Eastern Dreams: How The Arabian Nights Came To The World
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The 1001 Arabian Nights is perhaps the most famous story collection in the world. It has transcended cultures, languages, and historical eras to become familiar and beloved not only in the Eastern world, but also in the West, where it is the only acknowledged classic of Western literature to have originated from outside the West itself. Despite its prominent place in both Eastern and Western culture, the history of the Nights remains tantalizingly elusive and difficult to define.
In Eastern Dreams, author Paul Nurse discusses not only the history of this book, but also the many fascinating people, who become characters themselves, responsible for bringing the Nights to the West and the wider world, and how the Nights has influenced, and continues to influence, global culture.
few dozen texts, their Muslim counterparts, particularly in the great municipal centres of Baghdad, Cairo and Spanish Cordoba, stored many thousands of volumes. So essential was the paper industry that around the time when the first Nights tales were recorded, an entire street in Baghdad was devoted to the sale of paper and books. It is no accident of history that when stories from The Thousand and One Nights first appeared in manuscript form, it was during the Abbasid caliphate, and probably in
the twenty-fourth Night in the mammoth Richard Burton edition, contains no less than eleven sub-stories; Scheherazade needs some ten nights to recite the entire series before she is able to embark on the next self-contained tale. Fittingly, characters within the Nights are obsessed with storytelling, exchanging tales with one another until the work resembles a fountain of gushing narrative. Arabian Nights’ characters tell stories for a variety of reasons—to entertain, to warn, to instruct, to
language have the power to become whatever one wants them to be as does the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Even so, within this seemingly chaotic panorama, it is possible to detect a kind of organized, coherent sense to at least some of the Nights’ earlier tales. In his famous “Terminal Essay” on the Nights, Sir Richard Burton notes that a common thirteen stories tend to appear in most of the editions published during his day: 1 The introductory frame story, including the incidental story
expectations of those entering its imaginary realm. In the centuries to come much longer, more accurate and more heavily annotated translations of the Nights would appear from Arabists possessing at least as much knowledge as Antoine Galland, but this feverishly industrious Frenchman placed such a personal stamp on the work’s initial European reception that some observers feel he is not simply the doyen of western Arabian Nights translators, but in some important ways, the work’s true author.
contradictions abound. When, where and how did these stories originate? When were they first set down? How did they come to appear in the West, and to what effect? Why and how has this book endured and transcended cultures to become a bona fide classic of world literature, part of the corpus of international fiction held to contain important expressions of human truths? Why has this work—in the West, at least, practically synonymous with the innocence of childhood—been dogged by controversy