The Multi-Cutural Background of “The Arabian Nights”

Ida Rubinstein and Vaslav Nijinski by George Barbier (1913) for the Diaghilev Russian ballet "Shéhérazade" posterThe exhibit of  “Les Mille et Une Nuits” at the Institute du Monde Arabe (IMA)-until April 28, 2013-is an adventure. The exhibit’s adventure of Alf Layla (“Arabian Nights”) begins with the tale’s historical texts and the translations. The exhibit transports the visitor across geographical regions. The names of countries, cities, trade routes and seas are a road map of fantasy and adventure.

Costumes of war, layouts of palaces, images of daily street life, fantasies in imaginary worlds transport the visitor into the imaginary world of modern arts: film, ballets and paintings. Even if the visitor has not read a story, it is evident that the stories have enchanted and continue to enchant the world.

The volumes traverse many cultures and interpretations. They are known in English by two names: “The Thousand and One Nights” and “The Arabian Nights”.  The origin of the “The Nights” is Indo-Persian. Evidence shows they existed during the time of Alexander the Great (around 340 B.C.).  In the first room of the exhibition, a manuscript fragment catches my attention immediately. Discovered in Egypt, this is the first trace of a manuscript with the word “Nights” and dates from 879 A.D. It was found in a heap of old manuscripts used as scrap paper.

What You Will See At the Exhibit
The main explanations of the exhibit are in French, Arabic and English, as is the brochure. The wall documentation relates some of the explanations, but the audio guide goes into much more detail. If you have the time, the five euros is well spent. If your native tongue is not English, the speaker is very clear and speaks slowly. The French newspaper, ‘le Figaro’, supplies a free supplement, “l’Orient Fabuleux des Mille et Une Nuits”, in French.Map of Indian Ocean, Egypt, 11th century

In Persian, they were first called “A thousand tales”. Translated into Arabic, they become “A thousand nights”. “The Nights” were translated for the first time into a European language (French) and Arabic stories were added to this translation. The title became “The Thousand and One Nights”.

On display in the dimly lit first room are samples of original writings origins of books, tales, the most well-known translations, examples of bound and unbound manuscripts. Pages open to colorful illustrations, including those in the fake and counterfeit interpretations.

The first official, translated editions of 1704 are in French by Antoine Galland. French, considered the language of the educated enabled the Occident to read these tales. The first English translation in three volumes is by Edward W. Lane around 1840. The translation by Dr. Charles J. Mardrus once considered a “fake” (then ruled acceptable),  stands out for its influence on an era.

Upstairs, Georges Méliès’ 1905 colorized film interpretation is shown in the palace segment of the exhibit.  The exhibition art works of René Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Kees Van Dongen, François-Louis Schmied and the set painting of Ida Rubenstein by Jacques-Émile Blanche from the ballet represent their interpretations of the tales as told by Dr. Mardrus.

©John Rylands Library, University of Manchester_King Jaliad and ShimasElephant ©Fondation custodia/Collection Frits Lugt/Paris Mille et une Nuits institute monde arabe

From its collection, the IMA displays decorative arts, weapons typical in the stories’ tales and battle dress (note the impressive shield with the point that looks it stepped right out of a book). The tales describe battles and details quite thoroughly. The IMA intertwines the descriptions of objects of the tales into the reality from their museum archives.

The cave of Aladdin houses the world of between worlds: the intermediary world. In the “intermediary world cave” of the exhibit is a tiny terra-cotta seal from 538-381 B.C. depicting a battle scene. The illustration appears to be large in size In the Figarscope hand-out; it is miniscule.

From “The Night’s” angels and demons, witches, fairies, and spirits, the visitor moves to the sea tales of Sinbad and the Flying Bed.  Many things fly in the tales, and the IMA shows what those flying objects could have looked like: the chest and the bed, for example. The carpet is considered the least important because it plays a small role in the end of the tales.

Why the fascination with these tales? 
The tales represent a complex world with humans and supernatural creatures with supernatural powers. “They contain something for everyone: from romance to science-fiction, vignettes to classical poetry…. They are written for the masses at a level everyone can understand…. They reveal a feminine observation, are earthy and sometimes erotic,” according to Nacer Khemir, author, director and documentarian. In his opinion, Arab culture is based on two books: the Koran and A Thousand and One Nights.

©D. Sohier_Sheherazade accompanied by her sister, tells the Sultan Shariar an adventure from Thousand One Nights, Paul-Emile Destouches (Salon de 1824)Shéhérazade (One of the Persian Vizier’s daughters volunteers to tell stories to the King at night. Each time, she finishes a story, she begins another, only to stop at dawn. Intrigued, the King keeps her and her sister alive in order to hear the ending that night. The method continues until she has told one thousand stories and the king is happy.) She speaks about creatures with powers and tells stories about providence, wars, injustice, cruelty of powerful figures and death.

These translations were exciting for their era (1700s and 1800s). Dangerous sea creatures and strange personages, already known to the Arab-Muslim world, were now the fantasies of the Occidental world. Talisman, genies, magical formulas were new to Western fantasies and led to the tales’ appeal. Consider the time of the 1800s, and the restrictions on women. These tales, told by a woman, and now available for the English-speaking world were bold and daring.

Two hundred years after their first western translation, Dr. Mardrus’s enhancements and liberties with his translated text fit the Belle Epoque’s turn of the century Orientalist influences. This was an era of artistic interpretation of his version of the tales. Dr. Charles J. Mardrus’s translation inspired artists, dancer, film makers, photographers during the Gilded Age’s time of late 1800s and the turn of the twentieth century.

Serge de Diaghilev’s Russian ballet, “Shéhérazade”, creates art within art: costumes, paintings, dance styles using Dr. Mardrus’s racy translation. This exhibition, “Mille et Une Nuits” at l’Institute Monde Arabe uses Geroge Barbier’s 1913 poster from that ballet, which was an adaption Dr. Mardrus’s “fake” translation of the “Arabian Nights”.The Thousand and One Nights_Edward Lane translation_1863Page from Thousand and One Nights translated by Edward Lane 1863

First Western Translation
In the 1690s, French Orientalist and archaeologist, Antoine Galland began translating “The Nights” into French. The Christian Maronite monk, Hannâ Diyâb (from Aleppo, Syria around 1685) recounted additional tales, which were added to the first French version between 1704-1717. The final translation was made up of twelve volumes, which included seven of those fourteen stories:  Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad.

Edward W. Lane, British Orientalist, translator and lexicographer, published the first English translation in 1841. In my home library are three volumes of “A Thousand and One Nights” translated by Lane and printed in 1863. I have never read all the stories. They are translated with a heavy hand. I am, however, fascinated and drawn to their history.

Dessin de costume pour la danse sacrée du Dieu Bleu_Bakst (1912) pour les ballets russes©B. Fontanel/Mairie de Bordeaux/Musée Goupil_Mille_et_Une_NuitsThe doctor, poet, French translator, Orientalist, and a well-known figure in Parisian life, Dr. Charles J. Mardrus, of  Armenian roots, was born in Cairo. Dr. Mardrus’s translation used bold literary license. He translated and adapted the tales from Galland. Mardrus enlivened them to match the atmosphere and modernity of the Belle Epoque. His edition fed the enjoyment of the modern world and was very popular. His interpretation was considered exotic, fantastic and erotic interpretation while Galland tended to bow to pressure and tone down the passages considered too hot to handle.

Imagine living in a western country in the 1800s. Wouldn’t you want to travel on journeys into a different world on the back of a demon or a winged horse or on the wings of a legendary bird named Roc who feeds its chicks with elephants or on a flying bed and chests or take maritime voyages? Imagine traveling into the world with someone named Aladdin traveling the world of cultural fashion, technological exchanges across geographical regions from China along the silk road to the sky and the sun on flying horse genies encountering shape shifting beings, hybrid creatures and possessed creatures. The exhibit is overtime for the imagination!

Reads That Could be Interesting

Tales From The Arabian Nights“, Antoine Galland

The Thousand and One Nights The Harvard Classics” by Edward W. Lane

Studies in Arabic Papyri” by Nabia Abbott

The Arabian Nights Reader (Series in Fairy-Tale Studies)” By Ulrich Marzolph

A thousand and one images” by David Tresilian (review in Al-Ahram with images)

The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night”. Rendered into English from the … French Translation of DR. J. C. Mardrus By Powys Mathers

Wild Heart: A Life”: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris

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