April 20, 2008

Folktales: Alf Layla wa Layla

Posted in Books Reviews, English at 2:30 pm by Rou...

One of the most famous collections of ancient folktales is “Alf Layla wa Layla”, the original Arabic name of “One Thousand and One Nights”, commonly known in English as “The Arabian Nights”. Though an original manuscript of the tales has never been found, it is said to have been compiled by the storyteller “Abu abd-Allah Muhammed el-Gahshigar” during the 9th century.


The entire Arabic work was enclosed into a “frame-story” that reached Italy during the Middle Ages, but the whole “Alf Layla wa Layla” was not translated until the beginning of the 18th century, when the French orientalist “Jean Antoine Galland” translated them to French and adapted his translation to the taste of his European readers, changing sometimes the wording of the Arabic text and paraphrasing things that were foreign to Europeans. Translations into English followed in the 19th century.


The main plot of the Nights is built around king “Shahriyar”, who ruled over Persian Empire and finds out that his wife has been unfaithful, Shahriyar, then, after having his wife executed, gives his vizier (meaning minister in Persian) an order to find him a new virgin wife every night (in some versions, every third night). After spending one night with his bride, the king has her beheaded at dawn. This practice continues for some time, until the vizier’s clever daughter “Shahrazad” (better-known in English as “Scheherazade”) forms a plan to become Shahriyar’s next wife. After their marriage, she spends hours telling the king stories, and each time she stops by dawn at a crucial point, thereby arousing the king’s interest in hearing the rest of the story the following night. She is then able to make them last for one thousand and one nights. The different versions of the Nights have different individually detailed endings (in some Shahrazad asks for a pardon, in some the king sees their children and decides not to execute his wife, in some other things happen that make the king distracted), but they all end with the king giving his wife a pardon and sparing her life.


Like all Orientals the Arabs from the earliest times enjoyed imaginative stories; but since the intellectual horizon of Arabs in ancient times before the rise of Islam was rather narrow, the material for these entertainments was borrowed mainly from elsewhere. Thus, it is believed that the frame story of the “One Thousand and One Nights” is of both Persian and Indian origins. However, Egypt, Baghdad and in some way the Turks were partners in the origin of the Nights too. Such “transnational” impact is obvious in the names of the heroes and heroines of the Nights; you’ll find Indian names like “Sindbad”, Turkish names like “Ali Baba” and “Khatun”; Persian names like “Shahrazad”, “Dinazad”, “Shahzaman”, “Shapur” and many others. However, considerably the majority of names are old Arabic names that were used among the Arabian Bedouin and later Islamic names. Greek and European names occur in a few cases in stories treating of the relations between Muslims and Byzantines. Of Hebrew names primarily “Solomon” and “David” occur; both play an important role in Islamic tradition. In addition, Egyptian names referring to places and to months are in Coptic forms.


Various classifications to the tales of the Nights were put, but within all it is believed that at first the collection was entitled “Hazar Afsana” in Persian which means “Thousand Stories” and may have been changed to “Thousand Nights” when, with the Arabs, the frame-work story and other stories were combined; during the 9th century.


Originally “1000 stories” meant “innumerable” or a very large number of stories. Then resulting from the fact that since the 11th century Persia, Mesopotamia and Syria and the other countries of Eastern Islam were under the influence of the Turks, it is very likely that the name changed from 1000 to 1001 influenced by the Turkish idiomatic use of “bin bir”, which means “thousand and one”, for a large number. Thus the little “1001 Nights” at the beginning meant only a large number of nights, but later on the number was taken in its literal meaning, and it became necessary to add a great many stories in order to complete the number 1001.


Quite a number of tales are of Persian origin, especially those fairy-tales in which the ghosts and the fairies act independently. The tales that were enumerated as being of Indian-Persian origin are the following:

    The Story of the Magic Horse (The Ebony Horse)

    The Story of Hasan of Basra

    The Story of Sayf al-Muluk

    The Story of Kamar al-Zaman and of Princess Budur

    The Story of Prince Badr and of Princess djawhar of Samandal

    The Story of Ardashir and Hayat al-Nufus.


Additionally, Ancient Babylonia ideas that survived in Baghdad until Islamic times are reflected in the Nights, such as Khidr the Ever-Youthful. Also, the motif of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh is obvious in the journeys of Bulukiya and the water of life fetched by Prince Ahmad.


An attentive reader of the “Nights” will soon be astonished by the variety of their contents which include historical tales, love stories and fairy tales, tragedies, comedies, poems, burlesques, various forms of erotica, and Muslim religious legends. On the other hand, the reader will notice that these stories comprise a very wide field: there are stories of King Solomon, the kings of ancient Persia, Alexander the Great, the caliphs and the sultans on one side, and stories in which guns, coffee and tobacco are mentioned on the other side.


However, the six main distinguished classes of literature represented in the Nights are:

1.  Fairy-tales; the best known are those of “Ala al-Din and the Magic Lamp”, “Ali Baba”, “Kamar al-Zaman”, “Budur”, “the Jealous Sisters”, “Sayf al-Muluk”, “Hasan al-Basri”, and “Zayn al-Asnam”


2.  Romances and novels; the most famous are “`Umar b al-Numan and his Sons”, the “Story of Adjib and Gharib”, “Abu Kir and Abu Sir”, in addition to three categories of love-stories

1.  Ancient Arabian life before Islam.

2.  Urban life in Baghdad and Basra, love-affairs with girls or slave-girls in the cities or in the palace of the caliphs.

3.  Love-novels from Cairo which are sometimes frivolous and lascivious.


3.  Legends; very few ancient Arabian legends are inserted in the Nights: “Hatim al-Ta`I”, “Iram the City of Columns”, “The Brass City”, and “The City of Lebta”, which refers to the conquest of North-western Africa by the Arabs.


4.  Didactic stories; such as the two long cycles of “Sindbad the Wise” and “djali`ad and Wird Khan”, and the long story of the “clever slave-girl Tawaddud”.


5.  Humorous tales; such as stories of “Khalifa the Fisherman”, “dja`far the Barmakid and the Old Bedouin”, and “Ma`ruf the Cobbler”.


6.  Anecdotes; this comprises all the stories that are not classified in the preceding groups. Collections of anecdotes are the stories of the “Hunchback” and of the “Barber and his Brothers”. Other anecdotes are to be divided into three groups:

1.  Those of rulers and their circles (begin with Alexander the Great and end with the Mamluk sultans, passing by Abbasid caliphs; particularly Harun al-Rashid).

2.  Those of munificent men (Hatim al-Ta`i, Ma`n b. Za`ida and the Barmakids),

3.  Those taken from general human life (rich and poor, young and old, sexual abnormities, bad eunuchs, unjust of clever judges, stupid schoolmasters).


Just as the Nights themselves varied enormously as to the stories which they contained, so translators were prepared to attach to the Nights any story that existed in Arabic. Some of the famous stories in many western translations that while they are genuine Middle Eastern folktales, were not part of the “Nights” in its original Arabic version are “Aladdin’s Lamp”, “Sindbad the Sailor”, and the tale of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. Those three famous stories of the Nights were in fact interpolated only in the 18th century by “Galland”, who had heard them in oral form from a Marionette story-teller from Aleppo in Syria.


Though at many of its parts the “Nights” exposes excessive sex and violence, however, by and large, the book of the One Thousands Nights and One Night is an extraordinary collection of folktales that impacted not only the Arabian and Eastern cultures, but even more the folktales and storytelling culture of the western world.


All the best,





Various Internet citations remarkably of which are:





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