The magic of the Arabian Nights Essay

The magic of the Arabian Nights Essay
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  • University/College:
    University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Words: 3240

  • Pages: 13

The magic of the Arabian Nights

The original, authentic, real Ur-text of the Arabian Nights (aka Alf Layla wa-Layla, or the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, or just the Nights) is a mythical beast. There are far more than a thousand and one nights, for the thirty-four-and-a-half stories in the fourteenth or fifteenth century “core” body of the Nights were soon supplemented by other tales in Arabic and Persian, from the culture of medieval Baghdad and Cairo, and then in Hindi and Urdu and Turkish, tales carried by pilgrims and crusaders, merchants and raiders, back and forth by land and sea.

And then came the narratives added by European translators, as well as the adaptations (in paintings and films) and retellings by modern novelists and poets. There is no agreed-upon table of contents. As Marina Warner points out, at the start of this enchanting book, “the stories themselves are shape-shifters”, and the Arabian Nights, like “one of the genies who stream out of a jar in a pillar of smoke”, took on new forms under new masters. The corpus lacks not only parents but a birthplace; Persia, Iraq, India, Syria and Egypt all claim to have spawned it. So the Thousand and One Arabian Nights are not only not a thousand and one but not (just) Arabian.

The chronological and cultural strata of the Nights are like the layers of a nested Russian doll: you pull off the twentieth century (Salman Rushdie in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Walt Disney, Errol Flynn) and then the nineteenth and eighteenth century (Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Jean Antoine Galland, Richard Francis Burton, Edward W. Lane); and finally you get to the Arabic sources, and you think you’ve hit pay dirt. But then you sense, behind the Arabic, Homer and the Mahabharata, and the Bible, and you see that there is no there there. It’s not an artichoke – peel away the leaves of the later, accreted, interpolated layers until you find the original centre – but an onion: peel away the leaves and at the centre you find – nothing. Or, perhaps, everything; lacking a birthplace, the Nights also lack a grave: “The book cannot ever be read to its conclusion”, says Warner: “it is still being written”.

Scholars who could not cure themselves of the nineteenth-century obsession of searching for the source (of the Nights, of the Nile, of the human race . . .) were soon disappointed to discover that many of the most popular tales – including “Sinbad”, “Aladdin and his lamp”, and “Ali Baba and the forty thieves” – were arrivistes, with no legitimate Arab parents. Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay on “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights”, credits Hanna Diab, the Christian Arab colleague of Galland, with the invention of several of these “orphan tales”. Aditya Behl (in Love’s Subtle Magic, 2012) traces Sinbad back to Sanskrit tales of Sanudasa the merchant.

Like the beast fables and mirrors for princes that travelled from India to Europe, so too these sailors’ yarns about the marvels of the Indies circulated in the Islamic and pre-Islamic world of the Indian Ocean. (There is also a thirteenth-century Hebrew text of the Sinbad story). But for many people, the Arabian Nights without “Sinbad” or “Aladdin” is like Hamlet without Hamlet, and purists who produced “authentic” editions without these tales met with such backlash from the reading public that they quickly published supplementary volumes including the beloved bastards. Warner’s subtle unravelling of the rich history of this tradition, from the earliest Arabic traces to present-day interpretations, demonstrates that each of the many versions has a claim to its own authenticity.

Yet, within the Arabic tradition, the tales of the Nights were discounted as popular trash, pulp fiction; despite numerous allusions to the Prophet, and quotations and echoes of the Qur’an, they were “too much fun, often transgressive or amoral fun, to be orthodox or respectable . . .”. Galland cleaned out the homosexual episodes, but Burton (whom Warner calls “the Frank Harris of the desert and the bazaar”) footnoted them and generally made the tales more salacious, stealing most of them from Richard Payne and adding many of his own, thumbing his nose at the prevailing prudery of Victorian Britain, “with glee and a fair deal of invention, projection, and transference”. One reviewer epitomized the European translators as “Galland for the nursery, Lane for the library, Payne for the study, and Burton for the sewers.”

Stranger Magic: Charmed states and the “Arabian Nights” explodes two myths about the Nights: that only the Arabic stories are the “real ones” and that you need to know Arabic to understand the Arabian Nights. The two ideas are mutually reinforcing: if there were a single ancient Arabic text, one might well want to read it in the original language; but since there is no such text, the stories in all languages and translations are fair game for all of us to respond to (a creative process in which, as Borges put it, “the translator is being translated”).

The full spectrum of stories certainly yields spectacular insights in the hands of Warner, Professor of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex, who knows more than anyone alive about the uses of myth and folklore in literature, fine arts, and film. She has written eye-opening books about fairy tales about women (From the Beast to the Blonde: On fairy tales and their tellers, 1996) and men (No Go the Bogeyman: On scaring, lulling, and making mock, 2000) and spirits (Phantasmagoria, 2006) and much else. She is fluent in a number of European and classical languages.

But she does not know Arabic. Though she grew up in Cairo and spoke Arabic as a child, “unfortunately nobody encouraged me to keep it up, and besides, I never could read it”. I must confess that, as a card-carrying Sanskrit snob myself, I first regarded Warner’s lack of Arabic as a potential barrier to her understanding of the stories; after all, as she herself remarks, of William Beckford (1760–1844), “Beckford paid attention to these inconsistencies and weaknesses in the fabric of the narrative, possibly because he was working from an Arabic manuscript, and the discipline of translation sharpens one’s wits”.

Of course, Warner makes good use of the work of scholars of Arabic, pointing out, for instance, contrasts between the Arabic texts in which a huge female jinn (or genie) takes a trophy ring from 570 men, and the translations, in which she gets only ninety-eight. Moreover, the linguistic subtleties that can be achieved only by “working from an Arabic manuscript” are not essential to the hunt for the larger game that Warner is after, which is a literary archaeology and analysis of what the Nights have meant to people in diverse cultures and epochs, not merely as amusing Oriental artefacts but as profound sources of human understanding.

And even linguistic purists will pardon Warner, as W. H. Auden once pardoned Paul Claudel, for writing well. A fine novelist, Warner works her legerdemain, hiding behind the velvet curtain at the end of the book the endnotes that betray the extraordinary erudition under the elegant prose. She appreciates good writing and laces her book with bons mots from other writers as well as with her own memorable lines, such as “Homo narrans observes no ethnic divisions, and has more than one god before him” and “At a level beneath the surface of the narratives, a meaning gathers definition, the watermark in their fabric”.

Good writing, good storytelling, is the heroine of this book, embodied in the heroine of the frame story within which all the other stories are gathered: Shahrazad (Scheherazade). The cuckolded and embittered Sultan Shahriyar every night marries a virgin whom he beheads in the morning; Shahrazad volunteers, but after they have slept together she tells him a story that is still unfinished at dawn; the Sultan postpones her execution to the next day, and the next, on and on; in the course of the stories, she cures the Sultan of his misogyny. This is a story about storytelling, feminist protest, dreams, sex and violence. For Warner, it is the springboard for a meditation, threaded throughout the book, on writing as an amulet, a talisman; for writing as magic; and for the story within a story. Putting your own frame around your story makes you the author instead of just a character in someone else’s story – though of course you may be that too, whether you know it or not.

The frame mechanism also underlies the themes of the dreamer dreamt, dreams within dreams, and shared dreams, which abound in the Nights, where “the storytelling scene itself in the Sultan’s bedroom wraps the stories in the night”. Moreover, as Warner points out, “the anti-realism of the stories matches dream experiences: suddenness and vividness, fragmentation, episodic and often entangling structures, displacements in time and space, the instability of bodies, and a recurrence of certain motifs, are all features of dreams”.

Some dreamers move about on flying beds, apropos of which Warner notes that the English words sofa (from suffiah in Arabic), divan (from diwan in Persian), and ottoman (Turkish) are all words for a day bed; the oriental sofa became “the epitome of oriental hedonism, . . . a low-lying couch for reclining and abandoning oneself, alone or with others – to love-making, autoeroticism, smoking, gossiping, daydreaming, to storytelling, reading and studying, and to quietness and reflection”. It is the place where daydreaming readers lie fantasizing about the stories they’ve read.

The dream stories, too, fly all over. The tale of “A Fortune Regained” is about a man who learns, from another man’s dream, where his own fortune is hidden. Borges retold it as “The Story of Two Dreamers” and attributes it to the Arab historian al-Ishaqi, but it also entered Jewish Hassidic tradition (as the tale of Rabbi Eisik from Cracow) and was retold by Martin Buber. Sanskritists can trace some of the dream tales in the Nights back to the Sanskrit text of the Yogavasistha, which was composed alongside the Ocean of Stories, the Indian version of the Arabian Nights (frames within frames, and all), in Kashmir in the eleventh or twelfth century.

But Warner’s goal is different; she traces the dream stories forward to our present world, where the idea that the individual mind creates its own reality, which other consciousnesses may enter and control, “has become a central modern myth, paranoid, solipsistic, and deeply deterministic. It has gained purchase because it matches the way many experience their lives”.

Warner chooses just fifteen stories to retell briefly, from both the oldest and later layers (though she does not include “Sinbad” or “Aladdin and his lamp”: there is an Aladdin, but instead of a lamp he has a flying bed). Each story inspires an essay on several themes central to that story: jinns, carpets, witches, magicians, dervishes, dream knowledge, Orientalism, King Solomon, talismans, Voltaire and his crowd, Goethe, flying, toys, money, shadows, films, machines, couches, and much, much more. The essays form a coherent chain. This is not, however, a book to read straight through but one to wander in, forward and back, night after night.

Most of the stories involve magic. Warner’s argument about the importance of magical thinking in modernity is not particularly surprising, but she documents it in highly original ways. Her analysis of the exoticization of magic through the use of Oriental material, since the eighteenth century, enhances her discussion of the way that early films of stories from the Nights superimpose Arabic magic on the magic of filmmaking, so that the magic flying horse becomes an objective correlative of the projector, with the peg between the ears of the magic steed, and the brake on the tail, echoing the mechanism that controls the passage of the film through the projector. There is also the magic of speech acts, not just, “With this ring I thee wed” but “Hoc est corpus meum”, which inspired the phrase “hocus pocus” in mockery of the “trick of transubstantiation”.

Warner discusses the magic of things (such as rings and carpets) as fetishes, and cites Lorraine Daston’s insight (in Things That Talk, 2004) into idols (from the Greek eidolon), illusions that are misleading and fraudulent. Daston contrasts idols with evidence, but notes that the two often blend together; forensic exhibits may be fabricated or, on the other hand, become powerful fetishes and take on the idol’s ability to haunt. Warner compares these “objects with uncanny life” to Winnicott’s transitional objects and to the quasi-magical functioning of her BlackBerry, Satnav, and iPod. And then there is the magic of Freud.

Warner suggests that when Freud called his couch an ottoman and covered it with a Persian carpet, he may have been, “consciously or unconsciously”, creating an Oriental setting for the first psychoanalytical talking cures, “a form of storytelling, with the roles reversed (it is the narrator who needs to be healed, not the listener-Sultan)”. Freud, who kept a statue of the Hindu god Vishnu on his desk, was very much an Orientalist.

Orientalism looms large in Stranger Magic. “The Orient in the Arabian Nights has its own Orient”, says Warner, also quoting Amit Chaudhuri: “The Orient, in modernity, is not only a European invention but also an Oriental one”. Fairy tales had always had what Warner calls “a structural impulse” to imagine that dangerous magic came from far away, but the “gradual orientalisation of magicians” exacerbated the tendency to have the dirty work done by strangers, “so that the home team keeps its hands clean and its smile all innocence”. Warner writes in the shadow of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), but she is also sympathetic to Said’s later, more balanced, more generous self (in Culture and Imperialism, 1993), and she acknowledges some of the positive uses of Orientalism.

Through the dynamics of “reverse colonization”, eighteenth-century Europeans used images of Orientalist despotism and sexual and religious depravity to parody their own culture; Voltaire’s satirical Oriental contes were “an obvious instance of the West putting on Eastern dress in order to examine itself more clearly”. Western feminists could write of “emancipation in the Oriental mode”, calling up the image of Eastern men, castigated for tyranny and sexual abuses; while the effeminate East reflected Western women’s condition back to them. Performances of plays about Aladdin, in Britain, were used to address, covertly, arguments about the slave trade in America.

The film The Thief of Bagdad (1924, directed by Raoul Walsh, and starring Douglas Fairbanks) is, as Warner points out, “flagrantly Orientalist”. It ends with the Thief “acclaimed by the adoring grateful multitude as he enters the city at the head of an army bent on rescuing Baghdad from the tyrant emperor”. For us, the city is no longer Hollywood’s “Bagdad”, but CNN’s Baghdad. As I read Stranger Magic, the city of Bagdad/Baghdad shimmered before my eyes in a double image: the magical place of flying carpets and the scene of a devastating war. I was stunned by the relevance of phrases from the old stories, such as, “He falls into such a rage he declares war on Iraq: he will lay the country to waste”.

Eventually we learn that Baghdad and Iraq had those double meanings for Warner as well. How could they not? As she viewed the film, The Thief of Bagdad, during the war in Iraq in 2003, it became “an unconscious parable of Western expansionism at the level of nations”. She began the research for this book during the first Gulf War, and wrote it “during the many, appalling and unresolved conflicts in the regions where the Nights originated. I wanted to present another side of the culture cast as the enemy and an alternative history to vengeance and war”. Not that the Nights themselves come off scot-free; the “later layers” of narratives include a lot of violence against Christians and conversion to Islam, while the European translations are often anti-Semitic. But in earlier layers there is more interfaith marriage and the observance of Islamic precepts of tolerance. Warner hopes that her reading of the Nights might offer “a path towards changing preconceptions about Arabs, Islam, and the history and civilization of the Middle and Near East”.

The impulse to write a book reminding readers of the beauty and wisdom of that civilization makes Warner an Orientalist in the pre-Saidian, positive sense of the word, which once meant “people who love the Orient” – never mind how or why they loved it. Many of the early European historians of religions, in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were trying, within their Orientalist limits, to make the civilization of the Orient comprehensible, and hence acceptable, to people in the West who would otherwise regard all Orientals as ignorant savages. The founding mantra of the science of comparative religion was the hope that if you know peoples’ stories you are less likely to slaughter them, the lesson that Shahrazad taught to the Sultan. This is the comparatist’s version, avant la lettre, of Emmanuel Levinas’s famous dictum that the face of the other says, “Don’t kill me”. The guiding impulse of Stranger Magic turns out to be that noble, if perhaps naive, Orientalists’ goal.

But Warner has another personal investment in this book. She asks, at the start, “How do we live with the intrinsic, problematic irrationality of our consciousness? How do we make a helpful distinction between religious adherence and an acknowledgement that myth and magic have their own logic and potential, independent of belief in higher powers?” Noting that eighteenth-century writers used the Orient as a place where “their own reasoning imagination could take wing”, and granting that “reasoned imagination” (Borges’s phrase) is an oxymoron, she nevertheless hopes that the dream-like stories of the Nights might be the “fable of modernity” that she has longed for, “a fable that would meet anthropological needs”.

Warner confesses that her particular attraction to “the implausible, impossible, and fantastic stories” puzzles her, for, she remarks, “I was once a fervent Catholic and know what it is like to yield fully to verbal transformative magic, miracles, and other demands on faith beyond reason, and I struggled free (lost my faith) a long time ago. So why do I still like to think and read about jinn and animal metamorphoses, conjured palaces and vanishing treasures, deadly automata and flying sofas, ghastly torments and ineluctable destinies?” Ah, Marina, walk over to that ottoman that Freud covered with the carpet, lie down, and reread that paragraph; it is not your question, but your answer. And, abracadabra, it is our answer too.


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