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The Arabian Nights

A new twist on the old magic in the tales of the Arabian Nights.

Scheherazade by Léon Samoilovitch Bakst 1896.

Scheherazade by Léon Samoilovitch Bakst 1896.

The Tales of a Thousand and One Nights – the Arabian Nights – start with a terrible premise.  The great sultan has decided to marry a new virgin every night, and cut off her head in the morning.  Candidates are running out.

Young Scheherazade volunteers for the job.  And tells the sultan a story so compelling, every night, that when she leaves him hanging in the morning he can’t bear to kill her.  Until finally, he falls in love.  After a thousand and one stories of magic and genies, enchantment, pleasure and sin.

This hour, On Point:  a new take, twist, on the old magic in the tales of the Arabian Nights.

-Tom Ashbrook


Marina Warner, author of the new book Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights.  You can read and excerpt of the book here.

From Tom’s Reading List

The Daily Beast “One of the world’s greatest story collections, ‘Arabian Nights,’ gets a fresh appreciation from fairy-tales scholar Marina Warner. Brad Gooch on how the ghost of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ haunts the work.”

The New York Times “At 65, the British scholar Marina Warner is a veteran magus, and an adept mythographer of the vast global traditions of magic, metaphor and myth. Also an accomplished novelist, she augments her learning with her narrative skills. As a fan of her prolific enterprise for the last ­quarter-century, I regret that I have never met her, so delightful is her verve.”

The Independent “The Nights became, for successive European generations from the Enlightenment on, a prism through which writers and artists could form and then articulate their own fantasies and prejudices about the Orient. Edward Lane’s 1840 translation expurgated sex and violence from the tales, while in 1882 the explorer Richard Burton, infuriated by what he saw as Lane’s prudery, put the sex back in, plus some extra obsessions of his own in the footnotes.”

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  • Jack Arnon5

    Oh, another attempt to resurrect the work of the antisemite Edward said.

    Why am I not surprised?

    Here is why, in a week when Jewish children were murdered in France because they were Jews On  Point didn’t devote even ten minutes time to that hideous crime. 

    Said would be proud of you-all. 

    • aj

      Edward Said was a Semite; just like all the Palestinean Arab Christians, Muslims, Druze, AND Jews.  Go drop some cluster bombs on Lebanese grandmothers, and white phosphorous on Palestinean granddaughters.

      Its dogs like you, that will keep peace illusive in the greater Levant.  And in 200 yrs, your Zionist descendants will pay the price for your hedonnism.  Payback is a bitch.

    • Anonymous

       “Antisemitic” is one of those words which have been over- and mis-used to such an extent that they no longer have any value.  Except to irritate. But when it’s used in anticipation of a discussion of “Arabian Nights,” it’s beyond irritating. OMG! It’s just plain silly.

      • Jack Arnon5

        Try convincing the relatives of the murdered children by an antisemite that the word is overused. 

        Prairie would be happy with a Judenrein world.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

           Look, I support the Jewish people, as I’ve demonstrated here from time to time.  How does this hour relate to antisemitism?

          • Chris B

            This joker is just a troll.  I have nothing more to say to or about him.

          • El Smootho

            I think you just have to ignore such creatures!!

          • Chris B

            I gave him the benefit of the doubt initially, but he wasted no time in publicly soiling himself.

        • Four Elements

          Pay no attention to the namecallers. It’s never convenient bring up such topics and people get very upset when you interrupt their escapism. Good for you.

    • Chris B

      Well, what exactly would you like them to say about it?  What is there to say about it except that it was horrific?  I think we pretty much already know that.

      Not to mention that you might at least listen to 5 minutes of the show before you start raving

      • Jack Arnon5

        Jewish subjects seem to bore Chris B.

        • Chris B

          How dare you!  You think that because my name is Chris?  My wife is Jewish, you pathetic jackass.

    • El Smootho

      I think we need to keep these issues separated from religious doctrine.  Please Jack, bear in mind that both, Arabs and Israelites or Jacobites (not jews) are considered to be distant cousins; they both come from Semite background.

      This topic covers art and story telling from 1000 years ago when Arabs and Jacobites were living peacefully side by side.

      I think if you listen carefully to the western media it’s totally biased towards Israel and they take pride to cover any controversial issue or story that touches Israel.

    • Anonymous

      Perhaps it wasn’t covered this week as they were murdered last week. 

  • Patrik

    “Yoou are a beautiful woman my dear…Hakkem! Bathe her, then breeng her to me” 

    I have yet to read any of the tales, this has aroused my interest.  Can’t wait to listen.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Any idea of which of today’s topics will get the most comments?
      I have seen the XXX-rated version, and it is interesting. 
      The whole premise is VERY interesting, on MANY levels!

  • Chris in Pennsylvania

    What a great piece of literature!  I had a tough time keeping track of all of the stories.  There are so many tales nested within others I tended to lose track.  Can we be sure that the modern British translation that exists today captures the true nature of the accounts by bridging such a substantial a language gap?

  • Longfellow’s Evangeline

    Richard Burton was enchanted and kept telling the stories, and then the poets came out of Germany and England and France and started translating the pre-Islamic poetry of the Arabians and the Persians and we are all wealthier for it.  Go Go Go translaters of whatever sexual identity.  

  • Vanessa – J.P.

    All of you listening to this show PLEDGE whatever you can to wbur TODAY! This is first rate journalism! I don’t know what I would do without Tom in the mornings. I’m sure you all feel the same! High quality news can’t be free!

    Take responsibility and join the pledge club!

    ps: AWESOME topic Tom. I love the Arabian Nights!

    • Anonymous

      This post is concise.  Much better than the intrusive begging.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    A poor, powerless young woman, valued only for her physical beauty, and virginity, out-maneuvers a rich, powerful, cruel man.
       WHAT’S NOT to LOVE?

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Can Warner recommend a good translation of the Arabian Nights?

  • BHA in Vermont

    How would these tales, as a compilation, have been received 750 – 1000 years ago when apparently the first was made?

    I would think the sheer “male superior” mindset of the time (not to mention now in many middle eastern countries) would make it totally unacceptable to have a concubine foiling the sultan night after night.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       You don’t read much mediaeval literature, I take it.

    • Gerald Fnord

      Since everyone was lower than the sultan, I think there would have been a ‘soft spot’ for _anyone_’s putting something over him—and its being his wife (I believe he married his victims) added a nicely transgressive note.

    • Four Elements

      I thought your comment was reasonable, even if you are not as well-educated as Greg (!)

  • Ian MacDonald

    Something that fascinated, me when I read them, was that many of the stories were not set in Arab countries. For example I recall that Aladin was actually set in China.  

  • Artur Diamondshteyn

    Is there anything in common with the stories told by Sufis?

    There’s certainly a great deal of wisdom in the books—for one thing, it really is very hard to get rid of a dead hunchback.

  • Delman02

    ST: Women’s Rights Era..#
    As I understand it this was part of a women’s rights movement that eventually got turned under. Please comment

  • Guy

    we must also give credit to the 1001 tales as souce of sensual renditions in the United States – there was a major adult movie with the name scherrzad in the late 1970s or early 1980s. And of course the TV series Dreaming of Jinnie is another example. 

  • John Barnett

    I see the Sufis are already mentioned … there are many magical mysteries and wonders associated with the Sufis of Baghdad of the 11th and 12th centuries. Is there any connection or roots that may come from that incredibly strong cultural and mystical background? 

  • Brett

    I’ve always been intrigued by the stories…one of my favorite, perhaps my favorite, piece of classical music is Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade.’ His use of leitmotif is one of the best examples in music. 

  • Anonymous

    I think what is missing from the discussion is the use of fiction in times of persecution to voice social and political criticism.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Persecution of the ninth century?  The Muslim culture of that period was one of the more enlightened of the world.

    • Four Elements

      Interesting comment – thanks for the insight. No matter how “enlightened” Muslim clulture may have been in the ninth century, I bet women were treated pretty much the way they are now in the Middle East.

  • Sandy Godwin in Chesapeake va.

    has nothing changed about how islam treats women. Muslim men still believe that women are thier property to be used and disposed of after 800 years since the arabian nights. Doesn’t give one much hope does it?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Don’t confuse tribal attitudes with the better aspects of Islam.

    • Delman02

      It isn’t Islam. It is an ancient practice. Greece too shared for a time this practice. Yet in those empires sometimes women had leadership positions.

    • MANY_MrDave

      French-Left Over Values. It is also interesting that some of passion killing or honor killing is linked to the French and their rule. The Quran, Koran, (spelled many ways) speaks to men protecting women not dominating them. Yet the Quran is complex and only those sections that the rulers wish to use get highlighted. Hey like the USA Constitution

  • Leon

    Can we draw any parallels or metaphors between what the Arab culture or thinking back in the middle ages to what we’re seeing in the middle east or rise of fanaticism in this day and age? 

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Yes, caller, alien encounters is way out there.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      More-so than an omnipotend God, or many gods?  These same gods CANNOT make things better here, although omnipotent, but can only make a Heaven, that you may achieve, if you commit NO sins, even though that is impossible?

      • MANY_MrDave

        Ms Terry

        And just how does your comment add value? Nothing.  Greg was making a fair point about the phone call in

        Are you sure you are not a She

  • Todd

    I recently made an adaptation of The Nights for young performers, in part due to many folktales are disappearing, such as Brer Rabbit and other powerful stories.

    It was not my goal to present as many stories as I could, but to explore the wonderful device of a character in one story starting to tell their own story, and then a character in THAT story starts telling a story and we swirl deeper and deeper into the wonder.

    (Also, in the version I read, the stories are initiated not by a concubine, but by the Vizier’s own daughter who has risked her life to occupy the mad Sultan and thereby spare the lives of others, which we also highlighted in the performance as, sometimes, entertainment can do more to cross bridges between cultures and even transform views than any army or propaganda.)

  • Anonymous

    Try Husain Haddawy’s translations of the Nights–the first is from the edition by the late Professor Muhsin Mahdi (from a 14-15 c. manuscript; the second adds later stories.  

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Thanks, Tom, for the ‘instant sex-change’, even though I enjoy being a white male. 
       Reading my earlier comment on the air, you called me a she.  Exposing the EXTREME inequality, and inequity of past sexual roles, makes me a woman?

    • Jess in Boston

      The name Terry can be male or female. Tom just took a chance and got it wrong, give the man a break, for goodness’ sake.

  • Anonymous

    I am well aware of the brilliance of medieval Islamic culture. But that does not mean one was free to criticize those in power openly. The  great philosopher Al-Farabi in the introduction to his “Plato’s Laws” says it is told that a certain righteous man became famous for his virtues and feared the tyrannical sovereign of the city. When he learned that the order had been given for his arrest, he disguised himself as a vagabond and approached the city gate playing the lute, singing, and pretending to be drunk. When asked to identify himself, he gave his real name. The guard thought this was a great joke,  and let him through. And so, says Al-Farabi, the man saved himself wthout telling a lie. He goes on to say that Plato himself used fictional devices to veil his truths.
        What fascinated me in my research is that the disguise adopted by the virtuous man strikingly resembles that of a well-known character in a key tale of the 1001 Nights. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=778597576 Michael Lundell

    Someone asked about an English translation of the Nights.  NJ Dawood has one called Tales from the Thousand and One Nights (Penguin) – it is a decent selection of all the well known stories and is well written.  For an overview of the history of the Nights take a look at my post “What is the Arabian Nights?” – http://journalofthenights.blogspot.com/2009/05/what-is-arabian-nights-1001-nights.html

  • Hidan

    Cool Show

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Yousef-Eshmawi/674291940 Yousef Eshmawi

    Analysis and academia aside. I think what’s most enjoyable about the “Arabian” Nights, is that it doesn’t exclude anyone. It’s anything but just “Arabian”. The stories are the richest, and most vibrant, because it’s one of the few places in the spectrum of classical/fantasy literature where everyone mingles. The story of eating the magical fish, once fried in the royal chef’s pan, Puff! out of smoke different visions appeared: There’s a blue fish, a yellow fish, and a green fish. You don’t have the “Arabian” Nights without the Jews (who are represented by the “blue” fish), the Christians, Muslims, etc. by the other fishes, among many other elements in the stories that emanate that realm of mutually-shared fantasy. It’s one of the few, if not only, deep realms of fresh air in this tumultuous world where the only rivals we have are the evil Djinn we’re trying to outwit from splitting our rib-cage out of fury for being imprisoned in a bottle to the brink of insanity. 

    I am biased, with a name like “Yousef”, and will say, to me, it’s THE most mysterious, and enjoyable of realms because it’s the oasis in the superficiality of our modern world, where, in one light,the pursuit of our emotion’s desires is highlighted , encouraged, and often attained.

    Is it irrelevant to the reality and modernity of our lives? absolutely not. Not merely because “stories teach us how to live” but because to think that our everyday phenomenological experience of life is the total grasp of reality with a period at the end is premature in the eternal scheme of things. The “Arabian” Nights is a vivid embodiment of the “Fantastic”, “Mysterious”, “Wondrous” in a theme, not only because it funnels and ferments the cultures of our world into a palatable elixir of exquisite interaction, but because its periphery is that strangest of all places, unknown realms, and modernly taboo scenes, Arabia.

    Leave peoples hearts and minds to their own inner discords, and let’s try to put aside our ongoing religious and political differences for the sake of enriching each others lives in this ultimately short-lived-in world.

     To rave on…. Because the Arabs had so many tribes and were sporadically feuding, even THEY weren’t familiar with the totality of the peninsula, every tribe used to be at best familiar with most of their regions and friends, but rarely the whole. Arabia was a strange and unknown place even to the Arabs. Such a place is prone to exude hallucinations, and strange dreams. Ladies and gentlemen, enter this into the Guinness book of run-on sentences  (|>}

  • Karam

    Thank you Tom for the informative show. I really enjoyed it.

  • Slipstream

    I am using your new (I guess it is Quicktime) software now.  It is worse than the former one you had that was imbedded in the screen and showed you how much time was left, et cetera.  It takes longer to start up and is more klunky to use.  This is not a step forward for OP.

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