Allison on a “1001 Nights” high school education module

The Great World Texts project run by the University of Wisconsin – Madison helps engage high school and college students in literary works by having them create works of art. One group made illustrated journal covers based on miniature paintings they had seen, while another group made a video based off the tv crime show The First 48. I think this is a really great idea for helping world literature become meaningful for these students and to understand some of the timeless features that make literature endure across centuries. I liked the journal covers because the students learned about art from different places and were able to see different influences on the art. Their focus on the products that occur from the mixing of cultures is really interesting and something that many students can relate to in their own lives. They also had to write their own stories or poetry inside the journals. My favorite project is the video where two student “detectives” interrogate Shahrayer and Shahzaman about the murders of their wives and of the women of the kingdom. They combine details from the story with the legal process in a way, and the story really seems as if it could be set in the modern day. The students had to understand the characters, their motives and their personalities in order to fit them into a crime drama interrogation format. At first the characters are defiant, but eventually they break down and admit they killed their wives because of the pain and anger they felt upon learning of the affairs. The fact that the students chose this format shows that they understand how major themes that people enjoyed hearing stories about hundreds of years ago are still the themes that draw audiences to shows and movies today. The best aspect of the project is that multiple schools participate in the Great Texts project and them meet up for a conference at the end of the school year to share their projects with students from other schools. This is a nice way to let students show their peers what they’ve been working on and to see what other groups came up with based on the same work. The students who participate in these types of programs must come away with a much more in depth knowledge of and appreciation for the work they read. It would take a lot more time than just reading the book, but they would get a lot more out of it and remember it for much longer.
This would be a great project to use as an interdisciplinary type of unit among English, Arabic, history and maybe even French and science classes. You can incorporate so many different aspects into the lessons and the project to make it appeal to students with many different interests. Because The Arabian Nights has been around so long and depicted in so many ways, it could be used to teach about the culture and history of the area, about literary themes and devices, and could even be used to introduce contributions of the medieval Islamic civilization to the fields of math and science.

Allison Pistolessi


Alexa on Edgar Allan Poe

I discovered and was fascinated by Edgar Allan Poe’s story called “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade” because I usually associate Edgar Allan Poe with the eerie thrillers he is famous for. Here is a link to read the story if you are interested:
I also read about the story because I found an article about it in Saudi Aramco World, a magazine my mother would use for teaching social studies courses.
Here is that article if you are interested:
This article discusses a few of Poe’s stories from the Middle East showing that he must have had a fascination with writing from the area. There are also some common threads of comparison between his world and ancient times in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and other areas where he criticizes modern “Westerners” for not appreciating this part of history. He uses The Thousand and One Nights as a way to convey this theme, but he also focuses on the barriers time creates when looking into the future.
While he began with a short summary of Scheherazade’s story, he also molds the story to fit his own theme. He alludes to this theme in his introductory remark “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I found the entire introduction fascinating. He acknowledges that Europe and America do not learn enough about Arabian Nights, and he also touches on the theme of the self-empowerment of women represented by Scheherazade. However, he also references Machiavelli and Eve when talking about the woman, highlighting her trickery of the king and her allure as a woman. These early references started to spin the story gradually before Poe’s original story really changed themes.
After that point, Poe makes the story his using a story within a story supposedly about Sinbad’s adventures. He describes different areas and islands that the king cannot imagine. The places in the descriptions are real but were undiscovered at the time. He also wrote beautiful descriptions of machinery but described machines as animals “whose bones were iron and whose blood was boiling water.” While these stories progressed the king became disconcerted by the apparent lies of Scheherazade and ultimately decided to sentence her to death rather than the usual ending where she survives. Poe’s point reflects back on his initial quote. The king found modern truths more outrageous than ancient fiction, which, in my opinion, shows how amazing it is that these stories have lasted over the years. His theme that common truths of the future are unfathomable now defines the length of time between the original tales of the Arabian Nights. It is difficult to write a timeless story, but the format of these stories shaped the writings of literature centuries later and analysis of them still appears in modern magazines. This was a new style of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing for me, but it also played tricks with the mind like his other writings. Instead of fear and creepy suspense, it used time to force the reader to think. It was an interesting combination of styles, and I wonder what other authors have a story related to this work.
-Alexa Hopkins

Oh those Arabian Nights

            When I began to ‘cast my net’ into the sea of 1001 Nights, the first thing I grabbed (like many others before me) was Disney and it’s adaptation of the story Aladdin, using some of the Arabian Nights’ basic literary imagery and transforming it into a children’s animated film. However, as I’ve gotten older and become more knowledgeable to historical and literary truths, I see both the controversy and the beauty behind Disney classics such as this one, as the film attempts to enlighten younger audiences with other (dare I say foreign?) cultures, lifestyle practices and historical events. The problem lies in the fact that most of plotlines are false, inaccurate, or extremely exaggerated. Aladdin is not the only example that portrays this fallacy, as the film Anastasia shows a rather narrow view of condition of Russia during the time of the Russian Revolution and the foundations with workers’ issues with the royal Romanov family. The struggle, sentiment and hardship felt by many classes in the country was overcome with musical numbers and witty sidekicks in the Disney story. Not to mention the poor accents, if any, that the characters possess. Yet, what I cannot help but love about this Disney film, as with many others, is the glimpse and introduction into a part of the world that I had little knowledge of myself when I was young kid.

            I still have problems with Aladdin though. And, as I was listening to music while reading Beaumont’s “Medieval Arabic Nights,” the song ‘Arabian Nights’ came on from the movie’s soundtrack. I stopped and paid more attention to the lyrics, finding myself mentally correcting almost every line. In case your memory has lapsed, here tune that sets up the tone in the beginning of the movie: (and if you want it in Arabic: Before I expose the fictitious nature of this famous tune, I will admit to a few true sentiments. First, the song does refer to the story’s unusual framework, admitting that the characters come from ‘a faraway place,’ a place that has ‘wind’s from the east’ and ‘sun’s from the west.’ And, the phrase ‘Hop a carpet and fly/To another Arabian night’ could refer to Scheherazad’s memorable nighttime stories, where she takes King Shahryar away from reality for those who are familiar with the story. But, the truth stops there.

           In light of Daniel Beaumont’s introduction to the history of the Nights in medieval literature, there is evidence that the stories did not all originate from the dunes of North Africa and the Middle East. Although the origins of the stories are up for debate on whether or not certain stories came before the night or vice versa, there is evidence of translations and similar stories from Indian and Greek sources as well as Persian and Arabic accounts. I don’t know if many camel caravans roamed in Athens or South Asia. And, the mention of barbarism with having your ear cut off does not accurately display the cultural practices and beliefs in these ‘faraway’ regions that the stories to appear to be based from.

Corresponding with what Beaumont discusses in greater detail, the cultural references made by western culture, as seen in this song, mirror the fascination with 1001 Nights that came from Galland’s work in the 18th century. More importantly, it shows the affect of the ‘The Oriental Renaissance,’ a movement coined by that Raymond Schwab from the impact of Galland’s translation as it spread throughout the western world. What is lost is the validity that the stories themselves are fictional, and were developed to be outrageous and remarkable, rather than show a depiction of common lifestyles by people in various parts in the world.


            There are multiple versions of this ‘Arabian Nights’ song, whether it be translated through other languages or infused into a pop artist’s remix. This song has stood as a symbol for a view of the culture around the Arabian Nights, and unfortunately does little to educate the youth on what the Nights truly stood for. Despite all deceptions, this song was a part of a movie that gave me interest into the Middle East, and alongside my curiosity, has brought me to my studies today. So maybe Disney isn’t all bad.


Side note: If you enjoy humorous renditions of songs like I do (that include some classic visuals), you might enjoy this video:

1001 Nights and Sonic the Hedgehog

I have always been an avid gamer and interested in game adaptations of famous literary or cinematic works. I had heard that there was a Sonic the Hedgehog game released for the Wii that was influenced by The Arabian Nights so I decided to do more research. It is called Sonic and the Secret Rings and while not following the story line of 1001 Nights very much at all, incorporates many aspects of the tales in its plot.

The story begins with Sonic in a position like Aladdin with his sidekick Shahra (the Japanese nickname for Scheherhazade). Together they must find the “World Rings” and give them to the villain, Erazor, a Jinn, or else he will destroy the 1001 Nights and kill them both. The story ends with the necessary “boss fight” where the protagonist must face the villain to win the game. Sonic and Shahra put Erazor back into his lamp and they save the text.

Much like the Popeye adaptation that we discussed in class, the game kept many of its original characters but cast them in roles congruent with 1001 nights. Throughout the game, Sonic runs into his usual sidekick, “Tails,” who is in Ali Baba’s role. He also meets another old friend, Knuckles, who portrays Sindbad the Sailor and finally, his arch nemesis, Dr. Eggman as King Sharyar.

Sonic and the Secret Rings becomes an interesting fusion of many different influences. Created at Japanese gaming company, Sega, it gives an interesting insight into the far East’s interpretation of The Nights. Even the sound track was composed by a Japanese composer attempting to fuse Middle Eastern music with the rock that is traditionally used in Sonic the Hedgehog games. Of course, you have the initial Arabian inspiration including the Jinn, Erazor’s, cynicism towards humanity after granting 1000 wishes. Furthermore, in a dramatic attempt to save Sonic’s life, Shahra sacrifices herself for him and lets Erazor take her life. A gamer sees the more Western influence when Sonic then defeats Erazor, captures him in his lamp and brings Shahra back to life. It is a good over evil victory that is not as present in Arabic literature as it is in Western story telling. Because there hadn’t been a video game intended for a modern console,  Sonic and the Secret Rings also draws influences from other games that were set in similar places and times, including Prince of Persia. It is interesting to me to see the impact that games intended for a different audience can have on a game that really has no precedent.

This fusion can be plainly seen in the final cut scene of Sonic and the Secret Rings (found here: The Japanese graphics and dialogue combine with Arabian relics and a truly Western scene of heroism that emphasizes the diversity of the influences on the game.

What exactly did Shahryar’s ring symbolize?

I’m quoting with permission from an email sent to me by Winnie Ko. She asked:

I have a question about the significance of Shahryar’s rings, which are given to the Jinni girl. Did rings hold the same meaning as they do now for the Arabians (specifically the time frame for Arabian Nights)? I know that rings were not the symbols for marriage and unity for the ancient Greeks and not until much later for the Romans. So, I wonder what the rings symbolize in this story.
If the ring does symbolize marriage, could it possibly have been a detail added later during the French translation or has it always been there in the story? Also, as Sharhryar hands out the ring of marriage, does he subsequently lose faith in marriage and women completely, which leads to the following massacre?
Thank you!


I would be interested in hearing what you all think.  Here’s what I responded:

Since I can’t answer your question outright (except to say the rings do appear in the oldest and most authentic (14thc) Nights manuscript any scholar has ever seen – but that does not mean they’re “wedding rings” per se as we would read them in our culture – they could be royal signets or other personal status markers – Muslims don’t do wedding rings, and the gold jewelry given to a bride is more divorce insurance/dowry/proof of purchase), let me refer you and everyone else to a great resource we have at Mugar: the Arabian Nights Encyclopedia. (Also glimpsable on Google Books.)

After seeing ma…


After seeing many reviews and posts on a new book, Stranger Magic by Wendy Doniger published this past June 2012 I decided to write my blog post about the book.  

A few reviews that I found of her book Stranger Magic:



In Stranger Magic, Warner focuses on how The Arabian Nights has influenced art and literature since the eighteenth century, which is in direct relation to the focus of our class.  She not only focuses on how ‘the West’ has culturally appropriated the Eastern themes in The Arabian Nights but also writes to show how the ancient stories can be and has been used as “a kind of pattern book for later writers, artists and film-makers”. 

 Warner’s Stranger Magic is not another translation of the original manuscripts but a further analysis of how the themes in the Nights stories are still pertinent and captivating today.  She wants to prove how direct influence of the Nights has increased fairytale and fantasy literature. She also studies how the themes in the Nights reveal natural human desires, beliefs, and goals.  The Barnes and Noble Review notes how Warner brings up the point in Stranger Magic that fantasies of flying, i.e. flying carpets, are produced centuries before balloons or aircraft was imagined. 

 I was drawn to this piece of work because of the psychological questions Warner rises.  How the themes in the Nights are recurring today and have even ingrained themselves in our society as sentimentalities.  How the Nights stories, which were created for pleasure and diversion from everyday trials, can now stand as arguably one of the largest influences on literature today. 

 I would love to read her book after reading the stories this semester and see how she proves her arguments and what parts of the Nights Warner’s Stranger Magic highlights as most influential. 

Blog 1: “Jumlukiyat” – a parody of the Arabian Nights

On January 18th and 19th of this year, there was an International Symposium on the Arab Spring Through the Eyes of Arab Novelists held in Tunis. The symposium addressed the works and roles of artists and novelists as they had changed before, during, and after the Arab Spring had begun. The symposium included writers from Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and even some European Arabists. More information about the symposium can be found here:

What particularly caught my eye was the work of Wasini al’Araj, a reportedly well-known Algerian novelist and professor. At the symposium, he recalled the victimization of about 200,000 people in the 1990’s. On that note, he mentioned his novel “Jumlukiyat” – a parody of the Arabian Nights. The title itself is a play on words, combining the Arabic words for “republic” and “kingdom.” In the novel, he gives a greater voice to women and other oppressed groups while portraying the king as weak and incompetent. At the symposium he said “I conversed with authoritarianism and made Dinazade say things that Shahryar did not want to listen to.”

I find this idea particularly attractive because it plays with the timeless elements of the Arabian Nights and adds a modern adaptation to the many versions of the Arabian Nights that have been produced. Throughout the centuries, I can only imagine that the stories of the Arabian Nights have been read and interpreted in countless ways to feed the needs and express the desires of different people in their particular times and places in history. Al’araj’s adaption is a way of marking our time and place in history – how exciting to think that we are witnessing history in the making!  It’s interesting to see how the morals of a story can be so easily twisted or portrayed in a different light. I suppose the message of the story depends on what the reader is looking for.

I also find it interesting that Al’araj felt that the Arabian nights had to be parodied to give voice to marginalized groups. After reading the prologue of Norton’s “The Arabian Nights,” I felt that story – as it is – quite clearly makes a mockery of oppressive social norms. The idea of a woman throwing herself onto her backs, opening their legs and demanding that a man make love to her is absurd to the point of being darkly comical. Not to mention that the parallel drawn between the two kings and the demon is all too clear. Even the very basis of the story – that a woman is able to outwit the terrible king to spare the lives of the marginalized people of the land – is in itself a tale of victory for all oppressed groups!

Since the Arabian Nights is, at times, a parody anyway, I think it would be intriguing to see what a parody would do for the story – how it would change the message and how it would be read by different groups.