Read an Excerpt
From Muhsin Al-Musawi’s Introduction to The Arabian Nights
Dress and other types of codes that signify profession are reflected in the Arabian Nights. The entertaining cycle of the barber and his brothers (part four) is informative about social manners and practices. It takes us away from the supernatural and from courtly life and involves us in the domains of professionals and functionaries. Even merchants—despite their enormous presence in the tales and the appreciation of their vocation in Islam—were not routinely accepted in upper-class or courtly society. They had to pass through a number of trials— including, at times, mutilation—to prove their merit, refinement, and readiness to suffer for love. Between the marketplace and the sovereign’s courtiers and entourage, there is usually a physical distance, as well as social, moral, and psychological distances. Only when a maid or lady decides to come to the market, upon hearing of a charming young merchant who can make a good companion or husband, is a rite of passage possible, but never without some sacrifice on the male’s part.
There are different transgressions, however, that can upset the whole order. Storytellers take their revenge upon upper-class society in various ways. Imagining the wealthy households and buildings based on the little glimpses they get from their fellow scribes who have access to these wealthy districts, storytellers write about the sumptuousness of the lives of the wealthy and the expenditures they lavish on lovers from lower stations. They also depict women from these households who cannot control their sensual appetites. Their revenge takes place whenever they depict a black slave as a companion to a queen: In the frame story this is exactly what sours the sultan’s worldview and attitude to womankind, and what brings on his melancholy and morbidity, and in “The History of the Young King of the Black Isles,” the queen prefers a crippled black slave who lives among rubbish mounds to the king and his palace. Yet the tales—composite in nature, of different origins and formations—are not of one piece in the ways they exact revenge for racism or social inequality. In many narratives, there is an underlying preference for whiteness that runs counter to Islamic preaching as religion; the Prophet’s last speech specifies that there is no merit for any in Islam other than piety. The young merchant from Baghdad speaks of the barber as follows, however: “Although he was born in a country where the complexion of the people is white, he looks like an Ethiopian; but his mind is of a dye deeper and more horrible than his visage.” In the end, the stories’ many redactors are of so many conflicting views and attitudes that there is no uniform treatment of race, religion, and gender. Villainy, cruelty, and selfishness, as well as licentiousness, can be social aspects among all races. The same is true of other behavioral patterns, as is apparent in the barber’s brothers’ narrative cycle. he same cycle shows a tendency among governors to banish unwanted citizens or travelers as if to sustain an idealistic vision of their urban life. Yet, these seeming whims and idiosyncrasies on part of governors and citizens are, after all, the whims of the storyteller who would like to move to another story and to another character of more adventures and troubles.
In a word, the Arabian Nights is meant to entertain, to be enjoyed as good reading; but for people who are interested in other issues, there are many details and views that invite discussion. Indeed, the tales’ reading history in Europe tells us much about the unique interests and concerns of each age. Perhaps it is the kind of book that operates as a mirror where people are pleased to see reflections of their own thoughts.