(Un)common Knowledge

Over Thanksgiving Break, I was talking to my dad about the courses I was taking this semester and summarizing what we had done in Arabian Nights during semester. Then, he asked the question, which, at this point in the semester, seems almost incomprehensible but was definitely one I walked into the course with, “How can you have an entire course on one book?” I started answering with the fact that the Nights is everywhere: music, books, comics, movies, etc., and then jumped into to trying to explain how the Nights isn’t actually one book, but many books because it was translated in largely different ways by different people and there isn’t really an original manuscript anyway and furthermore the whole thing is probably a revamped version of an old Indian series of tales. It was a mouthful to be sure. I’m not sure I did a great job of explaining in a few minutes what we’ve been talking about for an entire semester, but it was an interesting throwback to my thoughts when I signed up for the course and walked in the door the first day.

Originally, I signed up for this course because I knew the Nights existed via Patrick Rothfuss’s top 25 or so list of must-read fantasy books and was vaguely familiar of its content because of Neil Gaiman. However, when I went to put the Nights on reserve on the library sometime back in high school, I couldn’t tell the difference between all the editions that came up when I looked up “Arabian Nights” or whatever search term I put into the online library catalog. Instead of picking a version of the Nights at random, I gave up and decided to read it another time. In retrospect, I’m glad that I didn’t just pick an edition  of the Nights read it on my own, because I probably wouldn’t have understood the significance of all the translations or the variety in adaptions or all the information we learned in the course.

The thought that the English department had to be convinced to count this course as part of the English major requirement seems absurd to me now, but maybe not so much to me at the beginning of the semester when I didn’t know the first thing about the Nights. As this class and the semester quickly draws to a close, I’m going to be thinking not about the numerous successes of the Nights in spreading around the world, but about the failures. How is it that a work so important in terms of adaptions and influence is largely unknown in both common knowledge and in academic? (i.e. How is it that the Nights doesn’t get a passing mention in Brit Lit?) I would guess it partly has something to do with the sprawling, perpetually unfinished nature of the Nights, the inability to contain the Nights in a single book as I think I mentioned in a previous blog post, but I think there’s more there. To badly paraphrase Borges from memory, the Nights is truly the most famous book you never need to have read to know. This is the conundrum.

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My Take on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade

I was a classical cellist for about 10 years.  I was, coincidentally, also a classical ballet dancer for 4 (though I was young at the time).

Funnily enough, I once had to play a part of “Scheherazade.”  The way I interpret the piece had much to do about the framing and techniques that were used to invoke certain emotions and even landscapes.

In the piece, there are many “callbacks” to the original “frame” score.  This includes weaving certain melodies and structures from the base into other parts.  I found this particularly interesting when we think about the Nights‘ frame – there are invocations time and again, and (depending on the translator/edition) very clear sections where another story begins.  For some, it can be a bit jarring and confusing and seem all over the place, but to my ear, it feels more grounded by reminding the listener of previous sections.  In this way, these callbacks feel more conversational rather than disorienting.  One part speaks to another; each instrument answers questions, makes comments, and conveys the emotion of a situation.

Now we’ll go into what this means for dancing.  When I did ballet, the way I felt the music was very imaginative – almost visual.  I could feel each part of the melody move my body, and it was as if one limb was speaking to another; I could see a landscape that the music painted in front of me, and it was like I was moving through this landscape.  For Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece, I personally can imagine a landscape with defined characters.  But the actions that these characters take aren’t concrete – they are nebulous and are more driven by emotion the music conveys.

And, of course, we take a lot from our own experience when we listen, play, or dance to music.  Things we’ve seen before color they way we perceive music.  A melody can sound sad to one person, but another might feel neutral about it.  Some people like listening to sad songs because it makes them feel better, while others hate it because it makes them feel more depressed and nostalgic.

So for “Scheherazade” it was quite easy for me to develop a story in my head simply because I have already read some of the Nights and pull action from experience to create a landscape.  The callbacks and layers of the music really make this landscape complex and create a good breeding ground for imagined action, and the structure allows the music to dictate movement.

Princess Jasmine’s New Look: The Changing Image of Shahrazad in the West

Disney fans were in for a surprise when Princess Jasmine’s new costume was revealed at Disney parks recently. Many fans were not too happy with the changing of her iconic crop top and pants ensemble to a more modest dress. Disney cites concerns from parents that Jasmine’s outfit was too revealing for their motivation to change.

However, Disney has given themselves an opportunity. Jasmine’s new dress is more similar to something an Arabian princess might have actually worn. Perhaps they could charm their old fans and win over some new ones by adopting this argument to defend the wardrobe change.

Although the reason might have just been to appeal to parents desiring more conservative dress for the princess their daughters look up to, this big change in one of the Western world’s most popular images of the Nights shows a shift in how readers/viewers are seeing Shahrazad. The previously sexualized, mysterious figure is adopting a more authentic presentation that better reflects Arab culture. Likewise, Princess Jasmine is intelligent, strong and outspoken, countering the image of the Arab woman as an oppressed figure.

I think the outfit change is positive. Not because girls can’t show a little skin, but because, especially today, the image Americans and other westerners have of the Arab world needs to be positive and authentic. The Arab woman is yet to find her best light in our society, and Princess Jasmine might be an excellent avenue for her to do so.

Naguib Mahfouz and influences from Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz seems to me to be an allegory of the condition in his Egyptian society with the same influences from the original Nights tales.  I like how the story starts with the Sultan awaking from his anger, realizing with guilt how many innocents he had killed.  I wonder why Mahfouz did this with the Sultan?  By making Shahrazade’s narration work, and changing the sultan’s mood in my opinion seems to weaken the nature of her narration.  It makes it less enticing.

I see the works of Mahfouz’s other novels here in Arabian Nights and Days.  Nuanced communication flows out of Shahazade’s lips describing the power in contemporary Egyptian Society.

The main allegory similar to the original Arabian Nights was the story of Sanaan al-Gamali and its allusion to politics.  In the story similar to the Merchant and the Demon as well as the Sinbad and Aladdin stories, Sanaan al-Gamali is trapped and must serve a demon.  When Sanaan awakes he realizes he has a large cut on his arm and that the dream he thought he had was actually a real encounter with a demon.  With Sanaan, Naguib Mahfouz illustrates the problems of corruption and sexual greed.  Sanaan rapes and kills a girl and then kills the governor to then which he is sentenced to death.  In this, I see satire and criticism of Shahrayr and larger Egyptian power, as Sanaan ultimately gets in trouble because he is poor, while the rich rulers of Egypt and Shahryar can get away with anything.

Words & Voice in Damascus Nights

I was really intrigued by this conversation in Damascus Nights:

“Just listen to those words!” the barber gushed . . . “What are books compared to that!  What is the most beautiful writing compared to the divine sounds of the human voice?  Mere shadows of words on paper!”

“Please, don’t exaggerate,” Faris replied . . . “Writing is not the voice’s shadow but the tracks of its steps.  It is only thanks to writing that we can listen tot he ancient Greeks and Egyptians even today, that we can hear their voices as full of life as if they had just spoken.  My friend, only writing has the power to move a voice through time, and make it as immortal as the gods.” (pg 30)

I’ll just run through some thoughts I have on this:

  • I thought this was really interesting because it reminded me of our conversations on the Nights as an oral vs. written piece.  I think that both forms of storytelling are crucial in how we perceive stories and unpack them.  Voice might hold more emotion and give you a sense of being there physically – sitting listening to a story being  told, listening to the speaker’s inflection, etc, is exactly what makes oral storytelling charming.  And that’s Salim’s special gift, too – the ability to move people into the story with his voice and gestures.

  • This also reminded me of when a King in a story asks a caliph for the amazing oral story to be written down in letters of gold for others to marvel at the history of the story.  Moving voice into letters gives other people the opportunity to experience an event that they didn’t get to witness – and maybe offer a little “proof” that it actually happened.  That’s the importance of written records today.  Solid paper or video evidence holds up in court, but hearsay and eyewitness reports are unreliable, no matter how elaborate and factual the story may be.  If it’s not written down… then you have no evidence of it actually happening.

  • This moment also speaks to when Salim is discerning the faces of people by their voice.  It shows how powerful voice is to identity, history, and associations.

  • I am also reminded of many poets who use poetry as a means to keep time frozen and immortalize a moment or person.  Once it’s written down, that moment can be “replayed” over and over by re-reading or speaking it.  I think that that’s why both voice and writing are so important in conveying moments in time.  When put together, the birth of new ideas is transformed into an immortal moment that can be enjoyed for years to come.

The Importance of One’s Voice

In the interview posted on Blackboard with Rafik Schami, Schami speaks about the power and significance of one’s voice. Schami makes the point that one ought to speak out and utilize one’s voice as an integral aspect to a functioning democracy; without speaking out, Schami suggests that democracy would fail. Silence then becomes anathema to democracy. According to Schami, democracies as a form of government would be unable to sustain themselves or function in their most idyllic sense without an electorate and citizenship that is unabashedly unafraid of using their voices and their freedoms to do so. Schami connects this notion of “responsible citizenship” to the importance of telling stories orally; the two are both vital to healthy societies.

Throughout Schami’s Damascus Nights, the notion of Salim’s lost voice and attempts to regain that voice through others employing their voices by way of oral story-telling, a cultural trope, allegorically parallels to the repression of free speech in totalitarian military societies. The impact of Salim’s lost voice reverberates throughout the Middle East as numerous authoritarian regimes monopolize speech in a manner directly inimical to democracy. For example, in addition to my grandfather’s anecdote about Saddam’s silencing of Iraqi’s voices, Schami’s work alludes to Nasser’s radio station, Sawt al-Arab,  which acted as a monolithic voice for the Arab people as it simultaneously silenced the voices of the Arab people. Furthermore, the theme of losing one’s voice occurs throughout the work to underscore its significance. In addition to Salim’s lost voice, the farmer’s Faustian bargain in which he trades his voice reinforces this theme. The farmer is noted to have paid an incredible price for the gold lira at the expense of his voice. Similar to 1001 Nights, the significance of one’s voice is equivalent to life. Within the Nights, oral stories allow the characters to live; the decapitated woman in “The Story of the Three Apples” is reduced to an object because she cannot tell her stories.

The significance of one’s voice, to me at least, is perhaps best expressed, as I said in class, by Dante’s image of Satan at the end of Inferno.  That Satan, the paradigmatic sinner, is punished by the denial of the Word, or in other words, the loss of his ability to utilize his voice, is significant precisely because of the importance of one’s voice. I think this image parallels to both Schami’s Damascus Nights and 1001 Nights well and reveals the importance of story-telling not only in both works, but also in literature and society as a whole.

Damascus Nights Thoughts

While reading Damascus Nights, the significance of the numbers intrigued me. Numbers are an obvious theme in the novel because, the fairy tells Salim that he will get his voice back “if you receive seven unique gifts within three months, then a young fairy will take my place and stand by your side” (25). From that moment on, the novel is obsessed with the number 7: his seven friends take him on seven journeys, encourage him to drink seven different types of wine and ultimately tell him seven stories. We see a similar reliance on numbers, particularly seven, in the Nights as well. For example, Sinbad goes on seven journeys. From its original title, One Thousand and One Nights, I know that the numbers in the text are not accidental. For example, in an Arab context, “one thousand and one” means more than the ordinal number, it means infinity. So, I then looked to Damascus Nights, to uncover the hidden meaning behind the numbers. The number 7 has great significance in Islam. For example, in Mecca, pilgrims walk around the Kaaba seven times.

I know the Islamic significance of seven is too great to be accidental but I am struggling to understand what role it plays in a novel originally written in German. Does he just choose seven because it has Arab significance or is the audience suppose to understand something about the story on a greater level because of the number 7? Does it add some divine authority to the novel? Does it provide cultural authenticity? Also, why does the fairy only give Salim 21 words? – seems fairly random. As I continue to think about Damascus Nights, I am still pondering these questions.