Classical 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 their audience.
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.
Sirat '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
Full text of Sir Richard Burton's translation
The Arabian Nights Entertainments
Full text of Andrew Lang's version – part of Project Gutenberg
The 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'sDecameron.
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 Aladdin.
The Nights had a wide influence on European literary taste during the 18th and 19th centuries, when orientalism was fashionable. Examples include Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Voltaire’s 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.