(On Bonfire Night, Jane Arnfeld - my friend and Northern Stage actress - and I shared a taxi from the rehearsal rooms at St Luke's to Newcastle airport. We met Jane's partner Tony at the airport and then flew together to Copenhagen. I remember Tony saying he wondered what it would be like to cartwheel down the airport corridors, and I'm sure it might have been something to do with the fact that it was a Friday afternoon. It was a coincidence that we all travelled together and that it was Bonfire Night. Jane and Tony were on a weekend away and I was going to meet Alan wh0 had already been working in Copenhagen for a while at the Betty Nansen Theatre. We were to start conversations about the UK version of a show Alan had made there in 2002 - 1001 Nights Now... A plane take off on Bonfire Night is truly magical, and so is Copenhagen, lit with candles... All four of us ended up having a supper together. It was a brief visit packed with meetings and there was very little to convey about that particular trip, but the paper below came about soon afterwards, and was in a way tinged with the memory of Copenhagen.)
1001 Nights Now
A Dramaturgical Rationale
“To erect the palace of The Thousand and One Nights, it took generations of men, and those men are our benefactors, as we have inherited this inexhaustible book, this book capable of so much metamorphosis.” Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights (1980)
“It seems however that this politic damsel (who had been reading Machiavelli, beyond doubt) had a very ingenious little plot in her mind.” Edgar Allan Poe, The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade
Several years ago, when the London-based Middle-Eastern Broadcasting Network (MBC) undertook the making of a Middle Eastern version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, one of their first top-prize winners was a housewife. She explained that she owed her success to the fact that she spent a lot of her time reading encyclopaedias while looking after her children.
The charm of this little anecdote is contained in the fact that it defies two stereotypes – the stereotype of a housewife and the stereotype of a Muslim woman. Yet this quiz show queen is not very far removed from her distant ancestress Sheherazade – another bookworm whose love of a good story and readiness to take on a challenge eventually saved her head as well as the heads of many maidens of Baghdad.
Borges is probably not being sexist when he praises the men who left us the heritage of The Thousand and One Nights, for even if men compiled, conveyed and recorded the tales, they also bestowed great power to their female protagonist – the power of wisdom, the power of ennobling action and the power of survival. Sheherazade and the tales of the Arabian Nights have survived centuries in fact and continue to inspire great works of art including among others, the music of Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel, the paintings of Chagall and Matisse, the films of Pasolini, the poetry of Wordsworth, Tennyson and Poe and the prose of Italo Calvino and Salman Rushdie.
A word about the nature and history of the Nights
The origins of the stories can be traced back to the 9th century Persia. This Persian layer also includes stories that can be recognised as belonging to a variety of storytelling traditions, from the Greek to the Chinese. In addition, the frame story of Sheherazade is believed to be of Indian origin. Further records of the stories’ journeys are found a century later in Baghdad and then from the 12th century onwards in Cairo. A 16th century Syrian version of The Thousand and One Nights (Alf Laylah Wa Laylah) was the source text for the first European translation by the French explorer Antoine Galland. The first volume of Galland’s translation was published in 1704 and although this volume featured some 200 nights, further volumes abandoned the notion of counting. The actual number of stories was always a contentious point as the stories and their numbers changed from every individual version to the next. And even though some scholars have argued that the phrases ‘one thousand nights’ or ‘the thousand and one nights’ were simply meant to suggest ‘many nights’ in Arabic, this was not necessarily clear to European readers who were hungry for more and continued to demand the exact number of stories. The European demand caused a stir and more stories were added to various editions, sometimes based on oral renditions of stories which were then recorded and translated. By 19th century The Thousand and One Nights had been translated, retranslated, canonised – and basically colonialised – in most European languages. The most famous initial English translations include the so called ‘Grub Street version’ of Galland’s translation published in 1708, Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation of the so-called ‘Calcutta II’ edition (which features 1001 re-collected stories) in 1885 and Edward W. Lane’s annotated translation in several volumes published from 1838-1841.
Also important to note is the fact that The Thousand and One Nights acquired the status of a classic in Europe faster than in the Arab world. Several factors are cited as reasons why the Arab world has been reluctant to embrace the Nights. Some of these factors are linked to the diminished literary value of the text which was recorded in various colloquial versions of Arabic rather than the standard literary language. In addition, partly due to religious constraints, the Arabic canon is based on the kind of literature which is truth-seeking in its essence (i.e. poetry), rather than being explicitly ‘fictional’ or ‘fantastic’. Finally, of course, the actual content of the stories is often so bacchanalian and licentious, that it would have probably evaded cononisation even by Western standards had it not withstood the test of time.
The text remains a constant subject of debate, especially in the context of such literary theories as feminism and postcolonialism. The debate, needless to say, is as complex as the text itself, and the oriental scholars in particular are torn between either acclaiming the text (at the expense of their feminist or post-colonialist position) or denouncing it and thus involuntarily upholding the position of chauvinist, fundamentalist and nationalist ideologies.
However, the inherent complexity and resilience of the text itself is only a testament to its own main theme: the passion for survival.
So what does 1001 Nights means to us now?
At the time and place where anything Islamic is increasingly treated with great suspicion, anxiety and paranoia – I write in the immediate aftermath of the murders of Van Gogh in Amsterdam and Kenneth Bigley in the hands of masked Muslim terrorists in Iraq – it would be easy to consider a theatre production entitled 1001 Nights Now as potentially controversial.
By commissioning eight contemporary, predominantly Muslim, writers to tell us about their experience – are we inadvertently championing the Muslim cause? Are we being flippant in actually saying: ‘Muslim terrorism and killing aside, what about sex, hashish and Arabic oud’? Are we running the risk of naivity and myopia? Or are we, on the other hand, likely to offend the Muslim sentiment itself, by shamelessly appropriating and ransacking one of their most famous legends of all time?
The answer is – no, we’re considering precisely these questions themselves. This project is not about politics or taking sides but about the human condition and the need to tell stories in order to survive. Some of those stories are politically conditioned, and some of them will take one side or the other. Our task is to let them be told and let them be heard in a way that is most relevant to our reality now.
The key word, in every respect, is ‘now’. What do the Arabian nights mean to us now? And what is the urgency with which these stories have to be told and heard?
Eight stories commissioned from contemporary Middle Eastern writers are told by eight performers. Four of the stories have survived from the Danish production of 1001 Nights Now directed by Alan Lyddiard as part of The Thoughts of The Other project, in turn conceived by Kitte Wagner. These stories are written by Atiq Rahimi (Afghanistan), Muarthan Mungan (Turkey), Maziar Bahari (Iran) and Reza Parsa (Iran/Sweden).
Another four stories are commissioned from Fadia Faqir (Jordan/Durham), Abas Amini (Iran/ Nottingham), Shazia Mirza (Iran/London) and one more London-based writer.
The stories vary in subject matter and genre, ranging possibly from a stand-up comedy routine to a contemporary adaptation of the Sheherazade story to a psychological thriller about rape and revenge.
The piece is set in a Christmas decorations factory, featuring immigrant workers from the Middle East. In a ritualised manner, each night they use their fifteen minute break to tell each other stories, to keep each other going.
The piece opens with Atiq Rahimi’s ‘The Ninth Night’. The nights are counted for as long as it takes.
Set in a factory, the piece will be contextualised by an industrial setting which is however enhanced by the nature of the manufactured products – i.e. Christmas decorations and glitter balls.
The workers listen to the music via a tannoy – it’s the music from home. It is possible that more contemporary kinds of Arabic music will be used as well.
The piece uses storytelling, but is also physical in nature and will have a choreographer (hopefully with the Middle Eastern background).
The Kargoz Shadow Puppetry is also used for at least one of the stories. It is possible that other indigenous forms of theatre or performing arts will be explored for inclusion in the piece (such as Sufi dancing etc.)
What does 1001 Nights Now have to do with The Thousand and One Nights
“At all events, Scheherazade, who, being lineally descended from Eve, fell heir, perhaps, to the whole seven baskets of talk, which the latter lady, we all know, picked up from under the trees in the garden of Eden – Scheherazade, I say, finally triumphed, and the tariff upon beauty was repealed.”
In his satirical story The Thousand and Second Tale of Ssheherazade, Edgar Allan Poe imagines what might have happened the night after Sharyar granted life to Sheherazade. (Poe was not alone in this quest of the imagination, a lot of contemporary writers from all over the world have attempted a similar exercise with particular angles of their own.) So, Sheherazade decides to tell one more tale concerning the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor whereby he describes places he has visited and things he has seen. All of these places and objects are taken directly from Poe’s own experience and/or knowledge of the world, including both the natural wonders and the manifestations of technological advancement. Ironically, Sharyar’s scepticism is awakened and despite having marvelled at Sheherazade’s fantastic plots up until then, he is so enraged by her ‘lying’ that he decides to have her beheaded after all. And Poe concludes: “She derived however, great consolation, (during the tightening of the bowstring,) from the reflection that much of the history remained still untold, and that the petulance of her brute of a husband had reaped for him a most righteous reward, depriving him of many inconceivable adventures.”
There are two things to be learnt from Poe’s endeavour: the first concerns the nature of ‘the truth being stranger than fiction’ and the second – the importance of fiction as an educational device. Here we also return to the truth-seeking nature of Islamic fiction itself.
Our contemporary writers’ stories, though often fictional, are informed and shaped by their own personal experience. These experiences concern gender or exile or simply life in its different guises in different parts of the world.
The archetypal character of Sheherazade is in this instance metaphorically shared by eight storytellers from distinct backgrounds and with distinct voices. They are however unified in their quest with the Arabian Princess, sharing with her the passion for survival and the ability to make a difference.
The value of archetypal material is such that we carry it with us, without having to be consciously aware of it. If this knowledge is suppressed, rejected or denied, as in the case of Poe’s Sharyar – we deprive ourselves of ‘many inconceivable adventures’. If it is perpetuated, underlined and enriched, we can’t have much to lose; and just like the housewife who won the million without even knowing that Sheherazade might have had anything to do with it, we may emerge from 1001 Nights Now inspired to make a difference too.