Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Arabian Nights

Since I'm averaging about one tale/day, it may take me 1001 days to finish these three volumes, at which time I will have likely forgotten the earlier tales.

So I'll start writing about them now - even though I expect to be periodically diverted into other books (as has already happened).

The first thing that surprised me was the flagrant racism towards Africans.

The worst -- the very worst -- thing that could happen to a man was to be cuckolded by a black slave.

This event first happens to Shah Zaman on page one of the overall framing story that will explain why Sheherazade must continue to tell him stories every night to avoid his misognynist rage.

And then -- it continues to happen within several of the early stories.

Being a slave, the African, of course, has no choice in the matter -- so the real fear concerns the sexual preferences of women.

The second thing that surprised me was the emphasis on fabulous, ostentatious wealth that is a component of almost every story.

And thirdly, I was surprised by the cunning, willfulness, and strength of several female characters - especially the villianess in the epic story that stretches for 100 nights beginning with #45.

Dhat al-Dawahi, the Christian, outwits her poor Muslim male adversaries at every turn, and is only defeated on the very last page through the treachery of her adult great grandson. (so how old does that make her? 80 ? ) She is a master of martial arts as well as disguise -- i.e. she's something of a Ninja.

I am so used to Chinese story telling -- where women are often demons-in-disguise, but not serious opponents on their own.


Finally having finished Volume 1 (through Nights 294), I can agree with Robert Irwin's introductory remarks about its origins in the commercial quarters of arab cities.

Most of the characters are merchants, and manufacturing these tall tales was a likely way to pass time while waiting for customers in the souk.

Befitting stories designed for fools, the protagonist is usually gullible

The target audience is seeking relief from boredom rather than an opportunity for reflection- so only the most basic kinds of motivations drive the story: wealth, lust, greed, and jealousy.

And decorative flourish is more appreciated than narrative logic.

Why does the bandit chief send Ali Baba's clever servant, Marjana, to draw oil from his barrels, all but one of which contain one of his concealed henchmen?

And how can she use a pot full of oil to boil each one of them alive without attracting the attention of all the others?

There were two long sequences in the first 294 nights - one with a Christian villain, mentioned above, and the other with a Zoroastrian villain (nights 249-271)

The above movie poster reminds us that the above kind of scene never happens in the original version - i.e. there is never a sword swinging hero saving a damsel in distress.

The typical Arabian nights protagonist is a Walter Mitty type, like Ali Baba or Aladdin or the fisherman who finds a genie.

Women are typically depicted as quite voluptuous - but usually they are making trouble rather than the victim of it. (and one of their most beautiful features is a very large bottom)


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