1977), and other articles are suggestive, intriguing, and often insightful essays to move the discussion of the Oriental treasure forward—although a minor slip in this beautifully clear book is the omission of a commentary written by Katharina Mommsen as a leading specialist on this subject.

Entering the cave of The Arabian Nights, the reader discovers the prologue, in which King Shahrayar “took every night the daughter of a merchant or a commoner, slept with her, and the next morning ordered the vizier to put her to death,” with the caution that “There is not a chaste woman anywhere on the entire face of the earth,” and “Take that wife of mine and put her to death.” The turn came to Shaharazad, the vizier’s daughter. Her trick was an intelligent device: her storytelling. When “Shahrayar took her to bed and began to fondle her,” she said, “May I have your permission to tell a story?” He replied “Yes,” and Shaharazad was very happy and said “Listen.” After her first night of the “The Story of the Merchant and the Demon,” “morning took over Shaharazad, and she lapsed into silence, leaving King Shahrayar burning with curiosity to hear the rest of the story.” After the first half of the “strange and wonderful story,” Shaharazad replied, “Tomorrow night I shall tell something even stranger and more wonderful, delightful, entertaining and delectable” story. The reader goes on to discover Ali Baba, who finds a store of silks, brocades, carpets, jewels, and heaps of gold and silver coins guarded by the gang of forty thieves. Ali Baba and his bandits kept their gold and jewels hidden inside a mountain, and the door can only be opened by means of the magic formula, the words “Open Sesame!” The tangled stories of Alladin and the magic lamp (not included), and Ali Baba and the forty thieves seem to echo a European morality. Ali Baba’s sea voyages, landing on certain islands, vividly recalls the pilgrimage of Homer’s Odysseus, in particular the realistic account of the third voyage with the trick of the flock of sheep to escape the monstruous Cyclops, who also kills and devours some of Ali Baba’s companions. On his fourth voyage, the cosmopolitan Ali Baba was a “wicked soul [that] suggested to me to travel to foreign countries,” and like a Western businessman, he “felt a longing for meeting other races and for selling and gain.” Perhaps the European influence of adventurous wanderings associated with a moral goodness (or evilness) has inspired the enthusiasm of this story in the Western world?

Some of the best-loved stories, such as those of Alladin and Ali Baba, do not really belong to The Arabian Nights, but were “apocryphal...


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