"Once upon a time. ..." These four simple words have served as passport to countless fairy-tale worlds since Scheherazade first used them to introduce the story of "The Porter and the Three Ladies" in The Arabian Nights' Entertainments. No one from Homer to Hemingway has ever invented a more tantalizing opening.
But not only have The Arabian Nights bequeathed this time-honored introduction, the form and content of the tales also have had widespread influence on later literature. A Thousand and One Nights, as some call it, is a storehouse of old prose and poetry in the early languages of the Arabian Peninsula.
Imagine a scene in pre-Islamic Arabia. The place is Mecca, the occasion a poetry festival to which have come scores of wandering bards from town and desert. One of the competitors, a spritely old man in colorful robes, enters the circle of eager listeners, tugs at his beard, smiles with the wisdom of experience and begins: "Now there was a donkey who lived in a stall next to an ox...."
The storyteller's name is Lokman, and by tradition he is the first great figure of Arabic literature—the Aesop of the days when songs and stories were handed from one generation to another by word of mouth. His fable is important because retold, refined and recorded it will charm modern readers as "The Donkey, the Ox and the Laborer," one of the delightful tales from The Arabian Nights.
Lokman's fable is an example of how this masterpiece of Arabic letters came into existence. Gathered from places as far apart as Samarkand and India, Egypt and Spain, the contents of The Arabian Nights offer a panorama of Middle Eastern life from prehistoric times to the sixteenth century. The tales are anonymous for good reason: they are not the creations of individual men. Their origins are shrouded in the mists of time. They took shape only after much labor by thousands of narrators, writers and editors.
Popular taste is reflected in those stories that alternate between clowning and grim realism. The people wanted violent action, shimmering color and bizarre fantasy, and that is what The Arabian Nights gave them. The opposite type of tale, also represented in the collection, came from palace courtyards where sultans and noblemen created lofty themes and experimented with verse refinements.
Medieval Islam was particularly fond of the maqamat, a turbulent tale of adventure. It tended to take the form of a short anecdote such as "Ali the Persian." At its best the maqamat was expanded to the length of a short novel. The Arabian Nights brings this genre to perfection: Sindbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba—each is the hero of a maqamat.
Another popular type of story was the animal fable. Thought to have originated in India, fables caught the imagination of the world, and nowhere more intensely than in the Arabic lands. Ibn al-Muqaffa the Persian compiled a definitive collection that was only eclipsed by such tales from The Arabian Nights as "The Donkey, the Ox and the Laborer" and "The Birds, the Beasts and the Carpenter."
Arabs were, from the dim days of antiquity, makers of folklore in proverb form, and The Arabian Nights is permeated with saws and maxims. Sindbad informs us that "The jar that drops a second time is sure to break." The guide to life in "The Fisherman and the Jinni" warns that "Whoever does not consider the consequences of his acts will never be lucky." The moral of "Nur al-Din and His Son" is: "If you trust your passions you will earn perdition."
Since Arabs loved humor, The Arabian Nights is full of comic scenes. An especially amusing one highlights "The Barber of Baghdad." Summoned to cut the hair of a young man who has an appointment with his lady love, the barber does everything but cut hair. He takes a horoscope to see whether the day is auspicious for barbering, gives an account of himself as a man learned in arts and sciences, describes the days when he served the youth's father, offers counsel according to the proverb that "Whoever listens to good advice is successful," and finally gets around to the haircut with the observation that there is no time to be lost! The aristocratic type of literature is also present in The Arabian Nights. Courtly poets sang the praises of the noblemen who patronized them: thus, Nizam al-Mulk celebrated the Turkish conqueror Alp Arslan. And history provided a lordly personage for many a fairy tale—the legendary Harun al-Rashid, who is mentioned in The Arabian Nights almost as often as his splendid capital of Baghdad. He is invariably depicted as able, just, wise and compassionate—a ruler to whom the people could appeal for protection. In "The Three Apples" the caliph intervenes personally to save a poor man wrongfully accused of murder.
Writers in the aristocratic tradition utilized rhythmic verse to express noble sentiments. This trait is the dominant one in masters like Ibn Zaydun of Cordova, forerunner of the troubadours, and Ibn Duraid of Basra, author of the widely read Book of Venus.
The rubaiyat rhyme scheme, so familiar in Omar Khayyam, appears in "The City of Brass."
Where be the Kings who ruled the Franks of old?
Where be the King who peopled Tingis-wold?
Their works are written in a book which He,
The One, the All-Father shall as witness hold.
The amorous stanzas in "The Porter and the Three Ladies" are not far removed from Elizabethan sonnets.
Give back mine eyes their sleep long ravished
And say me whither be my reason fled.
I learnt that lending to thy love a place
Sleep to mine eyelids mortal foe was made.
A Thousand and One Nights is, then, a treasury of Arabic literary forms. But it is also a treasury of eternal characters, characters who though old are perpetually new.
First, Scheherazade—wise, witty, occasionally a trifle wicked. She beguiles from the moment she tells her father she wishes to marry King Schahriar, whose habit it is to wed a different young woman each day and obtain a divorce the next by having her executed. Scheherazade promises to halt the holocaust and save her own head.
Scheherazade teases the king, and through him the reader, into wanting to hear more. Like Schahriar, we can hardly wait for the next tale to begin. No wonder he kept postponing the decapitation of his latest wife and, after a thousand and one nights, finally forgot about it!
Sindbad is another masterful character. As Scheherazade is the Storyteller for all time, Sindbad is the Sailor. He possesses all the attributes expected of men who go down to the sea in ships—daring, energy, passion, a tendency to become involved in tight corners and hairbreadth escapes, an ability to draw a fine line between adventure and romance. And he tells us his story with all the solemnity of a sailor telling a tall tale of the sea.
Than there is Aladdin, the youth of incredibly good fortune, whose magic lamp takes him along the golden path from rags to riches. And there is Ali Baba, a good man not too good to rob the robbers and a naive man fortunate enough to have in his household a quick-witted serving maid who rescues him from the robbers' revenge. Aladdin's "New lamps for old" and Ali Baba's "Open sesame!" have become commonplace phrases.
These characters are the most illustrious of the concourse of humanity swarming the streets of Baghdad and Cairo and Bukhara, not as these cities ever were, but as they eternally are in the wonderful realm of Scheherazade's imagination. It is a realm of gorgeous palaces, of opulent underground hideaways, of wooden horses that fly, of benevolent dogs that present beggars with objects of gold. It is a realm where sorcery conjures up wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, where inscrutable providence turns a stranger into a sultan in the twinkling of an eye.
The talespinners who created The Arabian Nights' timeless characters put their words into the mouth of a woman who is herself a timeless character. In a supreme triumph of fiction, Scheherazade equals and perhaps surpasses famous storytellers-within-a-story in works such as Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron. That is why humanity has been listening with rapt attention ever since Scheherazade began to speak on that historic first of a thousand and one nights.