There is a statue of a beautiful young girl carrying a jar and pouring water down and surrounded by another forty jars around her on the crossroads between the famous Karrada Dakhil (the inner district) and Karrada Kharij (the outer district) in the capital city of Baghdad. Her name is Kahramana. The iconic statue was made during the 1960s, by a famous Iraqi artist named Mohammed Ghani Hikmat.

I go around it when I go to the Iqama office (Department of Residence) in Baghdad. Kahramana fascinates me for many reasons. The fact that it was built five decades ago was a testimony to the talent of all Iraqi artists. Most impressive of all was the fact that the heroine of the story was a woman.  I don’t think there is any other Arab country  that showcases a contemporary work of art depicting a female heroine in the middle of their streets.

Many people believe that the statue of Kahramana is a statue depicting part of the tale of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” from the One Thousand and One Nights, which is often known in English as the Arabian Nights. The slave girl Morgiana pours boiling oil into storage jars where the thieves are lying in wait to attack her master.

However, there are many others, who tell another story.

KahramanaThere was a young and smart girl called Kahramana, who used to help her father running a small hotel in old Baghdad. The father used to bring a cart full of empty jars, and in the next morning he fills each jar with oil and sells them in the market. On a cold winter night, Kahramana heard some noise and later discovered that there were thieves hiding in the empty jars. Their heads were only visible to watch. Kahramana went to her father’s room, woke him up, and told him about what she saw. They came up with an idea to make some noise in the hotel so the thieves would hide completely inside the jars. When this happened, Kahramana filled a jar with oil and started pouring the oil on every single jar with a thief hiding in it. The thieves began screaming, and one after the other jumped out of the jars, by the time this happened, the police came and arrested them.

This is the story as it is told in old tales, and it dates back to the pre-Islamic era. May be the Ali Baba story was derived from this old folklore.

One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales, compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. This period lasted from the eighth century to the thirteenth century, when much of the Arabic-speaking world experienced a scientific, economic, and cultural flourishing — One Thousand and One Nights epitomising the rich and multifaceted literary output. It is one of the earliest examples of ’embedded narratives’ — which can be traced back to earlier Persian and Indian storytelling traditions, most notably the Panchatantra (an ancient Indian collection of interrelated animal fables in verse and prose). At some time (probably in the eighth century), these tales were translated into Arabic under the title Alf Layla, or The Thousand Nights. The original core of stories was probably quite small, with Arabic stories added to it in the ninth and tenth centuries.

Statues of king Shahryar and his wife Scheherazade of Arabian Nights fame in Baghdad

Hikmat made many statues in Baghdad including two big statues of king Shahryar and his wife Scheherazade (of Arabian Nights fame) at Abu Nawas Street, on the bank of Tigris river in Baghdad — named after Abu Nawas al-Hasan ibn Hani al-Hakami, a renowned poet at the court of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, fifth Abbasid Caliph who ruled from 786 until 809. Unlike other poets from the Middle East, such as Omar Khayyam or Khalil Gibran, Abu Nawas is almost totally unknown in the West; despite being a household name in the Arabic-speaking world.

abu nawas
A statue dedicated to Abu Nawas in Baghdad. (Credit: Getty Images)

Caliph Harun serves as an important character in many of the One Thousand and One Nights stories set in Baghdad, frequently roaming in disguise with his vizier Ja’far through the streets of the city to observe the lives of the ordinary people. Abu Nawas has also entered the folkloric tradition, and his hedonistic caricature appears in several of the One Thousand and One Nights tales. Abu Nawas was notorious for mucking in with the theological debates of the time – the early age of Islam – and spent most of his khamriyyat (wine poetry) rebutting the reprehension from conservative Muslims that viewed his behaviour as haram (forbidden).

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