About ml

A comparative literature professor interested in how Arabic literature has worked, throughout its history, as a part of world literature

Bob Dylan’s Arabian Nights Moment

Today’s conversation made me wonder not only about high/low and text/music genre boundaries but also about whether American bard (and now Nobel laureate) Bob Dylan had ever felt inspired by the Arabian Nights tradition. Of course he has. In his bestselling memoir Chronicles, Dylan recounts how he met his first NYC girlfriend, Suze Rotolo (immortalized on the album cover below).

As Dylan recalls:

Right from the start I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair-skinned and golden-haired, full-blood Italian. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves. We started talking and my head started to spin. Cupid’s arrow had whistled past my ears before, but this time it hit me in the heart and the weight of it dragged me overboard… Meeting her was like stepping into the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights. She had a smile that could light up a street full of people and was extremely lively, had a kind of voluptuousness—a Rodin sculpture come to life.

He goes to the movies to try to get her off his mind:

Movies had always been a magical experience and the Times Square movie theaters, the ones like oriental temples were the best places to see them. Recently I’d seen Quo Vadis and The Robe, and now I went to sit through Atlantis, Lost Continent and King of Kings. I needed to shift my mind, get it off of Suze for a while. King of Kings starred Rip Torn, Rita Gam, and Jeffrey Hunter playing Christ. Even with all the heavy action on the screen, I couldn’t tune into it. When the second feature, Atlantis, Lost Continent played, it was just as bad. All the death-ray crystals, giant fish submarines, earthquakes, volcanoes and tidal waves and whatnot. It might have been the most exciting movie of all time, who knows? I couldn’t concentrate.

Finally they meet up again and get together.

Outside of my music, being with her seemed to be the main point in life. Maybe we were spiritual soul-mates.”

Two kinds of magic (love and film), and Dylan associates both with the world of the Nights. Yes, it’s everywhere.

Thanks again for a spirited final discussion, you guys!  And for a wonderful semester.

Welcome, fall 2016 class!

Looking forward to the Nights adaptations you find. Here is a link to the one I’ll be presenting on Friday: Mouse Soup, by Arnold Lobel.


And here’s an interesting recent profile of Lobel and his iconic children’s book characters Frog and Toad from the New Yorker.

(If you have time and it’s relevant, see if you can figure out how to insert hyperlinks and images or videos in your post.)

Conference call: Spring 2015 “1001 Nights” conference at Harvard

A Call for Papers

Conference: The Thousand and One Nights: Sources, Transformations, and Relationship with Literature, the Arts and the Sciences

Harvard University (CMES) ~ Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (CERMOM, ANR MSFIMA)

Cambridge, Mass – April 15-17, 2015

Organizing Committee:

  •  Sandra Naddaff (Havard U.)
  • Aboubakr Chraibi (Inalco, Paris)
  • William Granara (Havard U.)

Literary works with many textual sources, having been transformed, much translated, and exercising wide influences, such as the Thousand and One Nights, create dense and fluid textual networks. What must we have read, seen or heard to claim to know the Nights? The oldest and most comprehensive Arabic manuscript? The Bulaq or Mahdi edition? Burton or Haddawy’s translations? Poe’s short story? Rabaud’s opera? Mahfouz’s novel? Borges’s essays? Pasolini’s film? Materials related to the Nights continue to emerge from many arts, countries, periods, disciplines, and languages, and their scope continues to widen, making the Nights a universal work from all points of view.

Antoine Galland’s French translation published in 1704 had a tremendous impact and was much imitated in French literature, even contributing to the creation of a new literary genre (the oriental tale). It can be argued, by analogy, that the arrival of the Thousand and One Nights in the Arabic-speaking world in the mid-8th century had a similar effect on Arabic literature of the period, and that of following centuries. The book?s interactions with the wider culture would last a thousand years, the longest period in the text?s history. The testimonies of Ibn al-Nad’m and Abu Abd Allah al-Yamani, who explicitly mention Arabic imitations of the Nights, strongly support this hypothesis. Similarly, the existence of numerous books closely related to the Nights in terms of content, such as Kitab al-Hikayat al-‘Ajiba wa-l-Akhbar al-Ghariba and the Hundred and One Nights, shows that this is not a single text but rather a set of texts of a particular genre, which can be called middle literature and which circulated in the Arabic-speaking world at the same time as the Nights.

The simultaneous transformations of the Thousand and One Nights and their environment often introduce new forms of interaction and promote the creation of new cultural objects and new research perspectives. From the 19th century, short stories and novels would gradually dominate the various forms of literary production, while the Nights would also be revitalized with new editions (Bulaq, Calcutta I and II, Breslau, etc.) and new translations (Lane, Burton, Mardrus, etc.). Always a publishing staple, the Nights would gradually enter world literature through the great novelists of the day, from Argentina to Japan, but also other arts, such as music and cinema from its earliest days (M?li?s, 1905; Reiniger, 1926). Another remarkable transformation relates to contemporary society, namely the birth of several scientific disciplines, the revival of research tools, and the richness of interdisciplinary approaches such as sociology, history, anthropology, psychoanalysis and political philosophy, which have adopted the Nights as a reference corpus.

In light of the above, we ask the following questions:

First panel: The manuscripts of the Nights and middle Arabic literature:

What could Arabic manuscripts of the Nights represent when compared to their lost Persian model? What changes have taken place? Have they been imitated, and by what? Do other texts of Arabic literature resemble the Nights? What criteria can be used to identify similarities? How do they differ from other genres, such as the s?ra, the folktale or the khabar? In what ways might they constitute a middle literature?

Second panel: Galland’s translation and the 18th century:

How and why were the Nights transformed when they were published in France? What type of literature did they represent in the eyes of French readers? What was their impact on the concept of the “tale”? How was the “oriental tale” constructed? What were the consequences on French literature, or even thought and philosophy, of the time?


Third panel: The Nights, world literature and the arts:

Do the Nights, which exploit a series of embedded frame stories to act out a drama of literary creation, represent a model for the writer and the artist? Among the Nights? hundreds of stories which are the most used? Why and how were these stories selected and transformed ? What is the effect, in turn, on their original texts?

Fourth panel: The Nights, the humanities and the sciences:

How can the Nights be used in other disciplines? How can issues concerning medieval societies, religions, or political governance be explored through the Nights? For example, is it possible, in the context of interdisciplinary research, to use the therapeutic aspects of Shahrazad’s stories in medicine?





The Center for Middle Eastern Studies’ Working Group on Middle Eastern Literatures, The Department of Comparative Literature, The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University, in conjunction with Centre de Recherche Moyen-Orient M?dit?rran?e de l’INALCO (ANR MSFIMA : Les Mille et une nuits : Sources et Fonctions dans l’Islam Medieval Arabe), welcomes proposals for papers that fall within one of the four panel topics outlined above.


Abstracts should be no more than 300 words and should be sent to Professor Aboubakr Chraibi at: aboubakr.chraibi@inalco.fr by October 15, 2014. Papers maybe presented in Arabic, English or French. Email submissions should be sent in Word format only. Successful proposals should present a compelling case for the paper and its relation to the conference topic[s]. We ask that all participants stick to a strict twenty minute time period to allow time for discussion. Please do not send your entire paper and do not include your personal details on the abstract but rather in a separate cover letter. All papers will be peer-reviewed and evaluated anonymously. The Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, does not require any conference registration fees, and will provide participants with food and accommodation while in Cambridge (Boston) USA during the conference. However, it expects participants to arrange and pay for their own travel to and from Boston.


For any further information please contact Elizabeth Flanagan: elizabethflanagan@fas.harvard.edu.

On Washington Irving’s “Alhambra”

Want more background on Washington Irving’s “The Alhambra”?  Here’s a perceptive review by Scott Horton in Harper’s, from about six years ago.  He argues, in part:

Irving’s writing from and about Spain is subject to a recurrent critique, namely that it suffers from orientalism in the sense used by Edward Said. It is argued that he presents a rather two-dimensional picture of the Iberian peninsula’s Islamic past, that he shows the foibles and weaknesses of the Muslim rulers and chronicles the inevitability of the Western Christian reconquista that would bring Muslim Spain to an end. I am puzzled by this criticism, because I think this has it exactly backwards. Irving is creating a romance for a golden age in which three distinct cultures enriched the Iberian peninsula. He portrays each of these cultures as noble, fruitful and important in its own way. The new culture which has arrived in its stead is suffocating, intolerant and uncreative, a dim reflection of something which was once great.


Compare this with the way Susan Nance skewers mindless Saidianism in her How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935.  Because the American image of the Middle East then was quite different than it was later in the twentieth century (when the region became a strategic interest) and certainly different from the twenty-first (Clash of Civs, Religion of Peace, War on Terror, etc etc).

The upshot is that Americans in the 19th century (Irving’s readers, anyway) kind of aspired to emulate some features of the Muslim societies they had read about.  Look past the stereotypical language of “hordes” and “irruptions,” and you might even notice how Washington Irving’s Moorish settlers in Spain sound a tiny bit like… American frontiersmen! Here they are, exercising their manifest destiny by spreading liberty, justice, and Reason through their new continent:

Repelled within the limits of the Pyrenees, the mixed hordes of Asia and Africa, that formed this great irruption, gave up the Moslem principle of conquest, and sought to establish in Spain a peaceful and permanent dominion. As conquerors, their heroism was only equalled by their moderation; and in both, for a time, they excelled the nations with whom they contended. Severed from their native homes, they loved the land given them as they supposed by Allah, and strove to embellish it with every thing that could administer to the happiness of man. Laying the foundations of their power in a system of wise and equitable laws, diligently cultivating the arts and sciences, and promoting agriculture, manufactures, and commerce; they gradually formed an empire unrivalled for its prosperity by any of the empires of Christendom; and diligently drawing round them the graces and refinements which marked the Arabian empire in the East, at the time of its greatest civilization, they diffused the light of Oriental knowledge, through the Western regions of benighted Europe. (11)

I’ll be interested to hear what you think of all this in class.

Amazing bibliography – use it for final papers

Prof. Ulrich Marzolph has updated his Arabian Nights Bibliograhy, an amazing resource.  A good thing to browse through as you think about ideas for your final papers.

There’s no contact link for the site, but they do offer: “As a further service to the scholarly community, we offer to supply scans of the items listed below, most of which are available here. In the future, we aim to link pdf-scans to specific items that are out of copyright.”  Prof. Marzolph’s info and personal contact info is here.

Literature and empathy (How ’bout them 3 apples?)

A propos of our discussion yesterday – look what appeared, hilariously, on the front page of today’s NY Times!

The article begins:

Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.

That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.

“This is why I love science,” Louise Erdrich, whose novel “The Round House” was used in one of the experiments, wrote in an e-mail. The researchers, she said, “found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction.”

“Thank God the research didn’t find that novels increased tooth decay or blocked up your arteries,” she added.

So… literature –> perspective-taking, empathy, all the stuff we were talking about.  You can see how the things that in our market society are instrumentalized as social “skills” (get a date! get a job!) might seem to someone like Assia Djebar, writing in the midst of a bloody civil war in Algeria that grew out of people not listening to each other, like something more essential: the very warp and weft of a civil society.

See, if only those Islamists had listened to Scheherazade, as King Shahrayar did.  If only they had listened to the vizier Djaffar, as the caliph Haroun al-Rashid did.  Then they’d be moved to mercy.  Oh, and if only those storytellers broadened their story to include the perspective of the woman in the box…  Then maybe we could all live in a better world, where women (of whatever religious background) don’t get murdered and chopped in pieces?

Whether this humanistic approach can be advanced through fiction-as-manifesto is a much longer argument.  To be continued.