Sunday, March 11, 2012

One Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights) by Anonymous (1706)

What have you been doing for the past 633 days? Me, I've been reading One Thousand and One Nights [aka The Arabian Nights aka The Arabian Entertainments] (first English translation, 1706) in 633 daily segments in my email through the wonder of DailyLit. I've been a fan of DailyLit for awhile, and although it takes almost two years to do it, One Thousand and One Nights might be the perfect book to have serialized in your email.

Most people are familiar with the set up for these stories: A sultan thinks all women are promiscuous and unvirtuous, so he marries a new woman each day, and then has her killed the following morning so she can't cheat on him. No one really likes this system except the sultan, and one day his vizier's smart and beautiful daughter Scheherazade tells her father to offer her up to the sultan in marriage because she has a plan to stop the killing. As they are preparing to sleep, Scheherazade begins telling a story to the sultan that needs to be continued the next night. He spares her life for one day so he can find out what happens next. This goes on and on and on for one thousand and one nights until the sultan learns his lesson and starts trusting women again.

The stories include the very familiar (Ali Baba and the forty thieves, Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and his lamp), and dozens and dozens that are just as good but that you've never heard. Some are very short, some are very long, and many of them repeat elements from the other stories. Sultans are constantly going out in disguise among the common people and overhearing things; men accidentally catch glimpses of women through their veils and fall so deeply in love that they become ill until they can have their beloved; sultans have no heirs and pray to God that they would do anything for a son, but their heir ends up coming with a catch; comeuppance is rampant; and people tell their stories, and within their stories more characters tell stories in a nesting box of creativity.

Just to give you a taste, here is a brief, half-remembered outline of one of my favorite stories: There was a prince in Persia and a princess in China who both refused all offers of marriage even though their fathers insisted that they marry soon. In punishment, they are securely locked in their respective rooms under guard. One night a genie plays a hilarious trick by transporting the prince into the princess's locked bedroom, where they quickly fall in love. In the morning, the prince is transported back to Persia but both the prince and princess insist that they have to marry the mysterious and beautiful stranger that appeared to them the night before with no warning. The prince goes off to find the princess and through a long and exciting series of adventures, he gets to China and they are married. After staying there awhile, they journey back to Persia, but the prince gets caught up in a mini-misadventure and can't get back to his caravan. The princess puts on his clothes and pretends to be him so that all his men aren't concerned and they make their way to the next town. While there, the princess of that kingdom falls in love with the new "prince" (who is really the Chinese princess) and through a series of events the two are married. On their wedding night, the Chinese princess reveals herself to her new wife and the two pledge to hold up the facade and rule until the original prince can find them and then they can both be his wives. That eventually happens, and the two princesses (and former spouses) both get pregnant at the same time and have two sons. The sons grow up strong and handsome, but spoiled, and each fall in love with the other one's mother. When the sultan is out, they try to seduce the women, who are too virtuous to succumb, and the princes are sent out to fend for themselves in punishment (which starts a whole new series of adventures).

Whew. I'm not even remembering all of that one (or even necessarily remembering it all correctly) and it is still the most complicated and awesome thing I have ever typed.

633 days may seem like a lot, but give it a shot -- I'm going to miss having my daily visit from Scheherazade, but now I have the fun of picking out my next DailyLit read.

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