One Thousand and One Nights, also known to the Western audience as The Arabian Nights, evokes the memories of childhood, since many of its fantastic tales are loved by kids. Indeed, the adventurous stories of Sindbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba are familiar almost to anyone. Yet, The Arabian Nights have more to say, especially if one reads an edition intended for the adult audience (for example, Richard Burton’s translation of the book). Against the background of the imaginary medieval world of Arabs, with its violence and valor, its passion and sexual affairs, its original customs and its unique beliefs in genies, its Sultans and its princesses, one finds an amazing teaching of empathy and compassion, an enormously humanizing meaning, and the philosophy of good’s triumph over evil.
The goal of this paper is to explore what The Arabian Nights teach its intended audience, or better to say, what values the fables and fairy stories instill in their listeners and readers, and above all, in Shahryar, a Persian king to whom the tales were narrated by his intelligent wife Scheherazade. By the limits of this paper, the story of the First Night will be examined, with the focus on what it teaches, as well as the very context of this teaching. The thesis of the paper is that the tales in One Thousand and One Nights teach its intended audience to be empathic and compassionate, just and generous, as well as wise and humane.
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To begin with, the context of the tales’ origin needs to be discussed, so that the purpose of maintaining the teaching effect on the audience gets clear. Scheherazade staves off a series of intertwined tales, above all, to buy herself the right to live every upcoming day. From the frame story of The Arabian Nights, one gets to know that Persian king Shahryar, who was once a witness of his wife’s adultery, has a custom of beheading his wives after he takes their virginity on the first wedding night. This way he thinks he protects himself from being cuckolded, since Shahryar is confident that all women are the same and all women are equally unfaithful to their husbands. Scheherazade, the elder daughter of the king’s vizier, becomes his bride and it seems highly likely that she will be executed at the dawn after the consummation. She and her younger sister appear to be the only virgins left in the country, who are eligible for marriage with Shahryar, and they seem to be doomed. Surprisingly enough, Scheherazade willingly marries the king even though her father is grieved at this.
Intelligent and wise, well-versed in history and literature, this strong-willed and fearless woman devises the plan of how to save her own and her sister’s lives (since after her death, the next wife of Sultan is supposed to be her younger sister Dinarzade) as well as hundreds of lives of other innocent women, Shahryar’s potential wives. Indeed, her wit helps her to make up an ingenuous strategy and her sexual attractiveness and self-possession help to carry it out. To illustrate, in Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights one discovers that Scheherazade “had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of bygone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.” (Burton 15)
As to her appearance, Scheherazade is known to be young, beautiful, and sexually attractive. To imagine that kind of beauty that Scheherazade possesses one may refer to some pneumatic images which may be reconstructed from One Thousand and One Nights. Owing to this reconstruction and research into some poetic sources of the early Arab literature, Robert Irwin in “The Arabian Nights: A Companion” outlines the ideal of an Arab woman in the medieval Arab society. The woman was believed to be beautiful if she was stout, but with a graceful and slender waist, and rounded breasts. Her belly was supposed to be lean, and her buttocks were supposed to be “so fleshy as to impede her passage through a door” (Irwin 166). The face and cheeks needed to be white and “not haggard”, the arms had to be rounded and with elbows which had to be both delicate and soft; the fingers were supposed to be long, and the wrists full. The legs were expected “to be like columns of marble”, while her neck “like that of a gazelle”; the woman’s eyes were thought most beautiful if they reminded those of a gazelle “with the white of eye clearly marked” (Irwin 166).
Due to her intelligence and appearance, Scheherazade is able to elaborate the plan that would save her life and make Sultan ally rather than her enemy. She staves off a series of stories, all of which are intertwined and often stem one from another, to be told during the first night and all subsequent nights with Sultan. While these tales are exciting and adventurous, as well as full of sophisticated detail, they are also instructive and evidently mean to “humanize” the intended audience, to change the king’s outlook and his perception of women. It is worth mentioning here that in the book, Scheherazade’s audience appears to be some other character (e.g. her sister who she is allowed to invite to the bedchamber), not Shahryar directly. Yet, in reality, it is the king that the stories are told for. When the dawn comes, Scheherazade stops her narrative just in the middle. This helps her to buy one more day of living. Eventually, when the 1001 nights pass by, the queen gets a pardon and the king decides not to execute her. It means that the king ends up changed and enlightened by the wisdom that Scheherazade encapsulated in her fantastic tales. While the endings differ from one version to another, the one thing remains obvious: Scheherazade retains her life. It means that the Persian king’s approach to life dramatically changes (especially, if to imagine that before Scheherazade, nearly a thousand virgins have been executed after their first wedding night with Schahryar).
So what does the tale which is narrated by Scheherazade at the wedding night teach the king? First, one needs to explore its content. This is the Tale of the Merchant and the Genie. The plot revolves about the plight faced by the travelling merchant. This successful and prosperous trader stops in order to have some rest and eat. While he is tossing the pits of the dates onto the ground, it appears that one of the pits tossed away by the merchant hit some genie’s son and causes death to him. Unaware of this, the trader washes and delivers his prayers. Out of a sudden, the genie appears, with a sword in his hand. His feet are firm on the ground while his head is above the clouds. He says he must kill the merchant because he has killed the genie’s beloved son. Despite the fact that the merchant asks for forgiveness and says he has killed the genie’s son by mistake, the genie remains inexorable. The only thing that the merchant manages to convince the efreet in is to set him free for one year so that he could return to his country and finish his unfinished business. In year, the merchant has to be back so that the efreet may take away his life. When, as promised, the merchant gets back to the place where he met the genie a year ago, he meets three old men who come up to him one after another. They feel compassion towards the merchant and stay beside him to support him. When the genie appears, the first old man, who came with a gazelle, asks the genie to grant him one third of the merchant’s blood if the tale that he tells the demon astounds him. When the genie agrees, the old man narrates his story about the gazelle which stands beside him.
This is the story of how the gazelle, who used to be the man’s first wife and his cousin, magically transformed his slave concubine and his son from this concubine into a cow and a calf when the man was away. She then lied that the concubine had died when the man was away and his son had run away once her husband got back from his long-lasting travel. Then the first wife convinced him to slay the cow although the latter was bitterly crying and wailing. When the cow got slaughtered, the calf’s turn came. Yet, the calf was so unwilling to be killed, that the man did not kill him out of pity. The rest of the story is narrated during the second night, when one gets to know that the shepherd’s daughter, who was well-versed in sorcery and divination, saw that the calf was that man’s son. After she transformed the calf back into the human form, she became his wife. She also transformed the first wife into a gazelle. This is the very gazelle that the genie and the merchant and two old men see beside the narrator.
Obviously, the very beginning of the tale when the demon wants to kill the innocent merchant parallels the situation with the king of Persia, who is known to behead every woman he sleeps with in the morning that follows the wedding night. Women that lose their lives are subject to injustice since they get punished for the sin of the woman who died long time ago. They might have begged their master and husband not to kill them the way the merchant begs the genie. Yet, they remained unheard. In the story, too, the demon is resolute to kill the merchant despite the latter asks for forgiveness. Apparently, this part of the story about the merchant and the demon meant to help Sultan to see himself from aside and feel compassion towards poor merchant who is going to be killed despite the fact he is innocent. By being able to identify the unjustness and lack of humane feelings in the genie, the king is subconsciously led to assessing his own justness and humanity. Besides, the genie is depicted as unwise: he sentences the poor merchant to death without paying attention to the lack of guilt and even lets him finish his business affairs in the home country. On the contrary, the merchant is depicted as wise and caring. He finds the way to put off his death and cares about his family and other people when he asks the genie to free him for a year. Subconsciously, readers are more likely to identify themselves with the merchant, who is a victim of injustice, than with the cruel and unjust king. This helps to deliver to Sultan the message of the importance of acting in a wise, fair, and humane way.
Apart from this, the story of the first old man promotes compassion. For example, when the cow’s unwillingness to be killed is described, one may feel how grieved is the concubine to face death from the hand of her beloved husband. This also reminds of Sultan’s killing of his wives. While each of them would beg not to kill her and would bitterly weep, she will still face death. The heart of the cow’s master does not melt, and he orders his servant to kill the animal. Obviously, the intended audience of this fairy tale will take the side of the poor cow and regret her death. This story seems to promote compassion, since the suffering of the cow is described in a very touching manner. The listener will probably evaluate his/her level of compassion and try not to look as scary as the cow’s murderer.
Therefore, the tales that the king listens to at the first night out of one thousand and one nights teach him to have more compassion and empathy to women, in particular those who he takes as wives and later beheads. The tales discussed in this paper also teach Shahryar to be generous, just and humane. In addition, the tale encourages Sultan to reevaluate his behavior and actions through the prism of the value of justness, wisdom, and ability to always tell the truth. The tale also teaches to be compassionate and empathic to people that suffer.
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