Arabian Nights week 1

1

Introduction

Some notes:

  • Lure of the exotic and oriental, to European readers.
  • Long history of stories from different cultures. Core of the story, and the structure, is pre-Islamic
  • No single definitive collection: "1001" is "large indeterminate number"
  • Considered low-brow literature by Islamic culture: not poetry, even if poetry inserted.
  • Stories "written by people in cities, about people in cities, for people in cities"
  • Culture of storytelling as pubic entertainment, cliffhangers to secure money in future
  • Not Islamic stories, but in a setting of Islam
  • Hints towards how to interpret the stories, in light of the "battle of sexes" frame

How much of this did you know? How much of it was new to you? What did you already know of the Arabian Nights? Why are you interested in reading this book now?

King Shahriyah

The story

  • Shahzaman betrayed by his wife, kills her and her lover. He pines away while as a guest of Shahriyah. 
  • Shahzaman observes Shahriyah's wife and attendants (slaves) having sex with other slaves (who is Masud?)
  • Shahzaman's mood improves, he tells Shahriyah why and they watch another tryst.
  • The brothers leave the city and come across a jinn and his wife. The brothers are threatened into having sex with the woman. (Another parallel of female agency.)
  • Shahriyah returns, kills his wife and slaves, then starts the process of marrying then killing a woman each night.
  • Shahrazah tells her father, the vizir, that she should marry Shahriyah next. He replies with a tale...

The notes

  • Interpretations: What does this introduction, and the story cycle as a whole, mean? Is it Oriental tyranny and eroticism, a tale of just and unjust rule, or about feminine power and resistance?
  • Why does this frame story persist? And note the variations mentioned in the sidebar.
  • There are many references to the infidelity of women, but is that a betrayal, or their attempt to exert some agency in their life of imprisonment?
  • References to racism in the tales, something that crops up in the other translation I read.

What did you think of this introduction? Is it a thrilling tale? Are you eager to find out what happens next?

What do you think is the most interesting interpretation of the tales?

Comments

  • 0

    I made a few other notes as I went along.

    From the intro
    "Arabian Nights possesses a remarkable ability to mutate in the hands of the innumerable storytellers... who have reimagined it,,, The inherent fluidity of the collection seems to invite readers and authors to make it their own..."
    I'd say this probably applies quite widely. For example, a classics teacher friend of mine wold argue exactly the same for the corpus of Greek mythology, which - quite apart from whatever it signified to the original audiences - has been reimagined first for Romans, then many times over the years through the Renaissance, Reformation, period of Empires, the American frontier, and is now alive and reasonably well in the hands of Hollywood. Just as with Arabian Nights, some of those reworks stray very far from the original storyline, especially when intended to targe children, and others attempt to remain more faithful.

    Again from the intro "The Nights speaks... to the dystopian mode of contemporary fictional works such as The Handmaid's Tale, whose ambiguous ending offers no certainty of freedom"
    I'd never thought of making that particular connection before but it's a very interesting one, If there's not a conventional happy ending to Arabian Nights - is the king realises what a plonker he's been and reforms - then what is the ending? He gets bored in the end and kills Scheherazade anyway? She runs out of stories and ditto? She thinks she's running out of stories and kills him instead? All kinds of possibilities suggest themselves...

    From the story
    Masud means "fortunate, prosperous, lucky, happy" which I guess you can either see as an upbeat name describing his life before being found out, or an ironic one afterwards.

    Back to your notes
    The most striking things from the intro were 1) the great age of the original stories - I'd assumed they were from rather later on. 2) The urban focus rathe than rural. 3) I guess my current interest stems from the fact that I've only ever read what might be termed "popular" translations rather than "faithful" ones, and much of my apparent familiarity comes from things like films, ie derivative rather than original sources. I have a general interest in the crossover from oral to written storytelling.

    Why does the frame story persist? It's a great way to (as it were) open Pandora's Box, rather than just to launch into a set of disparate tales with no overarching theme. Countless authors have done this from antiquity onwards, and it is (or at least can be) a great way to provide a unifying structure. Yes, I'm eager to find out what happens next, not least because the telling of what you might call morality or cautionary tales is another frequent and seemingly effective way to communicate (rather than just being didactic) and I'm curious to see how the vizier tries to leverage the story... and how Shahrazad refutes it.

  • 1
    My previous exposure to the 1001 Nights were via Children’s stories, and especially via record albums with childrens stories, which I listen to a lot while playing with Lego.

    As an adult, but still at least 20 years ago, I read a Penguin Classics Arabian nights collection, not sure the translator.

    I definitely knew or suspected that the original tales were Persian, not Arabic. The Shah- prefix in the names gives this away. I also knew that some of the stories (Aladdin, for example) were set in far off places like China. But I did not realize the framing story was explicitly set in ‘The Island of India’ or ‘The island of China’ (why ‘Island’?).

    I also didn’t know, or didn’t remember, that this threatening of Shahrazad with death was a result of the king being cuckolded, or that she had volunteered for the position even after knowing the consequences of failure.

    As for Orientalism, this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Orientalism is not the exclusive domain of Europeans ( here, afterall, we have a collection of Arabic tales that treats the lands further east as being more mystical than them, which means Arabs were every bit as orientalist as Europeans were.) So far this hasn’t be covered in the introductory material, but it’s a big elephant in the room as far as I’m concerned.

    I didn’t find the tale that thrilling - largely because it seems so unlikely as a setup. And, I suppose, because we know Shahrazad survives by continuing to tell tales. What I’m not certain about is if there was ever a ‘concluding’ tale, in which the king is finally convinced to give up his uxorcidal ways.
  • 1

    I'm not sure what definitive "ending" there is to an indeterminate sequence of stories. I think that accepted wisdom is that Sharhriyah falls in love with Shahrazad during the telling and they remain happily married after the 1001 nights, but I've no idea who first wrote that or when.

    It'll be interesting to see how these stories compare to the possibly-sanitised ones of our childhoods.

    Regarding orientalism, do you think these stories would be as prominent in the anglosphere if they were set in Europe? Could the rival the tales of Robin Hood or King Arthur?

  • 0

    @NeilNjae said:
    I'm not sure what definitive "ending" there is to an indeterminate sequence of stories. I think that accepted wisdom is that Sharhriyah falls in love with Shahrazad during the telling and they remain happily married after the 1001 nights, but I've no idea who first wrote that or when.

    Judging by the comparison to The Handmaid's Tale this happy ending was probably a later accretion!

    It'll be interesting to see how these stories compare to the possibly-sanitised ones of our childhoods.

    Indeed

    Regarding orientalism, do you think these stories would be as prominent in the anglosphere if they were set in Europe? Could the rival the tales of Robin Hood or King Arthur?

    Robin Hood is definitely a later set of stories with its deliberate ties to the reigns of Kings Richard and John. There's also no supernatural element to the stories.

    However, I think the Arthurian cycle is a much better contender. Firstly it's broadly contemporary - the Panchatantra an Indian text which Yasmine Seale and others trace the origins back to, is probably from 2-300CE, translated into Persian in 570 and Arabic in 750. The origins of the Arthurian cycle (probably) go back to the departure of the Romans from Britain in the 400s, and the earliest written text is the Welsh Historia Brittonum in 830.

    Both consist of sets of loosely interlinked tales which kept getting adapted to changing circumstances. In the Arthurian case, the most obvious is the switch to knights, jousting and chivalry, but there's a much older stratum with things like Gawain and the Green Knight, involving mysterious supernatural foes dwelling somewhere between the human and the angelic/demonic realms - not unlike djinni, really. Even the Lady of the Lake can be seen as such a character. So both sets of tales inhabit this kind of liminal zone between the natural and the supernatural.

    So I would say that the Arthurian cycle, especially the older stratum, is very much a parallel to Arabian Nights, but with conceptions of this supernatural world that fit a European mould more than a middle eastern one. It will be interesting as we go along to see if there are other parallels. I guess the frame story is missing in Arthur, but instead what you get is a kind of pseudo-biography which starts with him as a child needing to be concealed, then sees him elevated to leadership, gathering a group of followers, being betrayed and ultimately being defeated and - rather than dying - being sent into this twilight world again. So the pseudo-history of his life serves (IMHO) much the same purpose as the frame in Arabian Nights, in that it gives a kind of stage within which the other tales can be paraded.

  • 1
    I’m not quite sure why the Arabian Nights tales are popular in the west - might just be an accident of preservation, or it might be the compelling framing element of Shahrazad having to tell a story each night to save her life, which is definitely more exciting than just a collection of tales.

    Some collections of European folktales are quite popular in English, such as the Bros Grimm. Others, like the whole slew of Italian folktales translated by Italo Calvino, are largely unknown in English. Why, I have no idea. Like the Arabian Nights, these tales are pretty magical in nature. I’ll be curious to see how similar these Arabian tales are to the Italian ones.

    Similarly, other tale collections from the east haven’t really made it into our pop culture the way the Arabian Night have. So I think it’s probably the framing narrative that gives it its enduring strength.
  • 1

    "From the story
    Masud means "fortunate, prosperous, lucky, happy" which I guess you can either see as an upbeat name describing his life before being found out, or an ironic one afterwards."

    I thought the king killed his wife and the 20 slaves, but Masud was not mentioned. Is this not correct?

  • 0

    @clash_bowley said:
    "From the story
    Masud means "fortunate, prosperous, lucky, happy" which I guess you can either see as an upbeat name describing his life before being found out, or an ironic one afterwards."

    I thought the king killed his wife and the 20 slaves, but Masud was not mentioned. Is this not correct?

    Hm, that's an astute observation! I had assumed that he was included amongst the other slaves when Shahriyar "stormed every room of his palace", but on the other hand Masud is said to have "leapt over the [palace] wall and went on his way" - so maybe he was never a palace person but an outsider who was indeed fortunate and happy.

  • 0

    Similarly, other tale collections from the east haven’t really made it into our pop culture the way the Arabian Night have. So I think it’s probably the framing narrative that gives it its enduring strength.

    That's fair. I guess even today we like ongoing stories with episodic clliffhanger endings - pretty much every streamed series follows this pattern.

  • 1

    I have to say I love the comparison of 1001 Nights to the Arthurian cycle - I think you nailed it.

  • 2
    edited September 2023

    The ending of the 1001 Nights is like Schroedinger's cat, both happy and horrifying equally until an ending is decided upon by the reader - or listener - and each reader/listener must decide that ending for themself.

  • 1

    @NeilNjae said:

    Introduction

    Some notes:

    • Lure of the exotic and oriental, to European readers.
    • Long history of stories from different cultures. Core of the story, and the structure, is pre-Islamic
    • No single definitive collection: "1001" is "large indeterminate number"
    • Considered low-brow literature by Islamic culture: not poetry, even if poetry inserted.
    • Stories "written by people in cities, about people in cities, for people in cities"
    • Culture of storytelling as pubic entertainment, cliffhangers to secure money in future
    • Not Islamic stories, but in a setting of Islam
    • Hints towards how to interpret the stories, in light of the "battle of sexes" frame

    How much of this did you know? How much of it was new to you? What did you already know of the Arabian Nights? Why are you interested in reading this book now?

    This is my third version of the tales I have read. There was a child's edition of the tales, I think by some English author, that I read in my childhood. I found it spectacularly magical, and loved it. As an adult I read (twice) Burton's translation which I found wonderfully gory and sexy, and saw many stories I had read in the children's version transformed by this translation. It was far and away better. I am fascinated to read this new one. and discover how I feel about it.

    King Shahriyah

    The story

    • Shahzaman betrayed by his wife, kills her and her lover. He pines away while as a guest of Shahriyah. 
    • Shahzaman observes Shahriyah's wife and attendants (slaves) having sex with other slaves (who is Masud?)
    • Shahzaman's mood improves, he tells Shahriyah why and they watch another tryst.
    • The brothers leave the city and come across a jinn and his wife. The brothers are threatened into having sex with the woman. (Another parallel of female agency.)
    • Shahriyah returns, kills his wife and slaves, then starts the process of marrying then killing a woman each night.
    • Shahrazah tells her father, the vizir, that she should marry Shahriyah next. He replies with a tale...

    The notes

    • Interpretations: What does this introduction, and the story cycle as a whole, mean? Is it Oriental tyranny and eroticism, a tale of just and unjust rule, or about feminine power and resistance?

    Yes.

    • Why does this frame story persist? And note the variations mentioned in the sidebar.

    Because we sympathize immediately with Sharazad, and are frightened by the prospect of her death for a 'crime' committed by another, and are full of admiration for her bravery and intelligence.

    • There are many references to the infidelity of women, but is that a betrayal, or their attempt to exert some agency in their life of imprisonment?

    Yes.

    • References to racism in the tales, something that crops up in the other translation I read.

    Burton's version was full of implicit racism. Product of his time and culture. Not hatred, sometimes his racism was admiring, but full of underlying assumptions.

    What did you think of this introduction? Is it a thrilling tale? Are you eager to find out what happens next?

    What do you think is the most interesting interpretation of the tales?

    This I hope to find out.

  • 1
    edited September 2023

    @RichardAbbott said:
    However, I think the Arthurian cycle is a much better contender.
    snip
    Both consist of sets of loosely interlinked tales which kept getting adapted to changing circumstances. In the Arthurian case, the most obvious is the switch to knights, jousting and chivalry, but there's a much older stratum with things like Gawain and the Green Knight, involving mysterious supernatural foes dwelling somewhere between the human and the angelic/demonic realms - not unlike djinni, really. Even the Lady of the Lake can be seen as such a character. So both sets of tales inhabit this kind of liminal zone between the natural and the supernatural.

    So I would say that the Arthurian cycle, especially the older stratum, is very much a parallel to Arabian Nights, but with conceptions of this supernatural world that fit a European mould more than a middle eastern one. It will be interesting as we go along to see if there are other parallels.

    I think perhaps it is the social world that is similar.

    I guess the frame story is missing in Arthur, but instead what you get is a kind of pseudo-biography which starts with him as a child needing to be concealed, then sees him elevated to leadership, gathering a group of followers, being betrayed and ultimately being defeated and - rather than dying - being sent into this twilight world again. So the pseudo-history of his life serves (IMHO) much the same purpose as the frame in Arabian Nights, in that it gives a kind of stage within which the other tales can be paraded.

    But the urge or motive, the reason, to provide a frame story is similar. As I (no doubt poorly) understand it the Arthurian cycle is made of older materials re-purposed, and the frame story is what is actually tying the disparate materials together. The frame provides a socially appropriate individual who is then imposed back on materials that did not have such a unity of personage. We can see this clearly in the editing process that tied a great mass of tales about say < Gawain > into stories of a person who is suitable for the purposes of society at the time. We saw this happening in the Buried Giant. < Arthur > is all kinds of people in the materials, and so many of those aspects are dropped, or edited out, or forgotten, in any particular telling, but due to the persistence of text they remain available to adapt the < personage > in later re-tellings appropriate to contemporary society. Thus they (re)present the present as an enduring past, enabling authority to function in appropriate ways.

    EDIT: I'm getting interested in this. Any objection to me joining the slow read?

  • 1
    > EDIT: I'm getting interested in this. Any objection to me joining the slow read?

    Of course not!
  • 1

    Not at all, Barner! Love to have you with us!

  • 0

    @Apocryphal said:
    I definitely knew or suspected that the original tales were Persian, not Arabic. The Shah- prefix in the names gives this away. I also knew that some of the stories (Aladdin, for example) were set in far off places like China. But I did not realize the framing story was explicitly set in ‘The Island of India’ or ‘The island of China’ (why ‘Island’?).

    Hi Chris,

    Etymology.com says of "island ":

    1590s, earlier yland (c. 1300), from Old English igland, iegland "an island," from ieg "island" (from Proto-Germanic *awjo "thing on the water," from PIE root *akwa- "water") + land (n.).

    "Land" in that context can mean "a definite portion of the earth's surface, home region of a person or a people, territory marked by political boundaries,"

    About the ieg-

    Spelling modified 16c. by association with similar but unrelated isle. Similar formation in Old Frisian eiland, Middle Dutch eyland, German Eiland, Danish öland, etc. In place names, Old English ieg is often used of "slightly raised dry ground offering settlement sites in areas surrounded by marsh or subject to flooding" [Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names].

    Maybe this applies to many (most?) Old-World civilisations that were built near floodplains to enable continual agriculture due to the land being restored? Then again it may simply mean that they are known because of trade by sea, rather than by land, i.e. the way to get there is by boat.

    As for Orientalism, this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Orientalism is not the exclusive domain of Europeans ( here, afterall, we have a collection of Arabic tales that treats the lands further east as being more mystical than them, which means Arabs were every bit as orientalist as Europeans were.) So far this hasn’t be covered in the introductory material, but it’s a big elephant in the room as far as I’m concerned.

    You raise a good point here. I trace our contemporary reception of < Orientalism > to Said, for whom it was definitely the domain of Europeans, but the reception of his idea (as all reception) led to a deformation of what he was talking about. The preface to the 25th anniversary edition of his book isn't too long, and does a good job telling us what he says he was trying to do. His interest is in encouraging a humanistic stance that he admires.

    As I understand it Said used < Orientalism > to refer to the systematic and uninterrupted construction of a place (the < Orient >) by an ongoing European discourse (principally English and French), that was engaged in describing what we now call North Africa and the Middle East, and South Asia (India). This discourse was methodically maintained and supported from the 18th century through the present day in order to describe and catalogue those places and their peoples, cultures, religions, etc. as objects of knowledge for the European subject. This is actually inseparable from the relation of Empire, but what makes it different from its many family relations is that it is a methodical, systematic, and continual aspect of the modern bureaucratic governance found in the European nations of that time.

    Said doesn't say that the work produced by Orientalism is only crap. Rather, he draws attention to how this methodical and systematically sustained discursive construction of the Orient passes over aspects of reality in silence, and argues that for a humanistic stance it requires correction. He wants the reader to see how such a constructed Orient is an inadequate basis for human flourishing, particularly when it taken as an imaginary (a conception replacing reality although inadequate to fully represent it), upon which basis action is taken, and upon which basis the consequences of the action are also limited for the subjects who have been imagined by it. This enables its subject to endure otherwise actually unendurable suffering, i.e. it reduces empathy, the reduction of which is vital for so many human activities promoting well-being, but whose absence makes people inhuman.

    Because this process of Orientalism is related to imagination (what isn't?), it has resemblances to narration and story-telling, and their functions, but it is not the same.

    YMMV of course.

  • 0

    @BarnerCobblewood said:

    @Apocryphal said:
    (why ‘Island’?).

    Hi Chris,

    Etymology.com says of "island ":

    1590s, earlier yland (c. 1300), from Old English igland, iegland "an island," from ieg "island" (from Proto-Germanic *awjo "thing on the water," from PIE root *akwa- "water") + land (n.).

    "Land" in that context can mean "a definite portion of the earth's surface, home region of a person or a people, territory marked by political boundaries,"

    About the ieg-

    Spelling modified 16c. by association with similar but unrelated isle. Similar formation in Old Frisian eiland, Middle Dutch eyland, German Eiland, Danish öland, etc. In place names, Old English ieg is often used of "slightly raised dry ground offering settlement sites in areas surrounded by marsh or subject to flooding" [Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names].

    Maybe this applies to many (most?) Old-World civilisations that were built near floodplains to enable continual agriculture due to the land being restored? Then again it may simply mean that they are known because of trade by sea, rather than by land, i.e. the way to get there is by boat.

    There are two places in England that come to mind - the Isle of Ely and the Isle of Purbeck. Ely, a bit north of Cambridge, was historically mostly surrounded by fenland and so you needed local knowledge to approach safely (long since drained now, of course). Purbeck is the part of Dorset along the coast, and again the direct approach from say Poole Harbour was blocked by marshland. Corfe Castle overlooks that approach. Now, you can swing a lot further west and approach that way, so Purbeck is not an island in any strict sense of the word... but historically it was always somewhat isolated from the rest of the county, and was the part most strongly linked to smuggling.

    In short, yes island or isle can in English usage be applied to self-contained bits of land... but I've never come across it applied to a kind of country-sized region like India or China where it is contiguous with other lands.

  • 1
    edited September 2023
    I’m not sure the old English roots of ‘island’ get us far, as we’re dealing with a modern translation of Arabic. I suspect there’s something in the Arabic word that can mean two things (the way Kur could mean both ‘mountain’ and ‘land’ in Sumerian, or ‘Karum’ could mean both a quay and a traders enclave in Akkadian), but then why pick ‘island’ as the translation instead of the other meaning. Curious this seemingly odd choice of words wasn’t annotated.

    Re: Orientalism, that’s most interesting and I had definitely come to understand the word as having a different meaning (basically, an application of a fantasizing element to anything from the east). But from what I’m getting from Barner’s post, it really means a process by which disparate regions from North Africa to India were glossed together under the blanket term ‘Oriental’ which did a disservice to regional peoples. Much the way the English like to use ‘American’ to mean ‘from North America’.

    So, given that meaning, I can more easily see the Orientalizing effect of Europe on the collection, what with the addition of tales to the corpus by the French. But did this process begin with the Arabs? I’m curious to what degree we’re seeing cultural diffusion. Are these Persian tales told in Arabic, or are they Arabic tales about people in Persia? I suspect the cultural boundaries are somewhat loose.

    One of the tales I remember from the collection (I think a Sinbad tale) about using raw meat and giant birds to harvest diamonds, is also related by Marco Polo in his Travels, and I think the context is Persian or Afghan and makes no mention of a sailor called Sinbad. Did it get to Marco Polo via the Thousand and One nights? I suspect not. Which means the same tale was spreading in different areas in different contexts.

    By the same token, I vaguely recall encountering a tale from the Mahabarata somewhere else and in a different context. This would mean there’s at least some reason to see this broad area as an oriental horizon.

    The fact that we have Thanksgiving and Weather forecasting groundhogs in both Canada and the USA would similarly point to a North American horizon, I suppose, but you need to gloss over the fact that it happens in October in one place and November in another, and that no self-respecting Canadian would serve sweet potatoes with marshmallows for dinner.
  • 1

    @Apocryphal there's no denying that you are correct: During its reception Orientalism has been understood to mean any fantasizing about the East, often taken to be intentionally oppressive, but I hope that in this book this more sophisticated idea is at play. One of Said's insights was that works like this book were themselves aspects of Orientalism (because e.g. it has been methodically annotated etc.), but the assertion that this process is "wrong" by nature is not something I think he would have argued for. I think he was more concerned that the power of the Orientalist presentation obscured the human reality of the world, and often has led to terrible outcomes at both personal and communal levels all around, and wanted his readers to 1) Become more aware of this obscuring which is difficult to notice, and 2) Take more care in their discourse to counter-act the troubles this kind activity can produce.

    Still, many people are looking for someone to blame for how the world is, rather than cultivating well-being. That's one of the themes I'm seeing in this first story, which I'll post about later today.

  • 1
    edited September 2023

    @RichardAbbott said:
    In short, yes island or isle can in English usage be applied to self-contained bits of land... but I've never come across it applied to a kind of country-sized region like India or China where it is contiguous with other lands.

    Of course you and @Apocryphal are right about this. Still, I am suggesting that when we read in stories like these words which make us think of what seem to be concrete things like an "island," a "country," or a "nation," what was intended and what we understand might be quite different. Wiktionary gives three meanings for what is perhaps the Arabic word (جزيرة): 1) Island; 2) Peninsula; 3) Area, region, territory, section, district; any separated location, especially one delimited by natural boundaries.

    So perhaps the translator is making an effort to maintain fidelity to the text, because there's another word used for "country" so she doesn't want to the reader to mix up two distinct conceptions, maybe the usage is archaic in the Arabic text also and she wants to alert the reader to this aspect of the text, or maybe she just wants to convey that that the India and China referred to here are not the modern places. Or maybe something else, we'd have to ask Ms Seale.

    BTW https://arablit.org/2020/12/19/holiday-bulaq-one-thousand-and-one-dreams/ says this is an abbreviated version - Seale is working on publishing an even larger translation sometime this year. Maybe the apparatus there will be more extensive.

  • 1

    @NeilNjae Thank you for organising this, and asking such great questions.

    @NeilNjae said:
    What did you already know of the Arabian Nights? Why are you interested in reading this book now?

    I know relatively little of the Arabian Nights. My interest was piqued by the opportunity to look at an example of nesting what I think were likely pre-existing stories within one another to produce a longer narrative, and how that longer narrative works to add significance beyond what the original stories say.

    My background is from looking at how Early Buddhist and Mahayana Buddhist texts which have used this technique were incorporated into a cosmology that was at best ambiguous about the role of a self, in some cases going so far as to actively refute that anything having an independent or intrinsic self-nature could ever exist, while still having to explain what is going on with such self-evident things.

    King Shahriyah

    The story

    There’s a lot doubling / reflecting going on with the brothers / wives, jinni / wife, vizier / daughters, brother kings / daughter saviours – similar situations repeat, but their repetition is dynamic.

    • Shahzaman betrayed by his wife, kills her and her lover.

    Betrayal is obviously a theme of this story. How will it be treated in the other stories? I also notice that slavery is not explained, as if we all know what it means in practice.

    When Shahzaman is betrayed by his wife, says “I am a king, and Samarkand is mine, but my wife betrays me before my own eyes!” The he kills the her and the cook who is trespassing. I see here two issues about social status:

    1) Is Shaharzam (who is not from Samarkand) a king, or a guest? He says he is a king, but as soon as he is leaving he is replaced by a low class cook who is presumably from Samarkand. For all we know the cook is the Queen's original partner. This raises issues related to the challenges inherent in imposing one's own codes on others (a duty of kings).

    1b) Guests are treated well but only as long as they stay, what happens when they misunderstand courtesy for reality, and forget that they are guests, not kings? OTOH kings are not guests, they are imposed by other kings from away, but how does one impose on others when absent? Is "home" a place where dominion makes sense?

    2) Is wife the Queen of Samarkand = Samarkand itself? See comment by elder brother Shahriyar below when this story is repeated.

    He pines away while as a guest of Shahriyah. 

    • Shahzaman observes Shahriyah's wife and attendants (slaves) having sex with other slaves (who is Masud?)

    This occurs while Shahriyar is on a 10 day only male hunt outside, while the Queen inside seems to be engaged in a 10 day wedding ceremony inside where opposites are united by seeing that their diversity is unity in the form of woman. This wedding occurs in a garden, which is outside contained within the inside of the home. This has many hallmarks of cult(ure), gathering around a tree, community identity being more important than individual, men coming out of women and dissolving back into them, the 10 days signified by the union of night and day by dark men and light women, the queen has eyes that alternate and another partner she invokes (Masud "joy" and Saadeddin Masud "Joy of joy") who is not really a person of the community, etc. Also is this like a reflection of what is told in the story of Actaeon seeing Diana, which is similarly dynamically reflected in the story of Echo and Narcissus?

    • Shahzaman's mood improves, he tells Shahriyah why and they watch another tryst.

    A couple of points: What improves Shahzaman's mood is that his brother has greater troubles than he does. He says, “When I saw how bad your luck was, I felt better. Here was my brother, king of the earth, unlucky in his own home! That is the reason for the color in my cheeks.” I am curious if we will see schadenfreude, rejoicing and healing through other's misfortune which repeats the trouble one has one's self endured, as a theme used to tie the stories together.

    Shahriyar has a different response to betrayal from Shahzaman: The elder brother says, “No one is safe in this world,” he said, “if there are such things in my kingdom, in my own home! Damn the world and damn this life! What a disaster.” He is on the road to becoming an renunciant, and even leaves the kingdom to wander unknown. However he is looking for greater misfortune to heal himself Spoiler - it won't work. The social order is upended as the kings go into the palace in disguise, i.e. are no longer kings.

    • The brothers leave the city and come across a jinn and his wife.

    Another dynamic reversal within a repetition: Now the story is outside, the kings are not kings, and not married.

    I see some ambiguity here. The Jinni says ““Pearl among women whom I carried away on your wedding night, I want to sleep.” Does this mean that he is incapable of sexual activity, perhaps because of his nature as a jinn? Or is it because a jinni cannot satisfy woman, or is just a joke about men undergoing periods of refraction? While he recovers, the Lady says of the Jinni “… under the horns of this revolting jinni, who has held me in this chest under four locks and keys, and kept me in the middle of the raging, roaring sea! He thought he had me and could keep me for himself, forgetting that what fortune has in store cannot be turned, nor what a woman wants.” In other words he is a forgetful fool. Perhaps the brother kings are also.

    I also am not sure about the wedding and wife relation though. Did the Jinni take her from her home when she was being wed to another, perhaps in the mode of marriage for love, unlike the kings who came and took the homes from their queens? Is there something here about tensions of matrilocality and patrilocality? I don't know enough about how women leaving / being taken from parental home for marriage came about, how it is viewed in Persian and Arab culture and Islam, and whether there was / is a tension about it being imposed on peoples who did not arrange things this way. This might be similar to the Romans taking hostages, or the so-called Rape of the Sabine Women.

    The brothers are threatened into having sex with the woman. (Another parallel of female agency.)

    They come down out of the tree just like Masud in the garden. The difference is that the garden is inside human society, while they are now outside, beyond human society.

    The kings respond with anachronistic “Allah! Allah! There is no power and no might except in God, and no outwitting women.” So say many brotherhoods made of men. I suspect this is something that the text will return to fairly regularly.

    Then there's the rings. For now I am waiting to see what they, and their loss, might signify. Is it as simple as the brothers' previous marriages are now annulled? Who carries rings?

    • Shahriyah returns, kills his wife and slaves, then starts the process of marrying then killing a woman each night.

    Having found someone more betrayed, kings decide to return as kings who do not marry = asceticism as a source of power. Or maybe they are just running back home. But for unexplained reasons this celibacy turns into serial monogamy, requiring daily killing of queen and slaves, who must be replaced so the betrayal event can no longer happen again. Hopeless.

    • Shahrazah tells her father, the vizir, that she should marry Shahriyah next. He replies with a tale...

    The Vizier is the killer of wives - the demands of the State destroying the home? Luckily he has 2 daughters, who mirror the 2 brothers? Shahrazad the elder asks to be married to king so she can kill him just as he kills to solve his problem, which she thinks will save the kingdom. Like a king she tells her father the Vizier to arrange it, and like and advisor he tries to dissuade her with story …

    • Interpretations: What does this introduction, and the story cycle as a whole, mean? Is it Oriental tyranny and eroticism, a tale of just and unjust rule, or about feminine power and resistance?

    I'm with @clash_bowley on this one: Yes, and probably many more.

    • Why does this frame story persist? And note the variations mentioned in the sidebar.

    Imagination without a frame is too dangerous, stories need to be fenced so they can be domesticated.

    • There are many references to the infidelity of women, but is that a betrayal, or their attempt to exert some agency in their life of imprisonment?

    Interesting question. Perhaps it is more about the supposed fidelity of brotherhood.

    • References to racism in the tales, something that crops up in the other translation I read.

    While I know how we as readers are expected to think of race and slavery, I am unclear what they might also have meant,or how to read them here. For me seeing this as a negative aspect of other less developed peoples is part of the methodologies of Orientalism. I'm not saying this to suggest that racism is ok, but for example I see pretty clearly that the black and white people in the garden show the alternation of 10 days and nights, and it might have been why they were described in such a short story - a kind of esoteric calendar knowledge being expressed. But that doesn't mean that they can't also express a racial preference for light over dark, just that they are unlikely to do so at the exact same time within the same individual. But I think many people find night more frightening than day because it is darker, which is not an expression of racism.

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    One thing I can answer definitely, is that Djinn and Human can and do mate, and have children. If there is some reason this Djinn and Human cannot mate, it is either temporary - possibly for religious reasons - or individual - i.e. the Djinn had some kind of sexual problem.

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    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    @NeilNjae Thank you for organising this, and asking such great questions.

    Yes indeed

    Is there something here about tensions of matrilocality and patrilocality? I don't know enough about how women leaving / being taken from parental home for marriage came about, how it is viewed in Persian and Arab culture and Islam, and whether there was / is a tension about it being imposed on peoples who did not arrange things this way.

    I also don't know about the (comparatively late by my normal standards) time periods of what we are reading. But there are some indications that back around 2000BCE or thereabouts some Mesopotamian cultures practiced matrilocality, and I guess it's possible that this was dimly remembered in that region in folklore or traditional stories.

    Imagination without a frame is too dangerous, stories need to be fenced so they can be domesticated.

    Ages ago I read an article discussing the impact of pictures with and without a frame which - from dim memory - tackled things in a similar way to your point here... a picture with a frame is contained and so safe, whereas a borderless / frameless picture has a tendency to swallow the context and by extension the viewer. Sadly I can no longer remember where I read that or who had written it.

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    @RichardAbbott said:

    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    @NeilNjae Thank you for organising this, and asking such great questions.

    >

    Imagination without a frame is too dangerous, stories need to be fenced so they can be domesticated.

    Ages ago I read an article discussing the impact of pictures with and without a frame which - from dim memory - tackled things in a similar way to your point here... a picture with a frame is contained and so safe, whereas a borderless / frameless picture has a tendency to swallow the context and by extension the viewer. Sadly I can no longer remember where I read that or who had written it.

    I wonder how rimless phones work in this 'frame' of reference...

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    @clash_bowley said:
    I wonder how rimless phones work in this 'frame' of reference...

    It's ghost touches all the way down.

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    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    @NeilNjae Thank you for organising this, and asking such great questions.

    You're welcome. This is already more successful than I thought!

    2) Is wife the Queen of Samarkand = Samarkand itself? See comment by elder brother Shahriyar below when this story is repeated.

    That's an interesting thought, and puts a different light on the notion of these tales as being about what it means to be a good king.

    They come down out of the tree just like Masud in the garden. The difference is that the garden is inside human society, while they are now outside, beyond human society.

    Good observation!

    While I know how we as readers are expected to think of race and slavery, I am unclear what they might also have meant,or how to read them here. For me seeing this as a negative aspect of other less developed peoples is part of the methodologies of Orientalism. I'm not saying this to suggest that racism is ok, but for example I see pretty clearly that the black and white people in the garden show the alternation of 10 days and nights, and it might have been why they were described in such a short story - a kind of esoteric calendar knowledge being expressed. But that doesn't mean that they can't also express a racial preference for light over dark, just that they are unlikely to do so at the exact same time within the same individual. But I think many people find night more frightening than day because it is darker, which is not an expression of racism.

    Not to detract from your interpretation, but... From reading a different translation of the tales, it's pretty clear that there was skin-colour-based racism in the society where these stories arose. Light skin is associated with beauty, wealth, and goodness, while dark skin is associated with ugliness, depravity, and evil. The slaves are black because they're violators of the supposedly-virtuous white women. And let's not worry too much about the contradiction of the women being both perpetrators of the infidelity and the victims of racial transgression.

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