Wednesday, May 10, 2006

How Arabian are the Nights?

I've been reading the Arabian Nights recently (well, in fact slightly more skimming to parts that I need) but a quick comparison of the Sindbad cycle and the Aladdin story reveals an interesting problem. Is the Arabian Nights truly Orientalist? According to Edward Said's Orientalism, the series of tales sets the Orient as as place of the Other, as a theatre onto which Western mores and visions are projected.

Superficially this works. Aladdin can be comfortably read as a tale which uses China and Africa as places of magic and decidedly dodgy dealings with a lamp. Sindbad can be comfortably read as a tale of foreigners recalling tall tales as to why they return with a completely different cargo that they were supposed to have.

However the textual history of the sequence throws this view of the West using the East as a way of dealing with their own short comings. Aladdin was not in fact one of the tales in the manuscripts that Galland translated, rather he invented the tale (confusingly it was later translated back into Arabic and accorded the status of being an original tale until the textual history of the Arabian Nights was uncovered). It is clearly a European tale in its construction and characters. It does not have the subtlety of the Sindbad sequence or its structure. Galland, like the proponents of the fairy tale craze in late seventeenth and early eighteenth century France, draws from the source material and creates his own satirical commentary on the French court of the day.

The structures of the tale reveal that Aladdin is European in that is in fact a linear narrative rather than the nested stories of the translated tales. So why use China and Africa rather than the countries with which there were trading links? In Fabulous Orients, Ros Ballaster demonstrates how the trading relations between the West and the Middle East had encouraged Western scholars to explore the culture, art and literature of those nations with whom they were doing business, leading to the whole scale importing and adaptation of literatures to the tastes of a home audience. At the time, China and Africa had hardly been touched by expansionist Europe so they were mysterious and afforded tale tellers a space in which they could clearly critique home rule and relations without endangering their liberty.

So are the Arabian Nights Arabian at all? Well yes and no. The original cycles come from all over the Middle East, Persia and India where the stories were circulated. However arguably Galland makes the change by adding in new tales of his own devising and so continues the exchange of narrative ideas that had been going on since the Middle Ages (as Robert Irwin's studies, For Lust of Knowing and the essential Arabian Nights Companion show as well as reading Chaucer and the Decameron amongst other works) where Eastern coutries had been used as marvellous locations or fabulous orients.

The fantasies of the two tales are similar but different and some of this comes from the modes of telling - oral and literate. Sindbad has the hallmarks of being an oral tale in that it delays gratification for the reader for seven tales, whilst Aladdin follows a more literate linear narrative from rise to fall to rise.

Aladdin's use of the Orient follows in the tradition laid down from the Middle Ages and complements Sindbad's own use of foreign lands (though these are carefully never described). So is it an Orientalist tale? I don't think so given the similar use of foreign lands and the underlying structures of mercantilism and the marvellous. It does however show the distance between the two expectations of story telling and the audience.


Blogger Zahra al rumman said...

I find your comment very interesting. As an arabic literature student i have to agree with you because looking at the work carefully we find several cycle of tales in the Nights that bring us back to its oral origin. The kitab alf layla wa layla as it's called in arabic is nothing but the transcription and the collection of several non-written orietal tradions,going back even to china!!! The fact that we call them "arabian" and think of them as that is due to the fact that probably the most important editor of the collection, anonymous to us, wanted to adjust it and give it an islamic taste. I know your thought was based on our criteria but i tried to give you a filological reason!

1:09 AM  

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