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Volume 36, Number 5September/October 1985

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Scheherezade in Paris

Written by Rosalind Mazzawi
Photographed by Patrick Edgard-Rosa
Additional photographs by Vincent Minard-Wadja

Scheherezade just won't go away. Beautiful, apparently, and certainly clever, the heroine of The Arabian Nights - more accurately The Thousand and One Nights - keeps appearing and reappearing: in books, paintings, films, stamp collections, puppet shows, ballets, operas and, last winter, as the star of an exceptional exhibit in a cultural center just outside Paris.

The story of Scheherezade is familiar. A sultan (or king), betrayed by his wife (or concubine), decides that hereafter he will execute each of his women after just one night. But the devious Scheherezade - eldest daughter of his vizier in some versions - intrigues the sultan during her first night with him, by starting to tell him a fascinating tale. The tale, however, is too long to complete in one night, so the sultan delays her execution until she can finish the story. The next night Scheherezade does finish the story, but immediately starts another - and is again reprieved. A skilled raconteuse, obviously, she continues to do this for 1,001 nights - by which time the sultan has fallen in love with her and makes her his queen.

Scholars are still debating the origins of The Arabian Nights , but most agree that the basic framework - the story of Scheherezade and the sultan - probably dates to about the year 750, and that many of the tales, first told in the market places and in the palaces of rulers and nobles, were gathered together in Baghdad during the great days of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 12th and 13th centuries. After that, however, everyone in the Middle East seems to have contributed. The 200 or so tales - some were quite long and conveniently divided into 1,001 segments - include fairy tales, fables, romances, farces, legends and parables and have a sweeping variety of settings: Baghdad, Basra and Damascus, as well as China, Greece, India, North Africa and Turkey. Many are set in Egypt.

In Europe the first translation was made by Antoine Galland into French in 1704, from both Egyptian and Syrian sources - a text that was the basis of subsequent European versions. In the 19th century there were several other translations into German and English, the most celebrated being that of Sir Richard Burton in the 1880's. Another version was published by a second French translator, Dr. J. C. Mardrus, who was born and brought up in Egypt.

This February, at the Cultural Center of Boulogne Billancourt, a suburb of Paris, the translations of both Galland and Mardrus were on display again - part of an unusual effort to stimulate French interest in the splendors of Islamic civilizations in different places and centuries.

Behind this effort- what one observer called "a journey into enchantment" - was the basic interest of M. Georges Gorse, the mayor of Boulogne Billancourt. Having spent some time in the Arab world as a diplomat, M. Gorse, spellbound by the subject, persuaded a number of eminent people to cooperate: André Miquel, Arabic scholar, professor at the Collège de France and director of the Bibliothèque Nationale; Philippe Ardant, president of the Arab World Institute in Paris; and Marthe Bernus-Taylor, keeper of Islamic Antiquities at the Louvre. Together with Margaret Sironval, a researcher at the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS), who had made a special study of The Arabian Nights and their origins, and Madame Marilis de la Morandiere, director of the center, these experts put together a brilliant show that included objects from the Louvre which are rarely shown and are almost never lent

Against a magnificent setting - lamps similar to those that may have lit Scheherezade as she told her tales, the silhouette of an Arabian city, with its domes andminarets,anda courtyard with a reconstructed fountain - these artifacts from the Louvre showed how, in the Abbasid era, royal personages lived. They included, for example, a copper water jug with dragon-shaped spout, a popper basin inlaid in silver with hunting scenes, goose quill or reed pens trimmed to suit both the writer and his preferred style of calligraphy and kept in elegant pen boxes, an example of Kufic calligraphy, samples of the carved wooden screen called mashrabiya, ceramic bowls, perfume bottles, incense burners - which wafted clouds of fragrance through the women's quarters - and lamps like the one Aladdin rubbed to summon his genie.

Like the tales told by Scheherezade, the exhibits included all aspects of Islamic legend and history. There were bowls and goblets reflecting the pearly sheen and the turquoise tints of the ocean - as described in the story of Gulnar, a princess from the depths of the sea - and also the pestles and mortars and storage jars used by physicians and pharmacists to mix and store medicines. There were treatises on astronomy and astronomical instruments. There were musical instruments that match those described in the tales, particularly the 'ud and nay (lute and flute), and recordings of their sound which echoed through the halls. There was even an Anatolian Ushak medallion carpet of a sort that might have decorated the palace of Harun al-Rashid, the caliph of Baghdad, whose reign so often figures in the stories.

Since artists in all eras have always been fascinated with The Thousand and One Nights, it is not surprising that the Boulogne Billancourt exhibition included a variety of artistic treatments - especially works by Leon Carre and Edmond Dulac (See Aramco World, July-August 1979). Among the paintings and drawings shown were "The Garden" from the "Tale of King Umar," "The Sea Journey" from the "Tale of Nour and the Frankish hero," "The Roc," a huge bird several times larger than a human, in "Sindbad's Second Voyage," "The Princess Going to Her Wedding" in the "Tale of Aziz/Aziza and the handsome Prince Diadem," and "The Enchanted (or mechanical) Horse" from the tale of the same name. In addition there were two other drawings - done during the 1930's by Kees van Dongen - in pencil and gouache showing extremely elegant design, and a paper collage of Sindbad's departure to sea, by Fereydoun Hoveyda from Iran.

Also on display were costumes designed by Leon Bakst for the Ballet Russe's version of Scheherezade, and some marionettes designed in the 1930's. Performing their own ballet of The Arabian Nights scenes, these dated figures still had the power to fascinate 1985 children.

As other exhibits suggested, contemporary artists also react to Scheherezade. There was a wall hanging by Shafiq Abboud entitled "Al Badawia," (The Bedouin Girl), a blue and gold collage of wood and wire, and Rainer Gross's huge canvas showing Aladdin being transported by his giant genie or jinn - but this time from the 1001 Nights into the year 2001. This science fiction aspect was also evident in an Erro painting, where past and future were combined in the smoke of the narghila.

Other paintings showed a variety of scenes. Nasser Oveissi, for example, produced a striking canvas of Scheherezade composing her tales - "Echoing Solitude of Scheherezade's Stories," and Iraq's Dia al-Azzawi, one of the best known modern Arab artists, contributed three pictures one of which was "Aladdin's Mother." Two other paintings showed Scheherezade dancing and Scheherezade recounting a tale to the sultan. Both were done in traditional style by an Iranian artist named Morteza Raffi who has lived and worked in the town of Boulogne Billancourt since 1975.

The Boulogne Billancourt exhibition was indeed a journey into enchantment - as was obvious from the faces of the children and adults who not only came, but returned time and time again. It was, in fact, a success far greater than the organizers had dared to expect, and may serve as a prelude to the opening of the Arab World Institute's new building in 1986, France's first permanent exhibition currently being built on the subject of Islamic art and culture.

This, anyway, was the hope expressed by Andre Miquel, during an interview with Aramco World. Asked if the Thousand and One Nights exhibition would lead to a greater French interest in Arab and Islamic civilization, he said the opening of the Institute of the Arab World will make it possible for an even larger public to become better informed. The institute, he said "intends to provide permanent museum facilities, with objects on loan from the Louvre, and facsimiles of the more interesting manuscripts and documents from the Bibliotheque Nationale."

The opening of the institute, along with the Scheherezade exhibition, he went on, reflects a growing interest in Arab and Islamic matters but also a change in France's attitude. "The old 'Orientalist' or colonialist attitude has faded with those who practiced it," Miquel said. "The days of colonialism are over, and the former distrust is gradually changing."

As for The Arabian Nights exhibit, Professor Miquel said that the subject matter of Scheherezade's tales was invaluable as a cultural spearhead. "When I included them in my lectures at the Collège de France, my classes doubled immediately, and went on increasing...We must remember that the tales were about a society, or an amalgam of societies continually in movement: merchants, bankers, sailors, rulers. There is very little about the static life of the peasants. Since this is generally true of Middle East literature, the person who reads The Arabian Nights carefully, even in translation, will have a fairly good idea of what Middle East civilization was all about."

Rosalind Mazzawi lived for 20 years in Lebanon, where she taught at the Arab University.

This article appeared on pages 24-31 of the September/October 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1985 images.