A Thousand and One Night. Alf Layla Wa-Layla. Arabian Nights. This collection of stories goes by many names, but most people have heard of it at least once in their lives. Of course, we can’t talk about it without knowing what it’s about. Like most problems, it all starts with a man. This man, named Shahryār, is a King. Unfortunately for him his wife is cheating on him. He discovers this and puts her to death. Unfortunately for the women of his kingdom, he has the temperament and logic of a twelve year old. Shahryār decides all women are like cheaters and from that point on will only marry virgins, who are then executed the next morning, before they can cheat on him. Of course, they run out of their fresh supply of virgins, because a virgin a night is not a very sustainable market. The vizier’s (whose job it was to keep the supply train rolling) daughter, as one of the last virgins, decides to take one for the team. She’s built different however. She has a plan. The daughter, named Scheherazade, marries the king and on the night of she tells him a tale, but leaves him on a cliffhanger. The king wants to hear the end of the story, and so he must postpone her execution. The next night she finishes her tale and starts another, also stopping on a cliffhanger. And through her tales and cliffhangers she continuously puts off her execution. She supposedly does this for one thousand and one nights, giving this collection of tales its name. But where did she get all these stories from?
While the title is One thousand and one nights, there weren’t originally one thousand and one tales. That number is a hyperbole. It’s similar to when someone says they waited for hours when you know they were gone for 30 minutes. The emphasis makes it more interesting. It’s also interesting because of the framing method. Each story is like cracking open a Russian nesting doll just to find another one. Just like perpetual soup, some characters add a tale, making the soup’s flavor deeper. However, it’s not just the characters who add a tale, but sometimes the translators slip in a few of their own.
The other reason why it could be called that is because of the way so many stories were added that weren’t part of the original text. To demonstrate the depth and how many layers of editing this collection of stories has gone through, let’s start with you, the reader of this blog, as level 1. You are the end of a long chain of frame stories. Now we take a step back. The explanation that you read today was thought of by me. After I read it in my English textbook and summarized it. For the sake of being able to trace for a while, let’s say I read the New Penguin classics’ version. In 2008 New Penguin Classics published an English translation which can be traced back to Calcutta II edition. Published in 1842 it claimed to be based on an older Egyptian manuscript but had many stories from the Habicht edition. At level 5, the Habicht edition was published in Arabic, but not before they added some other stories of their own. They got their translation from Antoine Galland, who translated it to French, and it was the first European version of the tales. He most likely translated that from a Syrian manuscript kept in the France National library. That Syrian manuscript is level 7, and there are probably several more levels to it that haven’t been discerned yet. As time keeps going though I hope it continues to change and evolve. That more stories will be added and created. If you think about it really, the translators are kinda like the stories she tells. Adding on their two cents, and in essence fulfilling their role in making sure she never runs out of tales. That’s a tale for another time though…
Haddawy, Husain, et al. “The Thousand and One Nights.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2018, pp. 597–708.
Irwin, Robert (2004). The Arabian Nights: A Companion. London: I.B. Tauris. ISBN 1-86064-983-1. OCLC 693781081.
Marzolph, Ulrich (2017). “Arabian Nights”. In Kate Fleet; Gudrun Krämer; Denis Matringe; John Nawas; Everett Ro1wson (eds.). Encyclopaedia of Islam (3rd ed.). Brill. doi:10.1163/1573-3912_ei3_COM_0021.