The glorious fantasy and cultural endurance of the 1001 Nights are awash with translation, evolution and the constant shaping of societal perception. Across centuries, the tales have manifested through broad artistic strokes of majesty and imagination, invigorating the mind through exotic locales and alluring individuals. Circulated through literature and beyond, the layers that underline its existence continue to attract and inspire countless artists. They are a pillar of World Literature, a monument of translation and evidence of the long-lasting effects of cultural manipulation.
The ever-evolving nature and consistent relevance maintained by the Nights stands as the most fascinating aspect of the text. In Yasmin Seale’s essay on “Erasing and remaking The Thousand and One Nights”, she most eloquently describes how “from the beginning, the Nights has been in perpetual translation”. Since the origins of the text are shrouded in mystery, the concept of whether a specific tale is genuinely authentic is irrelevant to how it justifies its existence. The modern-day editions of the Nights have been crafted from countless authors, editors, compilers, translations and scribes enhancing and erasing the text over centuries to collectively form something greater, something that will transcend their very lifetimes. It is about capturing the essence of the tales and crafting something meaningful that contributes towards its legacy. Erasure is not sacrilegious but a relief, the constraint of the page and the intimacy poured through is what fuels the enduring vitality of the Nights.
One of the most influential and culturally pervasive tales present in the Nights is “The Ebony Horse”. It is a story that most effectively captures the feeling of wondrous fantasy and grand spectacle, with its presence inspiring many stories of different mediums. The extent to which they represent the diverse cultural values and perspectives at the heart of the story certainly reach varying levels of success, yet everything eventually relates back towards that singular source in surprising and often profound ways.
The titular horse of the story is a dazzling invention with the ability to soar across boundless distances and seemingly insurmountable heights towards the heavens. Despite its explicit technological nature, the world of the story persistently characterises the flying wonder as nothing more than a work of sorcery, without any rhyme or reason to its abilities. However, it operates exactly like a standard contraption with knobs on either side to make the horse rise and fall, as well as a brake situated on the tail. Even the readers and translators of the story have continually misinterpreted this specific aspect of the text with the various illustrations of the horse depicting it as a majestical creature rather than a mechanical construct.
From a thematic viewpoint, “The Ebony Horse” stands out amongst the 1001 Nights as it foreshadows the dangers of newfound technology and how it can irrevocably alter the status quo. It demonstrates how when presented with something that contrasts the beliefs of humanity, it is dismissed as simply otherworldly and unworthy to stand alongside the rest of society. The ending of the story ultimately rejects the notion of newfound technology, with the Ebony Horse destroyed and the status quo maintained. Yet while on the surface, it may seem as though this technological tale has no profound cultural impact, the underlying idea of misinterpretation leading to destruction, unfortunately, acts as a harrowing element of the tales as a whole and the part they have played in orientalism.
The article, “How the Arabian Nights stories morphed into stereotypes” by Katherine Bullock, delves deeply into the long-lasting and unintended consequences that have emerged from the Nights. The initial misunderstanding arose when western translators of the Nights chose to treat the stories as research material for Muslim culture. While Arabic readers understood that these stories were obviously fantastical exaggerations, Westerners believed they supposedly highlighted the culture of Muslims such as “their barbarity, their seclusion of women, their being bound to tradition, the lack of rule of law and so on”. This growth of Orientalism has led to a history plagued with problematic perceptions, where these story elements have become the stereotypes for real life and utilised for the purpose of entertainment. It has become a gravely offensive image in some cases that further influences anti-Muslim and anti-Black views, inhibiting the potential for effective engagement among diverse cultural groups.
While it is challenging to extract whether this is the intended meaning of the Ebony Horse, considering its constant translation and mysterious conception like the rest of the Nights, the rise of orientalism is inexplicably linked to the circulation of all the tales. It feels eerie how much the thematic elements of the story foreshadow the forthcoming misunderstanding and discriminatory stereotypes. This misinterpretation is even further apparent and evolved through the adaptation of “The Ebony Horse”, the 1926 animated feature film from Lotte Reiniger known as “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”.
Chapter 19 of Maria Warner’s book ‘Stranger Magic’, “The Shadows of Lotte Reiniger”, delves thoroughly into the nature of shadows and how they allowed Lotte Reiniger to translate her imagination onto the big screen. In her gloriously crafted and dazzling Arabian Nights fantasy, a vision of wondrous dreams underlined by sinister darkness enraptures the audience in the nuanced art of shadowplay. Binding elements from various tales in the 1001 Nights, it blatantly rejects the fatalistic attitude of many of the stories. It instead balances between “lyric sweetness and fiendish caricatures of harsh ugliness” seamlessly and playfully. Reiniger’s passion for the material is irresistible, her artistic brilliance surging through the use of her trick table, a mechanical piece of equipment that brings to life the impeccable shadowplay. Similar to the Ebony Horse, it transports viewers on a dream journey as they witness fantastical events such as “the hero’s delirious passage in the cosmos, against the translucent cobalt sky luminous with milky stars”. The greatest testament of Reiniger’s work is perhaps how accurately and genuinely it captures the majesty and beauty of the 1001 Nights, while also enriching the source material further.
Except regrettably akin to the other Nights, it is another work tinged with misinterpretation, discrimination and unintended consequences. Many of the characterisations featured brought onto themselves uncomfortable stereotypes, particularly the African elements of the witches, enchanters and goblins. Reiniger’s use of hooked noses and crooked figures entrenched the work into a distressing anti-Semitic territory. The use of hooked noses itself is a part of the Jewish stereotype, but the association of the hooked nose with dastardly creatures presents disturbing similarities to how the Nazis incorporated that element into their antisemitic propaganda. The art of shadowplay was both a gift and a curse, where the minimalistic nature of the shadows caused the audience to subconsciously attach the cultural practices and values of that singular and communal representation. While Reiniger seemed to distance herself from these racial associations in the post-war period, presumably due to the effect of the Nazis, these shadows and perceptions would continue to linger onwards for years to come.
So if the Nights are fundamentally a collective thread of tales fueling misunderstanding and discriminatory ideologies, then why are they continued to be studied? Why do they continue to provoke us on an artistic and creative level? When all the layers of the stories are peeled away, what truly lays at the heart of them? Despite all the cultural backlash that has been brought forth by the Nights, there must be some core intrinsic value that has led to their constant relevance and fascination. Even though Reiniger’s work and the variety of other works inspired by the Nights have spread further misunderstanding of various cultures from around the globe, there was something special about those tales that sparked the creativity of those artists and enveloped their imagination.
In a beautiful way, the answer to this question can be found in a piece of literature provoked by those very Nights, the poem “Arabian Nights” by Nimah Ismail Nawwab. Simple and elegant, it exudes a creative spark and exoticism. “Visions, memories: Cascading starlight”. The scope and majesty of events in a land seemingly far off and long gone where there are “endless seas of sand, Rushing through the oasis”, described in such warmth and innocent delight. It elicits nothing more, nothing less than a beautiful sight within our minds. The colourful characters, the attractive aromas and the magical awe that awakens within us when we read of magic carpets and flying horses is something that has had an everlasting impact on our perception of the world. The poem even reflects this notion through its last line that brings everything full circle: “Vision, memories, Blown away by the winds of change”.
Whether it be called the 1001 Nights or the Arabian Nights, these tales were fundamentally designed for escapism, to allow us to marvel at grand and astonishing feats that defy reality, yet are entrenched within a world whose origins lay within our history. There is no doubt that all of us have been in some way, however minuscule or monumental, affected by the Nights and subliminally influenced on an even more significant cultural level. However misleading the cultural representation may be, an aspect of the truth can always be found within the confines of the pages. Consequently, the perception of the Eastern world and Arabic culture that exists within the Western world has unquestionably been formed due to the pervasive power of World Literature.
The art of World Literature consists of thousands upon thousands of stories circulating through the globe, shaping our behaviour, attitudes and beliefs in meaningful, life-changing ways. Every story that we read from another culture provides even the most minuscule of insights into the values and practices of that culture. Due to the breadth and range present in the 1001 Nights, a viable argument could be made that it is perhaps singlehandedly the most powerful and important accomplishment of World Literature as a whole.
Seale, Y. (2020). Essay: Yasmine Seale on erasing and remaking *The Thousand and One Nights* — The Poetry Society. [online] poetrysociety.org.uk. Available at: https://poetrysociety.org.uk/essay-seale-1001-nights/ [Accessed 23 Nov. 2020].
Bullock, K. (2019). How the Arabian Nights stories morphed into stereotypes. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/how-the-arabian-nights-stories-morphed-into-stereotypes-123983 [Accessed 23 Nov. 2020].
Wagner, M. (2011). Stranger Magic. Chatto Windus.
Nawwab, N.I. (2020). Arabian Nights by Nimah Ismail Nawwab. [online] Scottish Poetry Library. Available at: https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/arabian-nights/ [Accessed 28 Nov. 2020].