WHY ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS?

Since there’s no agreed canon of tales making up the Arabian Nights, we can never say how many stories should actually be counted as being a part of this famous collection.

At various times, the series has been described under different names ¬– Arabian Nights Entertainments being as well known during the nineteenth centuries as the One Thousand and One Nights, and the first mention of this number can probably be attributed to Antoine Galland, the French translator whose Les mille et une nuits popularized many of the stories in Europe.

One thousand is a big number – perhaps not quite as big as it might have sounded a century or two ago, given that everything has experienced inflation – but representing “a lot” nonetheless. To add one to this suggests that even more than a very big number was needed for Scheherazade, the narrator of The Nights, to finish her storytelling.

The fact that a work contained so many stories must have made good marketing sense when printed volumes started to be sold, promising near-endless value and entertainment.

But the great number of stories might also be meant to remind us that Scheherazade had to work hard before she was eventually able to break the heart of the evil sultan who is entertained by her tellings. Many lessons needed to be imparted, some repeatedly, albeit through different tales. That he continued to be sufficiently intrigued to invite her back night after night to relate more, suggests that the sultan was undergoing something of an awakening, albeit a very slow one.

That so many stories have come to us is truly a wonder. To have a hundred, or even ten, of such tales would be a great gift from history. But one thousand and one – well, that’s to have all Christmases coming at once! That is if there really are one thousand and one stories among those belonging to The Nights.

Somehow, I suspect that the number is a little less than that. But we have more than enough to be entertained, enthralled, and educated by for a lifetime or more.

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And in a reflection today on the book, I suggest that there can sometimes be joys to be had when writing about a subject or a place that is different to an author’s own experience…

One of the things that I love when creating a new story is researching the biographies and day-to-day experiences of the types of characters that I want to write about. Sometimes, this involves imagining circumstances and places that I’ve never encountered myself – including periods in history that might be a little before my time.

This was the case with the story that I wrote to accompany one of the tales of the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor. Given that Baghdad features so strongly in many of the tales of The Nights – it was descriptions of the colorful souks and magic that played out in this very city that excited my interest in some of the tales as a child – I was keen to set one of my stories in this very city.

I’ve never been to Baghdad, nor does it seem likely that it will be safe for a budget conscious, independent traveler like myself to do so, at least in the foreseeable future. Even if I do eventually have the chance to set foot in the Iraqi capital, I’m sure that many of the wonderful sights that would have greeted the visitor 50 years ago will no longer be around.

This is a real shame. I would love to have seen Baghdad in its heyday, at least as it was around the middle of the last century. The personal recollections that I came across when I was researching my story painted a picture of a magical place, which attracted travelers from all corners of the globe.

But any regret that I have about not being able to experience this once great city must be one million or more times less than the sorrow those who live in Baghdad must feel. The city literally seems to have gone backwards through each of the past few decades. It’s well known that many Baghdaders say that life during Saddam Hussein’s era of power was far better than that of the experience now.

My story spans life during the time of Saddam and beyond – yet another experience that is very far from my own. Fortunately, some very evocative descriptions of the lives of those who did witness that period are available. Feeling into these is difficult, but I could imagine being transported into the situations that some of the document is described, albeit as an observer.

Reading, storytelling, and writing can all have this effect – time travel, and journeying to foreign lands, can be important aspects of a story’s offering. This is why I sometimes like to work with a subject that is alien to my own experience. Research forces me to discover, reflect upon, and to learn. These are three quests that I hope I never lose a hunger for.

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FIRST AMONG TOO FEW EQUALS

Scheherazade, the narrator of the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, is a real enigma of a character. Many of those who’ve studied The Nights present her as an exemplary feminist, managing as she does to be the only person who can stop the evil tyrant Shahrya from sacrificing countless helpless women in retribution for the loss of his wife.

Others picture her more as a classical femme fatale, who uses cunning and intrigue to eventually woo the wicked ruler, and bring him to a point where he’s willing to grant her wishes.

But this famous storyteller puts her own life at risk, and that of her father’s too. She is intelligent, witty, and a great survivor. Through patience, guarded respect for Shahrya, and a willingness to sacrifice herself for the good of others, she proves that she is a worthy survivor.

For me, Scheherazade is more than a survivor and a skilled politician. She displays almost godlike characteristics – using what she’s learned wisely, and biding her time until the moment is right to plead with the sultan that her own life might be spared. She is in many ways the supreme example of a worthy human being – one who waits, observes, and serves others, but is ready to (quite literally) stick her neck out for a cause that she passionately believes in.

It strikes me that there are very few Scheherazade’s in the public eye today. Strong leaders of her kind – whatever their gender – don’t easily come to mind. Maybe the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, might be among their number – but I know too little about how she operates on the German home scene to really feel able to offer a view.

Many of the tales that I’ve encountered in The Nights bang the drum for fair and effective leadership. Many of the heroines and heroes display similar qualities to Scheherazade. Perhaps their examples were meant to be seen by the various rulers of their time, in the different lands where the stories were told. Learning how to be a “good” King or Queen – one who has the right metal to preside over a kingdom – is also a common theme in many popular fairy stories.

Scheherazade may not have been the first of her kind, and we must hope that she won’t be the last. But she’s rightly earned her place as a great example to remember and to follow.

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WHAT IS ‘POETIC LICENCE’?

In common parlance, ‘poetic license’ is the freedom permitted to writers, artists and other creative folk, to depart from or overlook some of the facts of an event or experience they are describing, in order to have an impact. Most historical fiction makes heavy use of this freedom, as do many of the plays of Shakespeare, contemporary biopics, and, of course, poets’ descriptions of what they see.

I made a few diversions of my own when retelling some of the tales in the Arabian Nights. This wasn’t difficult – many of the stories that feature in the great English translations of The Nights differ in the way their translator’s present them. And this doesn’t seem to me to be a failing – these were tales that were meant to be passed on through the oral tradition, after all, and every storyteller will have embellished and maneuvered them to match their own style or to appeal to a particular audience.

Storytelling involves creating something new each time a tale is told. The basic plotline, characters, morals of the tale, etc., may not be open for being sacrificed, but the colorful details of the story are. It’s the ‘flesh’ of a story that gives it color – the rest are just bones.

Given that writing a story is not unlike telling it, it shouldn’t surprise us that writers invariably use poetic license. I think that it’s almost their responsibility to do this! After all, unless a story is crafted anew, why bother to repeat a tale that’s already been told?

As storytellers know, variations on an original tale happen naturally when a fresh telling begins. The story takes on a new life, often going where even the storyteller hasn’t pre-planned, bringing surprises and new developments. A story often creates itself, and this is where fresh inspiration and magic can happen. Very much like an evolving species, a traditional tale will adapt and come alive in a new way each time that it’s told.

So I’m not concerned to have taken a few wanderings off-course in my own retelling of some of the stories from The Nights. Where these stories led excited my imagination, as I hope they will the imaginations of anyone who cares to read them. Since one appeal of the stories of The Nights is their magic, it really couldn’t be any other way.

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ALADDIN COMES OF AGE

The story of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp– one of the best-known tales in the Arabian Nights – is a story of many twist and turns. It’s no surprise that it continues to excite young and old minds alive, and has provided ready material for Disney filmmakers and Christmastime theatre productions.

With genie who grant their owner’s every wish, glittering underground grottos, the rags to riches storyline, and a healthy dosage of romance, it provides the perfect mix for a great story. Whether or not it is an original tale from the Orient, or an invention of European origin, doesn’t matter. It’s still a great story!

One aspect of the story that fascinated me is the dramatic conversion that Aladdin undergoes when he discovers the power of the magical ring that he is given by the magician when he enters the grotto. From an idle boy with no interest in making a life for himself, or even showing the slightest kindness to his mother, he suddenly becomes a very astute, scheming, intelligent, and capable man, who is generous to others, and ultimately worthy of winning the hand of a beautiful princess.

Aladdin’s experience in the grotto marks a real rite of passage. Left alone, and with his life at risk, he discovers that in order to survive in life, he must take responsibility for himself. The magic provided by the ring – and later the lamp that he takes from the grotto – opens up a new world of possibilities. But the real magic happens in the inner transformation that Aladdin experiences.

Many fairy tales point to the pain and perils that can be associated with moving from childhood into adulthood. Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs are all examples. Like the story of Aladdin, they warn that many changes and challenges are involved in crossing the boundary between childhood and adulthood. But there are rich rewards to be discovered too – notably, through sexual awakening and finding true love.

Aladdin passes crosses his threshold into manhood admirably. He doesn’t abuse or rush to spend the gifts that he is given, and becomes the one who now provides for his mother, rather than being dependent on her. So this is a supreme coming-of-age story, and one that might continue to teach about the right way to use the gifts that are offered to us.

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WORDS FROM THE DESERT

I suppose that most writers will tell you that inspiration for their stories comes from all sorts of different sources. Characters that they’ve known, places they’ve visited, and gripping real-life adventures that they’ve heard about or experienced are all rich pickings for their writing.

Of course, I’m no different. Sometimes, it’s not obvious where a story comes from – it can seem to come alive all of its own (and usually does), but more often than not, probably a deep memory in my subconscious (or perhaps, offered by the collective unconscious) has served as a trigger for an idea or a character.

I can put my finger on quite a few such examples in the modern-day short stories that I’ve penned to accompany some wonderful traditional tales from the Arabian Nights. One that particularly sticks in my mind is a story that I wrote to accompany one of the lesser-known tales from The Nights, the Story of the Pilgrim and the Old Woman in the Desert.

The original tale concerns the difficulties a pilgrim used to the luxuries of a rich city faces when he becomes lost in the desert, and needs to rely on the meager hospitality and of an old woman, who lives alone there. Her offerings of bitter water from the well, and serpent meat from her hunting, are no match for the handsome diet that the pilgrim is used to. He questions how she can live this way, and she offers him a lesson in valuing freedom over riches.

Some of the parallel story that I wrote to accompany this tale was inspired by a wonderful week that I was privileged to spend in the on a retreat camp in the Moroccan Sahara earlier this year. While many creature comforts were provided at this place, and the tagines and salads that were served up at meal times were worthy of a fine cook, I suppose you could say that our living conditions were fairly basic.

One day, a couple of travelers arrived just outside the village in their ancient Renault, which – not being properly geared-up for desert track driving, lacking four-wheel drive and the like – came a cropper when one of its tires got stuck in a hole. It took a small team from the village to help dig it out.

Amazingly, the travelers were determined to on press further into the desert, presumably in search of bigger and better sand dunes or what they considered to be an authentic desert experience. I’ve no idea how they fared, but while admiring their persistence, I have to say I felt that they were acting very foolishly (they apparently had brought very little water with them too, putting them seriously at risk of becoming dehydrated).

What can you do in such circumstances beyond offering strong advice and hospitality? Prayer and well-wishing may be given too, but where free will is concerned, there’s very little anyone can do to dissuade someone who is determined to push forward with their foolhardy plans. I think that our retreat host may have radioed to some of the folks who live further along the track, asking them to watch out for the determined duo, but they had to be left to take their own decision about their journey.

This incident caused me to reflect quite strongly on the boundary between letting people take responsibility for themselves and knowing when to intervene when there is a real risk of them coming to harm. I don’t know what the answer to this conundrum is, but I was determined that the couple who feature in my story would learn a valuable lesson or two.

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DO US WESTERNERS STILL BELIEVE IN THE EXOTIC EAST?

When I was a child, one of the great appeals of the stories from the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights was the places that they described. Lively souks, selling wares that I’d never heard of, but which sounded like wonderful treasures, towering minarets, snake charmers, and secret passageways – the it all sounded enchanting and magical.

For a child at least, I’m sure that these stories still have the power to inspire an imagination of the exotic East. But a story can always take us to a wonderful or mysterious place if we let it to.

Foreign travel was for the privileged few in the 1960s when I was born. Few were able to venture abroad. So the vivid descriptions of a storyteller and colorful pictures in books were the main means for building up by a picture of what life must be like in places that were far away.

Things are very different now, of course. Many of us have had a chance to travel – India, China, the Far East – all have become popular destinations for adventurous travelers. That said, travel in much of the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa, is still out of bounds for most of us.

These days, the pictures of war-torn Baghdad, bombed and divided Syria, and other such places that are shown in the rolling news stories on our TV screens give us a very different impression of “The Orient”.

So I wonder whether it’s still possible to conjure up a little magic when thinking of the Orient? Perhaps, when conceiving how things might have been years ago. Many tales from The Nights describe bygone days, when sultans ruled over their kingdoms, and genie might inhabit old treasures.

I’ve never been to the Holy Land. I’ve felt that this is one place that I only want to visit when the time feels right. But somehow, I think that it is my imagined Christmassy scenes of a tranquil, star-lit Bethlehem, or of bejeweled kings riding across the desert on their lone camels, that I don’t want to have disappointed.

I know that the reality is very different, of course. But there is magic in the imagination, as much as there can be magic when visiting an unfamiliar land for the first time. For me, at least, some parts of the mystical East still hold their magic.

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THE NIGHTS ARE ALIVE WITH THE POWER OF SYMBOLS

I’m sure whole books could be written on the symbolism that’s to be found in many of the tales from the Arabian Nights –though I didn’t look into this too deeply when I was researching my own retellings of several of them.

Some stories are clearly meant to make strong religious points. The tale of the City of Brass is one obvious example, constantly serving up reminders that our lives on earth are very transitory, and that all of the worldly power and material goods that we might acquire will not help us when we ultimately have to face our own mortality.

There are allusions in this particular tale to Noah’s Flood, to a revelation not unlike the one where Moses is shown the Ten Commandments, and to the favors shown to the good King Solomon in his battle against the forces of evil.

I chose to play down some of the religious allegory in my retelling of this particular tale, although without losing a sense of the relevance of the messages that it imparts.

Symbolic references in other tales of The Nights may be less obvious in their meaning. A flying carpet might sound like a great way for getting about town, but is someone who is able to step on board such a thing really someone who is capable of having great oversight – being able to lift themselves up and above a situation they may find themselves in, to take in what they observe and then decide what course they must follow? Is a traveler on a flying carpet really a person who “sees”?

And what of the wonderful gift of being able to rub a magic lamp to summon a jinn, who can answer your every command? Might this be more than a perfect wish-giving machine?

In the days of The Nights, belief in powerful spirits was alive and well. Calling on their help was an opportunity that was open to all. Perhaps it still is if we knew that all we need to do is to look inside ourselves, and to give space for our spiritual being to come to the fore, or to call on the Divine to give us our heart’s desire, if you prefer.

Symbols have always played an important part in folklore, fairy tales, or stories with a lesson to teach. Some things can’t easily be described in words and pictures, especially if they are speaking about things that we’ve yet to experience. The challenges and perils that await a young person who is passing into adulthood, for example, can’t properly be understood by a child until they discover things such as their emerging sexuality for themselves. But symbols, archetypes, and dreams can all play a part in helping their understanding.

These may speak to the subconscious in a way that is more powerful than we might often give credit for. The likes of Freud and Jung recognized this, and much of their work, as well as that of others who followed them, was shaped by this understanding.

The tales from the Nights still hold their magic, and for adults as well as for children. I like to think that some of this magic persists because the stories touch on something within us that we don’t fully understand. They make us aware of something new.

Symbols that we may not even be aware of (consciously) may play a major part in exciting, scaring, and inspiring us. We all still have much to learn and much to enjoy in these great stories of old.

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THE KNOWING EYE

I’ve long believed that a mutual awareness of connecting with another species is one of the most magical experiences. We are, if you share my point of view, all Divine – so in peering into the eyes of another creature, we are seeing God, and they in turn are seeing Him, Her or It in us.

Visiting my mother’s home this week, I noticed the page of the custom-made calendar that I gave her last Christmas showed there various pictures of pets that I’d looked after during the course of the year. Two of the images that I’d selected for the month of August included dogs who were looking very intently at me.

Knowing these animals as I do, I feel sure that the message that they wanted to impart wasn’t “find me a good stick that I can gnaw on!”, or “Where’s that tennis ball that I know you love playing with?” (though sometimes this might have been uppermost in their minds).

While I’m no expert in reading the language of the eyes, I feel certain that their primary intention was to connect, and to do so in love.

Sadly, Tinker–one of the dogs in the calendar photo–had to be put to sleep last week. He was my great companion when I lived in Provence. But he was old and tired. After a life in which he’d lived on the street for many months as a stray (he never overcame the trauma, always barking whenever he heard a car leaving), he’d had a good and long retirement in the care of John and Annelise, his human keepers.

When I attended a wonderful animal communication workshop in Holland last year, Tinker was the focus for one of the remote communication exercises that we tried. I was shown that Tinker missed me and hoped that I would return to see him one day. I made that trip earlier this year, and was given the most wonderful welcome by him. He jumped up constantly (something he never did normally), and I remembered my promise to him to return.

I will miss him, as I miss all my furry friends who’ve gone before me.