Due to time constraints…

The analysis/evaluation bit of the presentation was cut short today (apologies). Here are some of the notes and some things to think about, which were meant to be in the discussion.

Naddaff, along with Pinault and Todorov, approach 1001 Nights from a certain narratological perspective, taking into account the nature of the material (structure, textual correspondences, and metaphoric strategies).

  • Todorov suggests that every narrative is an “illustration of character.” And he defines character as a potential story that is the story of his life. Todorov suggests that we are in the realm of narrative men. Naddaff would contest this ideology because, with the exception of the important opening/closing frames of the text, the dominant and en-framing narrative voice is that of a woman (In Porter).
    Narrative is what wins attention from another, not the events within the stories themselves – it’s in how you tell it.  If you don’t connect, then you disappear like the porter.
  • Naddaff believes readers’ need the original language to get depth from the figurative language, to make connections between hearer and listener. Pinault agrees that knowing the language can enhance understanding of word connotations (root s-kh-t) (pg. 510-511). He notes how individual manuscript redactors are employed – and sometimes modified – in ways that are consistent with the themes emphasized in particular versions of a tale. Narrative structure in this diverse collection of stories sheds light on the relationship of the embedded subordinate-narrative to the overarching frame-tale.
  • Irwin’s “Street Entertainments” – 2 worlds in terms of class differences. Naddaff discusses these two worlds in terms of speech and gender (literal/figurative, male/female) as Katherine mentioned during the summation today.
  • Naddaff compares narrative repetition of the decorative form of arabesque. Arabesque, in Islamic Art, is decoration consisting of “surface decorations bases on rhythmic linear patters of scrolling and interlacing foliage, tendrils or plain lines…” She argues that the goal of both arabesque and narrative repetition and this heightened use of language is to create a counter-realist realm, a virtual reality, beyond the temporal.

Comedy in Hunchback

Although many translators will deny that the Nights has any purpose other than to express “adib,” stories such as The Hunchback are so clearly comedic that it’s difficult to believe the rejection of Nights as an entertainment. There are many humorous aspects, 2 of which are the comedy of absurdity and irony.


The absurd behaviors the characters exhibit while they try to avoid justice are just funny. Beginning with the Tailor’s wife- who has the great idea to get rid of the body by dumping in someone else’s back yard. She literally tries to pass him off as her child who has smallpox to avoid getting in trouble. We’ve seen deaths in other stories and they don’t necessarily pass the body on, rather they might hide the body or ditch it. Her reaction to me is more absurd than the other culprits most likely because she knows that they killed him. But it’s funny because they are playing hot potato with a dead body.


We also discussed the irony of the barber being known as “the Silent one” even though he never knows when to actually be silent. We know this right away from the Tailors Tale because the barber won’t stop chattering even when the Tailor tells him that his is running late. He spends so much time speaking to the Tailor and postponing the haircut that by the end of their exhausting conversation the Silent one has spoken himself into an invite to the party that the Tailor is going to. 

Imagining Scherazade

At the end of each night’s tale, I find myself pondering Scherazade. Who is she, this teller of tales? She’s hardly there, after the opening story, as our prof pointed out early on.

She’s a device, we know, to frame the tales, and save the women of the kingdom. But we barely know her. Yet she becomes an icon through the centuries, portrayed in many ways and many forms.

I try to imagine the space between the stories, the 1001 days. Surely I am not the first to do this. There must be those who have imagined and written the alternate view, the story of Scherazade herself. Like Wicked, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a play by Tom Stoppard that imagines the lives of two very minor characters in Hamlet, and tells the story of the Prince of Denmark from their perspective.

Who has written or told the story of Scherazade? What would I imagine it to be? How does she, along with her sister and the king, occupy the days between the nights? I envision opulent details derived from the tales, lush surroundings and foods and fantasies.

Do the king and she have a passionate, cordial, a cold relationship? Does the sister spend all of her days at the castle? What occupies the lives of this threesome? Are Scherazade’s days filled with dread and anticipation that the day might be her last, or is she quietly confident that she will triumph and survive??

And what about her sister? She spent the wedding night under the couple’s bed. Where has she been since? She’s there every night, but does she spend her days there too? Do the two girls keep each other company, distracting one another from the night to come? Or is she back at home with poor dad, who must be dreading each morning lest he have to kill the one daughter and offer up the other?

What is the story of the Vizier, the King, the storyteller sister and the listening one?

Do the three of them, king and young women, spend the days and evenings cavorting like the characters in the tales of the porter and sisters, eating strange fruits and giving each other baths in luxurious settings. With red silk mosquito nets and lounging on couches made of exotic woods inlaid with gold?

The king, I confess, interests me less. We know he is vengeful, and happy that his brother has suffered too. But is there a vein of forgiveness in him as well? Aside from being intrigued by the stories, is he being slowly seduced into submission by Scherazade, or does his decision to spare her come suddenly to him at the end of the tales? That we may discover as we read on. But will we ever know more about the elusive Scherazade than we learn in the beginning?

• And, an aside, a bit off topic, for the person (who?) who likes Neil Gaiman, do you know that he, along with Amanda Palmer and her fellow Dresden Doll, will be performing at a benefit at the Somerville Theatre on Monday Oct. 7th. I’m going. I think they still have tix.

Baadar-Meinhof Phenomenon

Before this course, the only connection to 1001 Nights that had presented itself in my life in an obvious way was “Aladdin”, the Disney film. Of course, I was aware that the tales existed as we did discuss them on occasion in a German Fairytales course I took once upon a time, but I never opened the text until this class or gave it a moment’s thought. I titled this entry as Baadar-Meinhof because now that I am studying the text, I feel like I see something related to it on a daily basis. It’s not a true Baadar-Meinhof because 1001 Nights isn’t an obscure text or piece of information, but the experience of seeing the text in so many random ways on any given day for me is just really coincidental and curious.

I mentioned to Funke in class that I stumbled upon a twitter account dedicated to The Arabian Nights via Neil Gaiman. He retweeted the following quote from the site: ‘Shahrazad replied, “What is this compared with what I shall tell you tomorrow night, if I stay alive!”’ My first thought after seeing this was ‘wow, it is amazing that people care about the 1001 Nights so much that they dedicate a twitter page to it.’ I also was interested in why Neil Gaiman was following the Arabian Nights and discovered that one of his issues in the Sandman series, Ramadan, draws on several of the stories in the Nights, which is definitely something I plan on looking into further, as I love Neil Gaiman. Anyway, here is the link to the twitter account just in case you want to check it out: https://twitter.com/tweetthenights

Another example of 1001 Nights making an appearance in my life happened on the Tube tonight. I was reading my train book on the way home, Dracula by Bram Stroker, when I came across the sentence, “It was by this time close on morning, and we went to bed. (Mem., this diary seems horribly like the beginning of the ‘Arabian Nights,’ for everything has to break off at cock-crow – or like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.” Having the reference within the text made me pause and go back through some of the journal entries to see when they stopped and began, and it’s now I pattern I will continue to look for as I read.

Thoughts on Tsvetan Todorov’s “Narrative-Men”

Todorov writes of Henry James’s emphasis of character in works of fiction: “We rarely have occasion to observe so pure a case of egocentricity presenting itself as universality.” Having already been offended by the broad stroke of the title of his article, “Narrative-Men,” I am prepared to take issue with him, and he makes it easy to do so with the arguments he presents in favor of narrative action over character psychology.  At the same time I don’t dispute his arguments entirely. I am not familiar with many of the primary texts that he uses for his examples, and I am aware that this limitation qualifies my position..  I don’t think that psychology is suppressed by action in The Arabian Nights. The story is framed by the character of Shahrazad and her courage. When she appears in the story, we read that she possesses a thorough, educated knowledge, “[she] had read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine… She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined.  She had read and learned.” (13)  While her courage is not stated directly, it is implied and further exemplified by the conversation between her and her father, the vizier, who, himself, “became furious.”  This description of his emotional reaction would also be a good example of a character’s psychology.

Todorov further explains his position with the suggestion that Kassim’s wife – who is not named – in the tale of Ali Baba, very quickly accepts her brother-in-law’s proposal of marriage and the merging of their assets as an indication that she lacked emotion when she realized that she had lost her husband.  I think the fact that she “wept all night long” indicates that she felt very strongly about her quickly confirmed loss. I don’t think that the amount of time that Kassim’s widow took to accept Ali Baba’s  proposal and the time she needed to grieve the loss of her husband are necessarily equivalent.  While considering some of the weaknesses in Todorov’s discussion of action superseding character in the Arabian Nights, I think his recognition of common sense is accurate and share his enthusiasm for the Arabian Nights’ love of narratives that is at the heart of the Tales.

The slang used during the sex play in The Story of the Porter and The Three Ladies caught me totally off guard, embarrassing me at the idea of discussing it and also bemused at the fact of it’s presence in this tale.  Does the story come from the harem, or the merchants by the campfire, or both?  We know that Shahrazad signifies the life blood that is a vital human passion of storytelling. Is the bawdy tone indicative of the intimacy evolving between Shahrazad and the King? Or is it suggestive of a future experience for them?  Do the milder, though rich, descriptive details of the market, the banquet and apparel, as examples of details shared in the tales, reflect the culture of the King’s environment, or do the details suggest,  possibilities for change in his palace? Violence diminishes and multiplies as Shahrazd deals the preciousness of the tale..

The Tale of the Porter?

“The Tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies” displays distinctly different description right from the first scene, and reading it I recalled it from last semester’s Translation Seminar: following his mysterious client from shop to shop affords the porter the chance to specify the merchandise from each shop that she patronizes. The opulence of the lists of food and spices is a stark contrast to the more spare descriptions in “The Hunchback.”

Having read Todorov’s essay before reading the first section of “The Tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies,” I was particularly alert to the narrative aspects that Todorov discusses. The beginning of this tale develops into a ransom narrative, and the plot seems only engineered to produce more embedded stories. In this particular instance, so many ambiguities remain unresolved in the frame story that I found the circumstances of the frame story more intriguing than the prospect of stories by the dervishes. The appearances of the dervishes and disguised caliph seem about to take the frame story in a very different direction: how will their tales relate or explain the tales of the sisters, or will the guests be able to negotiate reciprocal stories?

Another anomaly I noticed was the endurance of the porter even after his tale is told, and he is spared and told to depart, despite the tale’s title. As we discussed on Thursday, when a character is no longer crucial to the narrative s/he runs a great risk of dying or being killed off by the narrator. So why is the porter spared after his tale is told, even though he is not the primary audience? As the odd one out in several groups of threes (the three sisters, two hounds and their mistress, the dervishes, Jafar, Musrur & the caliph), will the porter serve as a linchpin to their stories?

Additional Post – Some Notes on the Arabic

In addition to the regular weekly posts I’m making on the English readings we’re doing, I’m also trying to post additional thoughts on some of the Arabic excerpts of the text.  Over the weekend I read some parts of the Porter and the Three Ladies in Arabic, and I pulled out a couple of interesting things.

First, one thing that Professor Litvin had already mentioned to me was really obvious in this tale – that the Nights aren’t really written in the type of formal Arabic that is typically used in Arabic written works.  Arabic, like many languages, has multiple dialects, but it also has a more formal, standard form called fusHa that isn’t typically used for any sort of daily speech. FusHa is, however, the language used for most writing, and it is more  high-prestige than the various dialects – more grammatically complex, something that Arab students  study in school (like how we study English).  It’s unusual (though becoming a little less so now) to find texts written entirely in colloquial dialects. 

The Nights, though, displays a blend of both forms.  For example, in The Porter and the Three Ladies, there are points where instead of using the formal هذه “hathihi” to refer to the “this” or “this lady”, the word “دي“  (pronounced “dee”) is substituted – دي being the colloquial way to say “this” or “this is” in Egyptian Arabic. 

I was also interested in the description of the ladies and how it sounds different in Arabic versus English.  When I read the description of the 3rd lady in Arabic, I realized even more how important the oral element of these stories is – the idea that they’re meant to be told aloud by a storyteller, or listened to in a café, or passed on from person to person.  The whole description of the third lady – “She had an elegant figure, the scent of ambergris, sugared lips…” – actually rhymes in Arabic, with the last word in every phrase ending in the sound “iya”.  This gives the Arabic description as a whole a rhythm that it doesn’t really have in the English version.

 Something else that I’ll just note here, since Rebecca and I will talk about it in detail on Thursday, is the use of metaphors in the Arabic version and whether/how they translate into English.  In the same description of the third lady, she is described as having a قامة الفية, an “alif-like figure.”  But in the Norton, the phrase is translated as “an elegant figure,” probably because English speakers who aren’t familiar with Arabic won’t understand the metaphor being made in the original.  Alif, as the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, is a long straight vertical line like this: ا .  If you know that, you understand the metaphor.  If not, it wouldn’t make sense, which is probably why the translator chose to change that phrase to “elegant figure.”