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Volume 28, Number 5September/October 1977

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The Return Of Scheherezade

Written by Robert Obojski

Stamp collectors, a noted expert on philately reported recently, have some new collectors' items to paste down in their albums: new issues of stamps illustrating famous tales from The Arabian Nights, more accurately known as The Thousand and One Nights.

The expert, George Tlamsa, based his comment on his recent effort to catalog all stamps published by the United Arab Emirates—formerly The Trucial States—during which, he said, he found that philatelic issues depicting scenes from Scheherezade's endless stories are becoming popular with stamp collectors the world over. Indeed, he added, stamps devoted to tales from The Arabian Nights are now so numerous that collectors could begin to put together sizeable specialized collections.

One of the most famous works to come out of the Middle East, The Thousand and One Nights is a collection of stories of diverse origin which assumed their final form in Egypt during the 15th century. The tales first appeared in Europe beginning in 1704 in a full French translation by Antoine Galland, but the most famous compilation is Sir Richard Francis Burton's 12-volume English translation which appeared between 1885 and 1889. Burton, the British orientalist, traveler and explorer, worked from Arabic texts, as well as with two earlier English versions: one published by E.W. Lane in 1839-41, and the other by John Payne in 1882-84. Burton titled his book "The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night," and added this subscript to the title, "A plain and literal translation of ‘The Arabian Nights' Entertainments!"

Basically The Arabian Nights consists of more than 200 separate tales, linked together as the efforts of a king's bride to prevent her husband from executing her. The King, it seems, had once been betrayed by a wife and decided that each girl he married would be killed on the morning after the wedding. The beautiful and clever Scheherezade, however, persuaded the King to let her entertain him on their wedding night by telling him a story—and then suddenly stopped at the most exciting point. Intrigued, the King allowed Scheherezade to live another day so he could hear the end of the story. On the second night, however, she started another story immediately after ending the first, and again the King let her live to finish it. As the imaginative Scheherezade managed to come up with fascinating tales night after night for a thousand and one nights, the King continued to let her live and, eventually falling in love with her, cancelled his decree and permitted her to live—happily, one assumes, ever after.

Scholars are still probing the origins of The Arabian Nights, but it is obvious that there were numerous contributors—the style and literary merit vary widely—and that some were gifted artists. Furthermore, the various editions are far from uniform. As Professor G. M. Wickens of the University of Toronto wrote, "Individual tales and passages are included, omitted, or varied in haphazard fashion..." The stories in The Arabian Nights cannot even be conveniently placed into a single category; they include fairy tales, fables, romances, farces, legends, parables, semi-realistic tales of travel and adventure and small novels of moral and social significance. The tales, moreover, have a sweeping variety of settings: Baghdad, Basrah, Cairo and Damascus, as well as China, Greece, India, North Africa and Turkey.

But whatever their origins The Arabian Nights achieved an unparalleled popularity and became one of the most famous works of Arab Literature in the English speaking world. Various versions of the tales have been frequently adapted for the movies, television, theater and opera and still other, watered-down adaptations have long been a staple of children's literature everywhere.

Among the most famous of the tales - although not included in the original compilation - is Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which has provided the English language with one of its more durable cliches. Centered on a young woodcutter named Ali Baba, it tells how he learns that the magic words "Open Sesame" open the door to a thieves' great cave where a band of 40 bandits store their ill-gotten gold. As Ali Baba helps himself to the treasure, the 40 thieves, when they learn Ali Baba's identity, conceal themselves in huge jars outside his house, intending to surprise and kill him in the night. Their plan, however, is defeated by Ali Baba's servant girl, Marjana, who pours hot oil into the jars and kills the thieves.

Another famous tale is The Magic Carpet, or Prince Husain's Carpet, which tells of an enchanted flying carpet that can transport the person who stands upon it to any place he desires; one of the most famous of the flying carpets was that of King Solomon, which, according to legend, was of green silk and big enough to hold the King's throne and a platoon of his warriors. There is also The Black Horse - sometimes called The Ebony Horse or The Flying Horse. An off-shoot of the flying carpet theme, it tells of a horse, crafted in wood, which, by magic, can soar high in the air above towns and cities. A third world-famous tale concerns Aladdin and a magic lamp from which, when Aladdin rubs it, emerges a "genie" who is able to grant Aladdin all his wishes. Like the Ali Baba tale, the Aladdin story may have been added later. Still another series of stories focuses on the adventurous voyages of Sinbad the Sailor Told by Sinbad later, when he had become a wealthy merchant, they include Sinbad's seven hazardous voyages, his encounter with a gigantic bird - a "roc" - and his landing on an island which proves to be a huge whale.

Unlike many of the tales, the Sinbad stories started out as fairly realistic travel tales, (Aramco World, July -August, 1975), which evolved into the fantastic tales eventually incorporated in The Thousand and One Nights.

To depict such colorful tales, the artists chosen by three UAE. countries - Ajman, Fujeira and Ras al-Khaima - opted for bright colors and a lavish use of gold - to subtly suggest, perhaps, the treasures that Arabian Nights protagonists either sought or won. In 1967 for example, both Ras al-Khaima and Ajman came out with Arabian Nights stamps, all glowing with color. The Ras al-Khaima set consists of five varieties and the Ajman series consists of 11, plus a souvenir sheet.

Fujeira has also issued two series of six stamps based upon two of the most noted tales from The Arabian Nights; the first, a set of regular issues, features scenes from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, while the second, a group of airmails, has scenes from The Magic Carpet.

That same year Turkey, to publicize its International Tourist Year, issued a series of stamps including two puppets acting out an eastern fairy tale. Even earlier, in 1965, Hungary had issued a series of nine stamps including The Black Horse, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, The Magic Carpet, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Sinbad the Sailor.

In addition to the Arab world's own fairytales, Ajman, in 1971, issued a series of six stamps illustrating some of the famous fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Fujeira, carrying the fairy tale theme even further, issued a 60-stamp set, in 1972, showing scenes from Walt Disney's film versions of such classics as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

For stamp collectors, gathering a complete collection of Arabian Nights and other fairy tale stamps from the United Arab Emirates is far from simple. Few dealers maintain comprehensive stocks of philatelic issues from these particular states because, as the proprietor of a large philatelic store in New York City said recently, "The United Arab Emirates have issued such a wide variety of stamps within the past decade that it's really difficult to keep up with all of them; if I'm sold out of a specific series, then I can't always get replacements very readily." Hobbyists who want to collect United Arab Emirates stamps according to a particular topic, therefore, may have to do some hunting. And hunting down all the fairy tale issues can present a distinct challenge since most of them were produced in two major varieties; in perforated and in imperforate form.

Such a search, however, may be worthwhile. The Arabian Nights issues are growing in popularity and philatelists everywhere are beginning to value them highly.

This article appeared on pages 12-15 of the September/October 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1977 images.