Yesterday, I saw Scheherazade, the queen of storytellers narrating her stories to King Shahryar in Baghdad. An unparalleled monument to the ageless art of story-telling, the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights have, for many centuries, titillated the imaginations of generations the world over. With her hair flowing down her back, her mouth curved into just the hint of a smile, her bronze hands gesturing gracefully, she spins tales of thieves and sailors and magic lamps for King Shahryar, who reclines in front of her. Scheherazade is the famed storyteller of The One Thousand and One Nights, or colloquially called Arabian Nights, that include the tales of Aladdin and His Magic Lamp, Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves and Sinbad the Sailor.
Marrying a new bride every night, King Shahryar continues to execute his bride the following morning until he meets Scheherazade, the daughter of his vizier. In the “Thousand and One Nights,” Scheherazade used her narrative skills to escape execution. On her wedding night, Scheherazade begins to tell her king a tale but does not tell him how the story ends. Because he so wants to hear the end of her tale, he postpones her execution. On the second night, she finishes her tale and starts a new one. So it goes for 1,001 nights until King Shahryar falls in love with Scheherazade and makes her his queen.
There are several layers of the tales, the earliest manuscript tradition originating in 9th century Baghdad, followed by a Syrian manuscript tradition, and an Egyptian manuscript tradition, not to mention the various oral traditions. The tales were written by different hands and seem to have accrued over the centuries, drawing from the cultural traditions of the Middle East, as well as from those of the various regions with which the Middle East had been in contact through trade, travel, invasions, or war, over the centuries. As a result, the tales themselves contain elements from Persia, India, Greece, Turkey, Central Asia, in addition to references to the Mongol invasions, the Crusades, among others. The tales were then Arabized and adapted for a Middle Eastern and Islamic audience. 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). The surviving work of Panchatantra is dated to about 300 BCE, but the fables are likely much more ancient.
At some time (probably in the eighth century), these tales were translated into Arabic under the title Alf Layla, or The Thousand Nights. The Tale of the Bull and the Ass and the linked Tale of the Merchant and his Wife are found in the frame stories of both the Jataka Tales concerning the previous births of Gautama Buddha, dating their average contents to around the 4th century BCE and the Arabian Nights. The original core of stories was probably quite small, with Arabic stories added to it in the ninth and tenth centuries.
The famous Iraqi artist named Mohammed Ghani Hikmat made two big statues of King Shahryar and his wife Scheherazade in the year 1975 at Abu Nawas Street, on the bank of Tigris river in Baghdad – named after Abu Nawas al-Hasan ibn Hani al-Hakami (756-814), a renowned poet at the court of the fifth Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809).
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 Arabian Nights tales.
Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights have enchanted readers for centuries. I grew up reading these tales and also watching movies and TV serials based on the Arabian Nights.