Dancing My Way Through the 1001 Nights

The 1001 Nights did not just appear in Europe through Galland’s elaborate translations, child story adaptations or artwork. It also came to the Western world through ballet. In 1910 the ballet Scheherazade premiered in Paris, France, using the music by Rimsky-Korsakov and directed by Michel Fokine. Since this performance, ballet adaptations of the 1001 Nights spread throughout the rest of Europe and into American dance companies. Eastern Europe, with a closer proximity to the Middle East and the Arab world, both saw and heard of Eastern customs first. What showcased in the ballet, however, was more extreme. The orchestra was the platform for the stories, using strings and brass rather than prose or poetry. The costumes, similar to most dance performances, were to exaggerate and enhance the images of those in the eastern civilizations. Yet, the audience did not only take away a beautiful performance about stories that originated in the Arab world. They also believed that the images before them were depictions of life as an ‘oriental.’ Although difficult to measure, my research will look at how ballet adaptations of the 1001 Nights influenced the western view on Arab culture through the choreography, costumes, and to some extent, the music. My focus will be on ballet companies either in Europe or in the U.S. simply because ballet has grown exponentially in these countries as opposed to others, and therefore have a greater opportunity to perform an adaptation to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe, or another 1001 Nights based piece.

The first aspect of my research, discovering ballet companies who have performed about the Nights, includes videos, photos and websites dedicated to promoting the show. I have found material on a ballet company in Ireland, America and Russia. I may also use some material from the Dutch National Ballet, but at the moment I have not found any information about the performance itself. I may also use Douglas Fairbank’s film Thief of Baghdad to examine the choreography and costumes that were used in order to draw upon the influence of the Ballets Russe in their performance. Because it is a silent film, the music will help in addressing cues in the script, and exemplify a movie that is also reliant on showing their audience the story, rather than just telling it.

The second aspect of my research will be a little more challenging, but I think if I can discover enough evidence, it will provide considerable support for my argument. I plan to uncover reviews and scholarly articles (if there are any!) about the ballet productions. It is difficult to measure the impact a production may have on the audience, so I will also examine the progression of the costume design, music and choreography over time. To catch cultural references, I will look at blog posts and newspaper columnist comments and assess the affect that the play had on their perception of Arab civilizations as well as on the stories themselves.

My research will require a significant amount of digital work, which I will include in the conclusion to give my readers to chance to see the adaptations themselves. I am looking forward to working on this paper, as I have never done a topic that involves analyzing ballet based on a literary collection that I am more than familiar with, and attempting to see the implications the dance production has had on the public. I will be starting with ballet productions in the late 1800s and continuing on to present day. In this work, I hope to address not only the differences between the East and the West, and their opinions on the reality of the 1001 Nights, but also the differences between literary and performed adaptations of the stories.


Western Interpretations of Scheherazade and the “new Scheherazade’s” of the 21st Century

“The older daughter, Scheherazade had read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine.  She knew poetry by heart, had studied historical reports, and was acquainted with the sayings of men and the maxims of sages and kings.  She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined”.  This quote from the Haddawy/Mahdi text of the Arabian Nights is the only description the reader receives on the stories’ pivotal character Scheherazade.  The heroine of the 1001 Nights stories is not described physically but only given three lines of description that foretell her deception of King Sharyar through the use of story-telling.  How then has she become an icon, know world wide, fantasized by men in the west, idolized by women in east, and seen as both a symbol of repression and feminist power?


For my paper, to answer the question of how the portrayal of the character of Scheherazade has developed through place and time, I will first examine the depiction of her character in both the 1942 film Arabian Nights and the two part 2000 miniseries of the same title.  In the 1942 film Scheherazade, played by Maria Montez, seduces the viewers as a sultry, power hungry belly dancer, serving as the prize for the brothers who struggle to win the throne.  The plot of this movie is just as altered as character of Scheherazade; no longer is the story concerned with an intelligent, young girl’s attempts to save the kingdom from a despondent and violent king.  The movie’s plot line revolves instead around sibling rivalry and the conquest of a beautiful woman.  In the 2000 miniseries the original plot of the 1001 Nights is re-established.    The series consists of five stories from the 1001 Nights, which are framed within a sixth, the story of Scheherazade and Shahryar.  In my paper I will examine both Maria Montez (1942) and Mili Avital (2000) play the role of Scheherazade and how cultural assumptions effect both how Scheherazade is both interpreted by Hollywood and how she is then re-imaged to the American viewer. 


While looking at the Western interpretations of Scheherazade is interesting, I am also curious to focus on how these interpretations reflect the Western view of Arab women.  Western Feminists often group Middle Eastern women in a category of being oppressed and subordinated.  I want to examine how in both films the characterization of Scheherazade can be used as an example of this notion ‘of what is the condition of Middle Eastern women’ is. This can be seen both in the overtly ‘oriental’ portrayal of her character as an ‘interpretation of the East’, as well as the contrasting overly sexualized depiction that is Hollywood’s attempt to westernize Scheherazade.  Both of these imply that women in the East are simply passive victims in a misogynistic world.  I want to look at how the Western culture clouds our perception of what entails women’s rights by examining both sides’ interpretations of Scheherazade.  The western point of view as depicted in the films mentioned above. And the eastern through the new phenomenon of ‘new Scheherazades” or strong and popular Arab women in the public society, such as newscasters, writers, and comedians.   


Lastly I want to examine how the character of Scheherazade has evolved into the basis for what is now called the “Scheherazade narrative” or a narrative which resists stereotypical and exotic representations.  These final parts of my paper have not been fully hashed out yet, however I have found several good articles/books that I plan on exploring that talk about the changing image of Arab women and the miss-interpretation of their culture by Western feminists.  I hope to explore more in my paper:  the place of Scheherazade as both an image of power to these women and also as impedance, by representing by the stereotypes and prejudices of the West.   


Below are trailers/clips from the two films:

Arabian Nights (1942):


Arabian Nights Miniseries (2000):

A Few Tips from a Novice

As I’ve been combining this research project with my translation project, it has been a continuous learning process for me. I’m translating an Arabic play called “Abu Al-Hasan Al-Mughaffal” by Marun Al-Naqqash. As far as I know, the play has never been translated into English before. The idea of translating something that’s never been translated was not only exciting, but it also opened my eyes to the idea that I can actually contribute to society! Well, I won’t get too ahead of myself just yet, but the idea of producing a translation that could potentially be useful to others was (and is) quite motivating.

Since this has been such a learning process for me, I feel that I should share some of what I learned with others. I’ll spare you the expanding repertoire of 19th century Arabic vocabulary I’ve acquired and keep it to the basics. If you’re interested in translating a text for the first time, the following tips may be of use to you! If not, feel free to skip this next section.


First Step – Finding the Text

  1. Do research on the text and the author prior to searching for the text. This will clue you in to certain details that you may not have otherwise been sensitive to.
  2. Search for the text in both languages. If you’re dealing with a language that uses different letters than English, then it’s also important to entertain all possible English spellings of the text. If the text has never been translated into English before then there’s most likely no single conventional way of spelling it. Also dig for other references to the text to find alternative spellings.
  3. Search the author and title separately and together. More information in the search bar isn’t necessarily better.
  4. Pay attention to the results of your search. You’ll probably have to weed through endless results, but keep an eye out for results that continue to pop up repeatedly. They make look like nothing but they’re showing for a reason – in my case, I found the text I was looking for in a collection of plays that kept coming back in my search. I was curious and frustrated so I opened it and… voila! It fell into my lap.
  5. Utilize library resources, research librarians, interlibrary loans, etc. Also, keep in mind that even though libraries may be connected through interlibrary associations, it can also be useful to carry out your search at individual libraries (you’ll often get more results that way).



Second Step – Translating the Text

  1. Read the words, AND the sentence, AND the paragraph, AND the story. It’s easy to get wrapped up in every single word – but that can get overwhelming. If you find yourself lost, step back and read it again as a whole.
  2. Read aloud. This can help you pick up on things such as rhyme and meter that you may not otherwise have noticed if you were reading silently. In my case, it also clued me in to the meaning of some of the words – they were spelled so as to sound “colloquial” but I never would have known if I didn’t hear it aloud.
  3. If it’s a particularly challenging text (as this one was for me) then read other versions of the same story or search for articles that discuss the text. Close readings of similar stories can give you an idea of what the story is about and can also make you more aware of differences between the two stories that you might not have otherwise been aware of. 


Those are some of the major lessons I’ve learned – I hope they’re of help to the next person! Now, a bit about my actual project.

Due to the difficulty of the Arabic text, I haven’t finished reading the play yet. However, I have done a bit of reading about the play and its author. Additionally, I’ve read a few similar stories such as “The Sleeper Awakened,” “The King is King” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” These stories have been suggested as possible influences for “Abu Al-Hassan Al-Mughaffal” and curiosity got the better of me. It’s interesting to compare and contrast these different versions; in a way, the similarities and differences between these versions actually help to shed light on the underlying meaning of each.

From what I’ve read, “Abu Al-Hassan Al-Mughaffal” shares the much in common with “The Sleeper Awakened” and “The King is King.” However, the two latter stories are quite different from each other. “The Sleeper Awakened” is more of a bedtime story for children while “The King is King” and its political themes are clearly intended for an older audience. “Abu Al-Hassan Al-Mughaffal” shares elements of both, and I’m curious to see how it ends. Additionally, I would like to look more into the politics of the time period during which “Abu Al-Hassan Al-Mughaffal” was written. Basic, preliminary research has shown that this play received quite a backlash from the Ottoman Empire for its criticism of Haroun Al-Rashid. The author, Al-Naqqash, was forced to leave for Egypt – as did many of his contemporary playwrights. But why would any government react so strongly to a criticism of a man who had been dead for centuries? Who saw the play and who was it intended for? How was the play received by it’s audiences? What was it’s place in history? There was obviously something more to the politics behind the actions of the Ottoman Empire and I intend to find the answers to them.


Cairo: Preview to Alif?

Upon further analysis, I realized that perhaps G. Willow Wilson’s assertions about the role of the American in the Middle East is not so much more insulting in strong in her earlier graphic novel, Cairo as it is in her prose, Alif the Unseen. Rather, the graphic novel is just much too short for any character development whatsoever, so her claims portray as wildly misunderstood. G. Willow Wilson raises some of the questions and themes in Cairo that she will later explore and much more fully develop in Alif the Unseen. Both books are fantastical stories about djinns, as well as stories that blend in with one another. Her characters are extremely similar; for example, the Arab-American named Shaheed, a young hacker who seems lost, easily persuaded, and frequently finds himself in trouble. This character is a lot like the main character Alif, in Alif the Unseen, also a hacker with a lot to learn, except Alif comes along with love troubles.

The American characters seem to be similar to one another as well. In Cairo,

Kate (from Orange County) is loud, opinionated, and knows a little Arabic because she wanted to “take an Anti-Imperialist language in college”. She comes to Cairo to “make a difference and write educational pamphlets”, yet does have some (little) knowledge on the history and culture of djinns and Egypt itself. In Alif, the convert is also an educated woman, but she is a convert, in The City for many years, with much more knowledge. She expresses similar frustrations about what life is like as a convert in both her home country and The City itself. Yet, she marries Vikram, much more open to romance with djinns! Regardless, Kate in Cairo tends to offend people more often without realizing. This can be accounted for in two reasons; one, she is a character who has just arrived in Cairo with much more to learn; two, Wilson simply does not have the time or space to develop the characters fully like she does in Alif.

            I also began to explore the transliteration in both books. That is, the extremely high frequency of Arabic words transliterated into English letters. I wondered why Wilson would do this, knowing her audience is primarily American.  Either she is showing off her Arabic skills, or she wants to incorporate the language for culture reference into the novels. But what do these words convey that the English translations do not? I am exploring language and culture, what it means to read in a language, write in a language, and think in a language. Sometimes even if there is a word to translate it, the same meaning is not conveyed. Perhaps that is what Wilson is attempting to her readers in her books.

Wilson also extends her story to include Alf Yeom. The theme of storytelling is vividly present in both novels, yet she elaborates and makes the history (true or not) of the Alf Yeom a main focus the novel. As expected with a prose novel, Alif the Unseen uses much more symbolism and underlying themes; Cairo seems like a quick-read preteen comic, especially towards the end. Overall, I see Wilson’s Cairo as a graphic novel preview for what is to come (but better) in Alif the Unseen, and I hope to explore those themes.


1001 Nights in Mugar Library

As tempted as I am to go on a 500 word rant on the plague of procrastination and the very chatty individuals occupying Mugar it would simply be for your diversion, so I’ll stick to the script. When I first started researching Borges, I found a dearth of information on his writings and I was, at first, quite overwhelmed. I found myself laughing and delusional when faced with a stack and a half of Borges and relevant criticisms. Eventually, with a bit more internet research I was able to find that there were a just a few texts that I could focus on. However, even with the few texts I have acquired, I find myself tempted to widen the scope of my paper.

What I have found is that most critics, especially in reference to The Nights, address Borges’ use of “infinity” and paradox. This meaning that, like the title 1001 Nights, the stories are endless and simply reflect upon each other indefinitely. I have found this in three of my sources, one being the Companion to The Nights. One of the sources, an article by Evelyn Fishburn, cites Borges as describing it as someone looking into a mirror while holding one.

This is contrary to the themes of The Nights which, although they are reflective, serve to reiterate a theme of discovering one’s fate or minding one’s business. It is these two ideas that are desirous of reconciliation right now as my research continues. I feel as though my thesis will come from an attempt to define the relationship of Borges’ interpretation of The Nights with their initial intentions.

I can understand the paradox in La Historia de Los Dos que Sonaron (The Story of the Two Dreamers). In this story, a man heeds his dream to find treasure and travels far and faces many challenges only to be put in jail. However, after he is incarcerated he finds that his jailer has had a similar dream but the treasure actually resides in the original man’s garden. This story immediately calls the paradox to mind – although the treasure was in his own garden he had to follow his dream to find this out, even though it stands to reason that after not being rewarded by his own dream he would be hesitant to listen to that of the jailer’s. On the flip side, this story also utilizes The Nights’ prevalent themes of foreshadowing and fate. I believe that this story will be the crux of my argument and I will find the reconciliation of his other works with The Nights through this text.

In addition, throughout my research of the Borges texts in their original Spanish, I have found that it uses a few antiquated words that I am not familiar with. True understanding of these words requires more than a Google translate so I have been doing additional research into those words and cross referencing them with English translations of the stories. This has proven to be a bit arduous thus far but I believe it is a necessary evil if I want to fully understand Borges’ meaning.

I must now return to the recesses of Mugar’s upper floors. It’s too bad – the only happiness I find here is watching students draw chemical equations on the boards on the center of the first floor and thanking my lucky stars I’m not a science major. Happy studying!!


PS. Allison, your comics have been a major source of procrastination (useful?) for me.

Searching for Authentic Materials

One of the most difficult parts of writing my unit plan has been locating authentic materials at an appropriate language level but also an appropriate age level for high school students. I was very excited when I found a cartoon series that was based off the Nights called 1001 Nights. Although most of the episodes are not based off of stories from the actual book, they do have one about the Hunchback story. They also have corresponding comic books!

The cartoon has a frame (Shahriyar is merely petulant and difficult man, but he does not kill a woman every morning) and the basic story of the Hunchback (3 people think they’ve killed a hunchback), but many of the details are different. I think it will be interesting to have students read the Mahdi and Haddawy versions of the same story and compare the two. Even though they will probably not be able to understand all of the words in the cartoon, the animation is expressive enough that they will still be able to understand what is going on.

Something that has struck me throughout my research has been the tension between the Nights being viewed as a children’s story versus being looked down upon because of its lack of style and occasionally subjected to censorship because of its bawdy nature.

At the heart of these conflicting images is the question of what makes a good story. Should it convey a moral message, or any message at all? Should it be written in a certain style? Is a “children’s story” appropriate for adults? I found it interesting when G. Willow Wilson said she was surprised that her book was categorized under Young Adult Fiction, because I had viewed it as such while I was reading it. I don’t know whether is was the writing style or the contents or its listed genre on amazon.com. What are the implications of the labels we give to stories?

I’m really enthusiastic about these cartoons and comic books – I wanted to pass them on to the Arabic students in the class because I think they’re going to be very helpful for language learning and teaching, especially for working on listening skills.

If you’re interested, you can see samples of the comic books in English and Arabic and watch the most recent episode for free at this website:

(They also have the full comic books and back episodes for sale at this website: https://video.oznoz.com/video/1001-nights.html.)

Escaping Into The Nights in Vathek

After getting about a third of the way through Vathek I decided that I had to write my final paper on this enchanting and imaginative story.  The storytelling style is somewhere between Galland and Byron, and gives the reader the impression that every word has a higher meaning. 

In examining Beckford’s personal history, one finds it nearly impossible not to assign an autobiographical role to his titular character.  Beckford inherited a massive fortune at the age of 10, allowing him to indulge his every fantasy from a young age.  He was infamous for a love triangle involving his older cousin’s wife Louisa Pitt, and the young boy William Courtenay.  He eventually yielded to family pressure and moved out of England and into the continent because of his notoriety, but only after having his legendary Christmas party at his lavish estate of Fonthill.  Beckford later named this party as the inspiration for the story of Vathek, and guests included both Louisa and William.

Certainly one can draw comparisons to the insatiable thirsts of Vathek and Beckford easily, and even go farther to assign the roles of Nouronihar to Louisa and Gulchenrouz to William, but the curious part is that the story ends with a moral against overindulgence.  This is curious because it is a turn against the very sins that characterize Beckford.  It suggests that Beckford potentially was not fully convinced that he himself was a good person, and thus undertook this experiment in a story to see where his sins would lead him.  At the same time though, it could be taken ironically as well, as though the moral was not meant to be taken seriously.  The story presents Vathek’s crimes in a humorous way, inviting the readers to enjoy his sinfulness, rather than be horrified as appropriate.  In addition, Nouronihar is the one character presented as more complex, and who’s thoughts we see a glimpse of, but she ends up choosing the path of sin rather than good.  This is one area that I have yet to make a firm decision on the text.

Other interesting points is why Beckford would use the Arabian Nights as the background for his tale, and why he would write it in French.  In terms of writing in French, he, like Vathek, liked to prove his intellectual nature by showing off his knowledge, and more specifically he prided himself on his fluency in French.  In addition, both writing in French and the decision to include the Nights influences could have been reactionary against English society.  Beckford, as an exile from English society, a place he decidedly did not belong, would have looked for something else.  The use of the Nights was concurrent with several Arabian tales he was translating at the time, while also spoke to his desire for an outlet for his odd imagination.  However, it seems as though his use of the Nights extends from something more than just a reaction to his exile.  It seems that he was uninterested in contemporary England, lacking as it was in any means to excite his senses and his mind.  He literally walled himself away from bleak England inside of his vast tower and built up his own Palace of the Senses.  For him, his imaginary world of lavish themed parties and complex stories was more real and satisfying than austere England.



This is the cover of a French graphic novel adaptation of Vathek