The Book of One Thousand and One Nights is a compendium of folktales assembled over the centuries before and after the life of Mohammed (c. 570 – 632 CE). They are primarily associated, however, with the reign of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid (786 – 809 CE) and the time of the Islamic Golden Age, which ended with the Mongol sack of Bagdad in 1258. The framing device for this collection was the story of Scheherazade, who was taken into the harem of the fictional Persian King Shahryar in an earlier time. The king had the repulsive habit of taking a virgin to his bed each night and having her beheaded in the morning. Scheherazade saved herself by telling the king half a story each night and finishing it on the next night, thus earning a thousand and one reprieves. By the time she ran out of stories, the two had fallen in love and were married.

Arabian Nights 2000– TV Miniseries

YouTube is filled with a richness of Arab folklore in the movies. Even today, as I was searching for trailers to embed on this website, I found a three-hour movie, called Arabian Nights, that I had never known before. This Hallmark Entertainment TV miniseries was originally presented in two segments of an hour and a half. It is a study in the pluses and minuses of the Hallmark approach. Scenes of the medieval Middle East are beautifully rendered. Efforts to modernize the method of storytelling, however, lead to some atrocious dialogue and an uneven success with special effects.

The screenplay regards the King’s cruelty, marrying and murdering the virgins from his harem, as a treatable mental health problem. Scheherazade is a strong-willed young woman, and a skilled story therapist. She volunteers to occupy his bed and keeps him engrossed with her serialized tales, each of which is furnished with a moral calculated to help in restoring the King’s sanity. She tells five tales, very loosely based on the classic translation of the Arabian Nights by Richard Francis Burton. “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,” is set in the area of Damascus. “The Tale of the Poor Hunchback” is set in the area of Constantinople. “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” is set in the area of Samarkand, with terra-cotta soldiers (a thundering anachronism, as the soldiers were only discovered in China in the 1970s after lying buried for 2000 years). “The Sultan and the Beggar,” set in Cairo, uses surrogates for the Baghdad King and his brother, and calls one of them Sultan Harun Al-Rashid. “The Three Princes,” about the three sons of the King of Yemen, brings the story cycle to its close and establishes the overarching moral: “We each must take responsibility for the consequences of our actions.”

Modern moviegoers are familiar with very few of the original stories. Some, like The Thief of Baghdad (1924 and 1940), various versions of Sinbad the Sailor, and Disney’s Aladdin, are screenplays inspired by The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. Aladdin, in point of fact, is one of the stories added to the classic collection by a French editor in the early 18th century, though it is drawn from an ancient Middle East folktale. The three films selected below show the Hollywood evolution of one theme appropriated from the traditions of the Arabian Nights.

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