written Arabic was inaccessible to the illiterate masses and largely incomprehensible
– even if read aloud – to those who knew only local dialects. This led to the development of
oral folk literature in which professional storytellers recounted popular tales, often
adding new anecdotes and individual touches in the hope of collecting more money from
Even today, storytellers can be
found in some parts of the Arab world. The Jama' al-Fna in Marrakesh is perhaps the
best-known example. It is probably a dying tradition but some
attempts are being made to revive it – see Epic
tales of Arab bravery (al-Jazeera).
Typically, these stories recount the adventures of tribal
or national heroes. A recurrent theme is the struggle of a underdog against adversity and
his eventual triumph. One genre is known as the sira ("life" or
"biography") and is often based on historical characters.
Sirat Baybars is the story of Baybars I, who ruled
Egypt and Syria in the 13th century - though with many embellishments. It portrays him as
a champion of the people against officialdom and oppression.
'Antara is based on the pre-Islamic hero/poet
'Antarah, a black man who overcame his low status to become a leader.
Sirat Bani Hilal, on the other hand, concerns a
fictitious tribal prince, Abu Zayd (also a black man), who is exiled but eventually leads
his people and lives for hundreds of years.
The collection of folk tales which is best-known in the
West, however, is the Thousand and One Nights.
The Thousand and One Nights
Thousand and One Nights (Alf Laylah wa Laylah) is the only Arabic work that has
become truly popular in the West. For centuries it was frowned upon by educated Arabs for
its inelegant style and mixing of the classical and vernacular languages.
The first written compilation of the stories was made in Iraq in
the 10th century by al-Jahshiyari who added tales from local storytellers to an old
Persian work, Hazar Afsana ("thousand tales"), which in turn contained
some stories of Indian origin. The "frame" story, in which Sharazad saves
herself from execution at the hands of King Shahrayar with her endless supply of tales was
borrowed from the Persian Afsana but probably originated in India. A similar
device, which may also come unltimately from India, is found in Chaucer's Canterbury
Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron.
The first Western translation was made in the early 18th
century by Antoine Galland. His elegant French, coupled with some liberal editing, masked
the flaws in the original and it became a huge success. He also added, from oral sources,
several of the stories which later became most famous - including Ali Baba, Sindbad, and
The Nights had a wide influence on European literary taste
during the 18th and 19th centuries, when orientalism was fashionable. Examples include
Samuel Johnsons Rasselas and Voltaires Zadiq, as well as the
poetic works of Byron and Wordsworth.
The three best-known translations in English are by Edward
Lane (incomplete, but accurate and with a detailed commentary), John Payne (probably the
best, but without a commentary) and Sir Richard Burton (which tries to reproduce the
oriental flavour of the original).
Although sometimes regarded as children's stories, the
sexual content makes some of them unsuitable - though bowdlerised versions are available.
Modern Arabic versions have also been amended to meet the stylistic demands of critics.
In 1850 the American author, Edgar
Allen Poe, wrote The
Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade, a satirical
conclusion to the story, in which Sharazad is finally executed. It
was not well-received by critics.