Marina Warner unlocks the cross-cultural secrets of the Arabian Nights

The academic Marina Warner has made fairy tales her metier - and during a recent visit to Abu Dhabi she discussed the Arabian Nights and the power of literature to cross cultural boundaries.

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr, and Julanne Johnston in the 1924 movie of The Thief of Baghdad. Courtesy Everett Collection / REX
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It’s a full house. When Marina Warner, the highly regarded English scholar and novelist, visits New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) to discuss one of her favourite topics – “the power of patterned word” as she would later describe the Arabian Nights – students, professors and the public at large take the time to stop and listen.

Warner has a suitably fantastic power of her own; a fact attested by the rapidly dwindling pile of copies of Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights (Chatto & Windus, 2011) being sold for autograph outside. The winner of the 2013 Sheikh Zayed Book Award, her "history of magical thinking" reveals the endless ways in which Scheherazade's triumph of storytelling has both wooed and wowed readers since first appearing in a French translation by Antoine ­Galland in 1704. Not to mention influencing poets, filmmakers, artists, novelists, choreographers … the list goes on.

If Warner’s undeniable gift is making a rigorously academic pursuit feel like an effortless, almost addictive entertainment, the Arabian Nights provides the opiate. From Disney’s The Little Mermaid to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda via English pantomime and Bollywood movies galore, it’s what has become the genre of the Arabian Nights in popular culture around the world that’s the most powerful draw this evening.

Warner, who is also a visiting professor at NYUAD, is sharing the platform with Philip Kennedy, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and faculty director of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute, and Paulo Horta, an assistant professor of literature at NYUAD; all of whom have pooled their learning of the Arabian Nights in a new collection of highly readable academic essays entitled Scheherazade's Children: Global Encounters with the Arabian Nights (New York University Press and NYU Abu Dhabi Institute, 2014).

What follows is in part a conversation of shared experience: the image of a young Kennedy being lulled with bedtime stories by his ayah and disappointed by the written word as a child thereafter, or Warner’s first edition of Edward Lane’s 1840 translation of the One Thousand and One Nights (now a “tattered rag”) resonate alongside more scholarly references, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s overwrought description of discovering “the Arabian Nights’ entertainments”: “... one tale of which (the tale of a man who was compelled to seek for a pure virgin) made so deep an impression on me (I had read it in the evening while my mother was mending stockings) that I was haunted by spectres, whenever I was in the dark – and I distinctly remember the anxious and fearful eagerness, with which I used to watch the window, in which the books lay – and whenever the Sun lay upon them, I would seize it, carry it by the wall, and bask, and read. My Father found out the effect, which these books had produced – and burnt them. So I became a dreamer – and acquired an indisposition to all bodily activity – and I was fretful, and inordinately passionate, and as I could not play at any thing, and was slothful, I was despised and hated by the boys …” (Letter to Thomas Poole, 1797).

The next day Warner takes a break from teaching undergraduates to share her thoughts on the long reach of the Arabian Nights in the garden of NYUAD’s downtown campus. An avid reader of popular stories as a child, long before mythology became central to her scholarship, Warner revisited the Arabian Nights after writing extensively about the European fairy tale tradition from a feminist perspective. “I realised that I had overlooked the Arabian Nights when I wrote about European fairy tales,” she says. Why? “Because of this separation of cultures – we did not think of East and West as being in dialogue.

“However much antagonism there was between Christianity and Islam in the past, or between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, or the Asian Empire and Europe, when the military and political conflicts were taking place and were very deep and very severe, there were also cultural exchanges taking place.

“Of necessity, people were meeting one another and actually thinking about one another and it wasn’t just the exceptions that people became interpreters or translators like Edward Lane; it’s the manufacturers and the people who make glass and textiles. We are very culturally interwoven with the skills that came from Asia and one of them that has been rather overlooked is narrative.”

In many ways the Arabian Nights also provides the perfect introduction to comparative literature studies – and to NYUAD’s global approach to learning, unfettered by tradition and powered by a diverse, multilingual student body.

Horta teaches the Nights as a core curriculum course at NYUAD, a choice that would be considered unusual at any other academic institution elsewhere. “Some scholars have described the Arabian Nights as the most global text that we have, precisely because the stories were originally from so many places before they were collected in the Arab world,” he says.

“I think it is very important to put into conversation different traditions that were previously studied discreetly ... Writers themselves were never limited by their passports. Shakespeare did not sit down at his desk and go: ‘Well, I cannot use any of these plots because they are Italian and Spanish’, but that is how literature has been taught.

“The question of how tales travel, which is the fundamental question posed in the Arabian Nights, is one that we are now more attuned to.”

To this day the Nights remains a collection in flux, continually added to in the same way that Galland added his own elements to his “translation” such as the tale of Aladdin, as well as a higher, more literary style. The first feature-length animated adventure film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Baghdad (1924) and the action adventure film genre that followed, the video game The Prince of Persia, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of comic books, the film work of Ray Harryhausen are all examples of the way in which, as Horta says, “people keep going back and mixing these ingredients in their own way”.

Scheherazade’s Children continues the task of unravelling the influences, connections and reflections of the Nights in three specific areas: translation, literature and performance on stage and screen. Kennedy and Warner’s introduction to the book surveys the territory already mapped by Nights criticism, and amplifies the arguments for the Nights to be used as a prism through which to study “the long entanglements” connecting the East and the West of Europe. Almost inevitably, it quotes Robert Irwin’s famous observation that it is easier to name those who have not been influenced by the Nights than those that have. Irwin wrote his “landmark study” The Arabian Nights: A Companion in 1994 and here contributes an essay on the Nights’ influence on Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding et al and the development of the western novel in the early 18th century.

As Kennedy, who has edited the book with Warner and writes an article on Jorge Luis Borges, points out: “People know the enormous influence of the Nights post the introduction of them into Europe by Galland and all those areas that are in the book have been trodden on in an exploratory way, but there is still an awful lot of work to be done. If you do it in a micro-­granular way but that is yet not tedious, there is a lot of work to be done.”

Scheherazade’s Children began life as an interdisciplinary conference on the myriad influences of the Nights four years ago, and the journey its contributors have made since mirrors the labyrinthine paths trodden by readers, chasing down influences, just as tales are set within tales. “I think in Ros Ballaster’s essay, she probably surprised herself, doing that comparison and finding that difference between the character Jullanar in the Galland translation and how she ends up in Byron’s Corsair. It is an amazing piece of work,” Kennedy says.

Warner hopes that the non-academic reader of this “shape-­shifting book” about the djinn-like ways in which the Nights “have effervesced and taken different forms” will understand “the depth to which the stories in the Arabian Nights have infused cinema, theatre, music. How its range and vitality are surprisingly great.

“I’d like them to have the sense of it as a sort of life-giving force in the imagination and to further the imagination.”

Highlights include Elizabeth Kuti’s article on 18th-century feminist comedies on the theme of Bluebeard, the “Oriental genre” in early Indian cinema by Rosie Thomas, and an exploration of the Nights-­influenced repertoire favoured by the Japanese all-female musical theatre group the Takarazuka Revue. Such is the scope of ­Scheherazade’s Children, that anyone interested in literature, popular culture and the power of the imagination will find much to ponder within its pages.

Clare Dight is the editor of The ­Review.