Why the sun never sets on the Arabian Nights

Even after centuries, the stories remain as popular as ever - and academics can explain why

A painting depicting a 'princess and warrior' from the One Thousand and One Nights Series, 1914, of the Collection of Ca' Pesaro Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna, Venice. Getty Images
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Periodicals, pantomimes, Disney films, books and toys — the Tales of 1001 Nights have long sparked huge interest and spawned nothing short of their own industry.

Favourites as children’s stories, these tales brought to the world iconic characters such as Aladdin, Sindbad the Sailor and Ali Baba, and have enthralled countless generations.

They have been translated into multiple languages, formed the basis of many PhD theses, and also been the focus of academic conferences.

Why have these stories, often known as the Arabian Nights, proved to be so popular and why has their appeal endured century after century?

There is a universal element to the stories that helps, suggests Dr Orhan Elmaz, senior lecturer at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and editor of Endless Inspiration: One Thousand and One Nights in Comparative Perspective.

“The stories are generally about binary opposites, for example, life and death, poverty and riches,” he says. “It’s all about fate and how it can change you and your life. They’re very existential in the questions that they try to address, which makes them timeless.”

“If you look at the language of the Nights, you will find that the stories are very linear … They add suspense, but in general there’s just one line of action that you’re headed to.

“There are no geographical details. There are not lots of descriptions of things that are secondary to the plotline. These stories could happen anywhere at any time.”

How has The Arabian Nights proved so enduring?

In their complete form, they are told over 1001 nights by Shahrazad, King Shahriyar’s beautiful wife, who has to tell her bloodthirsty husband a new and compelling tale after dark each day to save herself from being killed and replaced by another young woman.

Her vivid imagination conjures up stories that have rarely been equalled in drama and richness, with characters ranging from warriors to thieves, sultans, slaves and jinns who are found in palaces filled with incomparable riches, windswept seas and bustling cities.

The tales can be traced back to before the ninth century, Dr Elmaz says, and although often associated with Arabia, they are hugely varied in origin, with some having their roots in a collection of stories in Persian and, ultimately, Indian folklore.

Illustrating their varied history, some tales feature Harun Al Rashid, a celebrated eighth and ninth century caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate (which held sway over Arabia and beyond at the time), while others, Dr Elmaz says, mention the coffee houses of 15th century Cairo. Some may be transformations of earlier tales, or may have given rise to later stories.

Many stories of diverse origin are thought to have been brought together into a collection in Arabic in Cairo in the late 1700s, although by this time many had already found their way, via French, into English-language periodicals.

By then, the tales of 1001 Nights had already been circulating in Ottoman Turkish translation for centuries, probably informed by translations into Persian.

Two of the best-known tales, Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, are sometimes described as orphan stories as they can be traced only as far back as French translations.

“The manuscripts, there are so many of them, but we haven’t put our hands on all of them. We’re still looking,” says Prof Wen-chin Ouyang, of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. “It’s a complex body of writing that has an oral tradition, that has a written tradition, and this body of writing generates itself through absorbing, adapting and rewriting stories from everywhere. The format is that you can just add stories.”

The geographical setting of the stories is diverse, with tales set in regions including North Africa, East Africa, the Middle East and India.

In the West, much early interest was linked to Orientalism, an enthusiasm for eastern societies that developed at a time of colonialism in the Middle East and North Africa.

Europe at the time was “fascinated” by what it then called the Orient, according to Muhsin Al Musawi, professor of classical and modern Arabic literature, comparative and cultural studies at Columbia University in the US.

“That happened because of the rise of empires and the interest in these lands,” he says.

“Why is it lasting? I think the ability in the narrative itself to adapt easily to the taste of the reading public and the public, in general, is very important.”

Disney brought Arabic tales to the big screen

That popular appeal continues. In 1992 Disney’s animated version made half a billion dollars at the box office — and was followed by successful direct-to-video sequels and a television series — while the 2019 live-action remake with the Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Will Smith as the Genie grossed more than $1 billion.

In 2009 Aladdin received the Bollywood treatment, but in this case, not even a starring role from Amitabh Bachchan was enough to turn the film into a hit.

Aladdin has, of course, also been turned into popular musicals on Broadway and in London’s West End, and various Arabian Nights stories remain favourites for seasonal pantomimes in theatres. The tales have even been turned into board games.

While the Nights have been enjoyed by the public across the world for centuries, academic interest has taken longer to develop.

In the Middle East, they have sometimes not been considered an important subject matter for researchers because they are not written in classical Arabic, but more attention has been paid to them in recent decades.

“For literary scholars, it’s the intricate composition of each story … rather than the beauty of language. It’s the narrative play,” Prof Ouyang says.

“That takes you to not the literal meaning of the story, but to another level that requires you to think more about what the story is trying to say.

“You can get the surface entertainment part, fun, adventure. If you listen closely you get the education part … you begin to think more about existential questions — how do you define your relationship with the material world? Then there’s a part that allows you to contemplate the universe, nature and think of life beyond this one.”

Among the recent academic publications is Prof Al Musawi’s book The Arabian Nights in Contemporary World Cultures: Global Commodification, Translation and the Culture Industry, which in 2022 won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for books on Arabic culture in other languages.

Prof Al Musawi teaches a course on “decolonising” the Arabian Nights, a particularly topical area of interest.

“How is it possible to liberate the text from the editorial, which was added by translators, editors and so on?” he says. “Quite often the translators are acting as if they are authors, so they can change something.”

Sometimes talk of decolonising the stories may refer to understanding what may be seen as problematic references to race within the texts.

Given that the tales have been translated into many languages, they offer an even greater wealth of riches to multilingual people.

Dr Elmaz, for example, can enjoy reading them in Albanian, Arabic, English, German and Ottoman Turkish, while Prof Ouyang can turn to versions in Arabic, Chinese, English and French.

Prof Ouyang particularly likes the Chinese translation by Na Xun, a Chinese Muslim scholar of Arabic, whose versions offer further demonstration of the Arabian Nights’ ability to be adapted to suit different cultural traditions.

“I like that translation because he made the Arabian Nights stories read as if they’re Chinese stories,” she says.

“Somehow [he] uses the language and narrative of Chinese storytelling for his translation … It just reads fantastically.”

Updated: April 01, 2023, 10:24 AM