Monday, September 24, 2007

Europe, Christianity & the Crusades

In the Thousand and One Nights

[The People's Crusade]

Magnificent, indeed are the Thousand and One Nights! They flash with gold and diamonds; they resound with lutes and songs; they exhale cinnamon and attar-of-roses. The streets are crowded by picturesque figures with flowing robes and jewelled scimitars; beauteous figures lean from latticed windows; sly beggars ply their amusing trade; opulent merchants recline amid their costly bales; steel clashes on steel; mystic bouquets of flowers convey amorous messages; long caravans advance laden with ivory and silk and spices and precious stones; and stately monarchs gaze down upon it all from their gorgeous thrones. (Mann, 1907, pp. 151-52)

Taking up where we left off at the end of the last chapter, with the Rev. Cameron Mann's 1907 magazine article, I suppose it's true to say that most of us do think of The Thousand and One Nights rather like that - beautiful princesses imprisoned by genies, the bustling street-life of old Baghdad, the magic and mystery of the East, and so on and so forth. Walt Disney’s Aladdin (1992), to name but one of the innumerable imitations and retellings of the Nights, might have been constructed to this prescription. However, as Mann points out, there is a downside to all this magnificence:

... first, the “Nights” are thoroughly, unblushingly, callously sensual. As scholars know, it is impossible to translate them accurately in any edition meant for general reading. Their details would insure the prompt suppression of the publication and the prosecution of the publisher. (p. 152)
There is, I am sure, nothing inherently blameworthy in wanting to know just a little more about this “unblushing, callous sensuality,” but the Bishop of North Dakota states firmly: “Of course, one cannot give examples.” Being human, though, he cannot avoid letting slip a few illustrations of what he means:

The lovers care simply for physical beauty. Everybody deems a full purse the insurer of felicity. Nobody makes a self-sacrifice for anybody else ...There are no magnificent aspirations, no heroic resolves. The men sometimes fight, but not as striving for a great cause; and they are never ready to die. Their sole aim is to have abundance of luscious food, gorgeous dress, flashing ornaments, obedient slaves and beautiful women, and to listen to gay music and wanton verses. (p. 153)
Of course, whether fortunately or unfortunately, the Nights are not really like this. Generations of dealers in smutty books have tried to imply that ‘unexpurgated’ translations such as Burton’s Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885) are tantamount to pornography, but five minutes search for the dirty bits would convince most of us that pieces of titillation are few and far between. In fact, the Thousand and One Nights are at once far more interesting and far more respectable.

When I first began to read Burton’s translation of the Nights, I was struck by two things: First, just how appallingly mannered Burton’s prose is (in fact, Jorge Luis Borges implies in one of his lectures that it is literally impossible to read this multi-volumed, roughly 6,000 page translation to the end[1] - he's wrong, but that doesn't mean it's a particularly easy task); and second, how little resemblance this strange, complex book bears to the ‘Arabian Nights’ of popular culture. What really struck me about them, though, was how useful they could be in illuminating patterns of cultural perception - patterns of cultural misapprehension, almost.

We tend to hear a great deal about how Westerners perceive the Orient (and this is something I myself will be discussing in Chapter Three). Here, though, I'd prefer to discuss how the West has traditionally appeared through Eastern eyes. What are the characteristics attributed by works of Islamic popular fiction to their Christian opponents and enemies? They can be listed as a catalogue of motifs or tropes:

1/ The high-born Christian maiden converted to Islam:

This can be further divided into sub-categories:
Sensual conversion (a change of belief occasioned by the beauty, wisdom, or physical prowess of a potential lover); and
Spiritual conversion (with little reference to more worldly concerns).

Examples of the first sub-category would include “The Moslem Champion and the Christian Damsel” [Story III] where the (unnamed) daughter of a “Patrician Knight,” who, like Ophelia, is “loosed” to a Moslem prisoner in an endeavour to convince him of the merits of Christianity, instead embraces Islam for no more lofty motive than “for thy sake and to win thy favours” (Burton, 1885, 5: 280), as she explains to him subsequently.

Then there is the Christian woman of Acre in “The Man of Upper Egypt and His Frankish Wife” [Story VI], who converts because she was so impressed by her Moslem suitor’s refusal to consummate their love even after two night-long assignations, so great was his fear of Allah. After the battle of Hattin, when she meets him again, she repudiates her husband, “one of the cavaliers of the Franks” (Burton, 1885, 9: 22), and willingly marries the Egyptian instead.

Finally, as a footnote to the theme, there is the redoubtable “Princess Miriam the Girdle-girl, daughter of the King of France” [Story V], who, even though she is initially converted by the Persian slave-trader whom she nurses back to health, remains loyal through thick and thin to her rather wimpish Cairene master. Burton attempts to explain the attitudes concerned in one of his notes to the story, (à propos of the pair’s making love in a Cathedral chapel): “This profaning a Christian Church which contained the relics of the Virgin would hugely delight the coffee-house habitués, and the Egyptians would be equally flattered to hear that the son of a Cairene merchant had made the conquest of a Frankish Princess Royal. That he was an arrant poltroon mattered very little, as his cowardice only set off his charms” (Burton, 1885, 8: 328).

Examples of the second sub-category, the more edifying or spiritual conversion, would include “The Christian King’s Daughter and the Moslem” [Story IV], the story of a Christian King’s daughter who has been persuaded on her own account to convert to Islam by “The manifest signs and visible portents of Allah” (Burton, 1885, 5: 285) – a decision interpreted (understandably) by her own people as betraying either “insanity ... [or] depravity” – and who is aided in her flight to Mecca by the Moslem saint Ibrahim the Basket-maker.

One should probably also include here the Christian woman in “The Prior who became a Moslem” [Story II], even though there is no mention of her being well-born. The love she comes to feel for her Moslem admirer only emerges after his death, when she is forced to convert to Islam in her dreams in order to be allowed to follow him into the gardens of paradise. Even his love is far from worldly as, while alive, he shows no disposition to take her up on her offer to “take thy will of me and wend thy ways” (Burton, 1885, 5: 142). A compliant lot, these Christian women.

Interestingly enough, the person one would most expect to see listed under this heading, the unfortunate Princess Abrizah, “daughter of King Hardub of Roum,” (Burton, 1885, 2:109), from “The Tale of King Omar bin al-Nu’uman and his sons Sharrkan and Zau al-Makan, and what befel them of things seld-seen and peregrine” [Story I][2], never really converts to Islam[3], despite her admiration for the war-like Sharrkan; and her subsequent foul rape by the “royal lecher” (2: 214) King Omar bin al-Nu’uman is perhaps seen to be justified by this omission.

Our next motif might be described as:

2. The Christian as Monster:

This, too, should be divided into sub-categories:
The cunning, scheming and depraved old man or woman;
The giant or grotesque combatant.

The classic example of the first category is the old woman Zat al-Dawahi – which Burton explains as meaning “‘Mistress of Misfortunes’ or Queen of Calamities (to the enemy)” (1885, 2: 87), from “The Tale of King Omar bin al-Nu’uman” [Story I]. Not only does she succeed in murdering the King himself - though, like Burton, my sympathy is all with her on this occasion - as well as his son Sharrkan, but here is a brief account of her habits and appearance:

Now this accursed old woman was a witch of the witches, past mistress in sorcery and deception; wanton and wily, deboshed and deceptious; with foul breath, red eyelids, yellow cheeks, dull-brown face, eyes bleared, mangy body, hair grizzled, skin withered and wan and nostrils which ever ran ... she was given to tribadism and could not exist without sapphism or she went mad: so if any damsel pleased her, she was wont to teach her the art of of rubbing clitoris against clitoris and would anoint her with saffron till she fainted away for excess of volupty. (Burton, 1885, 2: 233-34)[4]
Princess Abrizah (her granddaughter) “loathed the old woman and abhorred to lie with her” for this reason, which contributes to her own downfall.

And, despite her very conscientious and cunning defence of the Christian Kingdoms of “Roum” and Greece, Zat al-Dawahi’s great-grandson Rumzan agrees to her being crucified, “diademed with asses’-dung ... on one of the gates of Baghdad; and, when her companions saw what befel her, all embraced in a body the faith of Al-Islam” (Burton, 1885, 3: 114).

Another example of this character-type is “the swart-visaged oldster, blind of the right eye and lame of the left leg” (Burton, 1885, 8: 309), the chief Wazir of the Frankish King in “Ali Nur al-Din and Miriam the Girdle-girl” [Story V].

While he is indubitably “a stubborn tyrant and froward devil and a wily thief, [and] none could avail against his craft” (8: 335), he finally gives himself away when, having been engaged to her by her enraged father, he is unwilling to accept Harun al-Rashid’s decision to allow Miriam and Nur al-Din to remain safely in Baghdad:

Now this Wazir was a Zany: so he said to the Caliph, “O Commander of the Faithful ... were Miriam forty times a Moslemah and forty times thereto, I may not depart from thee without that same Miriam! And if thou send her not back with me of free will, I will hie me to her sire and cause him despatch thee a host ... and they shall lay waste thy realms.” When the Caliph heard these words ... the light in his face became night and he was wroth at his speech with exceeding wrath ... Then he commanded to cut off the Wazir’s head and burn his body; but Princess Miriam cried, “O Commander of the Faithful, soil not thy sword with the blood of this accursed.” So saying, she bared her brand and smote him and made his head fly from his corpse, and he went to the house of ungrace. (Burton, 1885, 9: 16-17)
The second, and no less picturesque category of monsters includes [Story I] the Christian champion “Luka bin Shamlut, surnamed the sword of the Messiah” who, before every action, fumigated himself and rubbed “his palate with the Holy Merde [“the skite of the Chief Patriarch, the Cohen, the Heresiarch”] ... and smeared his cheeks and anointed his moustaches with the rest”:

Now there was no stouter champion in the land of Roum than this accursed Luka ... but he was foul of favour, for his face was as the face of an ass, his shape that of an ape and his look as the look of a malignant snake ... blacker than night was his blackness and more fetid than the lion was his breath for foulness; more crooked than a bow was his crookedness and grimmer than the leopard was his ugliness, and he was branded with the mark of the infidels on face. (Burton, 1885, 2: 223-24)
Not surprisingly, given all that “crookedness” and “foulness,” Sharrkan defeats him with ease.

Sharrkan himself, however, falls before Luka’s master King Afridun, “a stalwart cavalier who ... could hurl rocks and throw spears and smite with the iron mace and [who] feared not the prowest of the prow” (2: 268-69).

It’s time now for me to unmask one of my intentions in creating this catalogue of Christian ‘types’ in The Thousand and One Nights. Perhaps the easiest way is to draw your attention to a book called The Matter of Araby in Medieval England, by Dorothee Metlitzki (1977). Metlitzki’s aim is to look at the double image of Islam in the Middle Ages: on the one hand, as the paramount source of scientific methodologies and information – a level of contact reserved mainly for the scholarly and intellectually curious; and, on the other hand, as an essentially parodic reservoir of villainous ogres and enemies (not to mention the odd nubile damsel) for the purposes of popular romance.

In Part Two of her book, she compiles the following list of common themes:

... the popular image of the medieval Saracen comprised four stock figures of medieval romance: the enamored Muslim princess; the converted Saracen; the defeated emir or sultan; and the archetypal Saracen giant whom the Christian hero overpowers and kills. (Metlitzki, 1977, p. 161)
Leaving aside two further categories established by her: the treatment of Mahomet as a Christian heretic or false prophet, and “The Muslim Paradise as the Land of Cockayne” (p. viii). which could no doubt be paralleled to some extent by such libels as the “skite of the Chief Patriarch” being used to anoint Christian warriors, the match-up with the themes we have been exploring is virtually exact.

Her “enamored Muslim princess” is – by and large – the central figure of my first subcategory “Sensual Conversion;” whereas her “converted Saracen” matches my second, the “Spiritual Conversion.” I have not really discussed the type of the “Defeated Sultan” (though one could undoubtedly find material in the various Kings – Christian and Moslem – in “Omar bin al-Nu’uman,” not to mention the King of France in “Miriam the Girdle-Girl”); but the “Saracen Giant” is, of course, the “Giant or Grotesque Combatant” in the “Christian Monster” category.

One could no doubt argue about the fine-tuning of these definitions, but that’s not really the point. Of course I chose my categories with full knowledge of Metlitzki’s, and in the expectation of just such a comparison. I would deny that they have been forced on the material, but they are not really spontaneously deduced from it either. Why? Because I wanted to highlight certain oddities of expression and attitude in Metlitzki’s otherwise admirably clear and balanced summary of her chosen texts.

Thus, when she talks of that very odd poem “The Romaunce of the Sowdone of Babylone and of Ferumbras his Sone who conquered Rome,” her judgement of the heroine, Floripas, who burns her father to death when he will not accept Christianity, is as follows:

... there is not one redeeming feature in Floripas. She commits perfidy and murder, is a Goneril to her father, and the reader is entirely on the side of the sultan when he curses her (Metlitzki, 1977, p. 170).
And yet, when she discusses the varying slants in different versions of the key scenes of this very popular romance – particularly Floripas’s murder of the interfering duenna who has discovered that she is hiding a group of Christian knights in her room, her comment is:

In the Middle English Sir Ferumbras, the murder of the duenna is motivated by fear and is made more genuinely oriental [my emphasis] by the role of the princess’s chamberlain ... In this version, the scene of the duenna’s murder has the authentic coloring of oriental despotism, servility, and intrigue. (Metlitzki, 1977, p. 172)
This despite the fact that Metlitzki has commented just a few pages before, à propos of “The Moslem Champion and the Christian Damsel,” that: “What is remarkable about the Arabian Nights tale is the absence of the ferocious intolerance and vindictiveness found in the crusading romances of the West ... We have a sense of a secure, though officially antagonistic relationship between two stable civilizations whose differences may be bridged in war by the power of love” (19977, p. 166).

So what’s all this about “oriental despotism, servility and intrigue”? Well, perhaps it just means that whereas the West tends towards violence and intolerance, the East has a equal and opposite slant towards sneakiness and servility. She continues, speaking of the Byzantine poem Digenes Akrites, which parallels in some ways the story of “King Omar bin al-Nu’uman” :

In the Arabian tales and the Byzantine epic the psychological refinement in the portrayal of converts is due to the profound understanding of two oriental civilizations that stemmed from a natural intermingling of peoples and languages in war and peace, within a defined Byzantine-Muslim frontier. In the West, there was no such general and far-reaching intermingling, only clash and withdrawal. The isolation of Britain from the scene of the actual encounter with the Saracens of Western Europe [i.e. the Moorish culture of Spain] must have accentuated the design of a propagandistic stereotype in Middle English literature. (Metlitzki, 1977, p. 167)
After all, she says, quoting from Norman Daniel’s Islam and the West (1958), “In the Middle Ages the evident harm caused by Islam – in medieval eyes – was too great and too effective to allow scope for generosity of attitude” (1977, p. 209). That’s fine, but why is it still necessary to add: “It may be maintained by the defenders of Christian ideals in medieval romance that Ferumbras and Floripas [in The Sowdone of Babylone] are, after all, Saracens by birth whose fundamental nature is determined by non-Christian upbringing” (1977, p. 160)?

It's not that Metlitzki really endorses this argument, but she seems to regard it as a sufficiently cogent objection to her denunciation of the portrayal of Floripas in the poem to demand serious attention:

The brutality of the hero and heroine as depicted in the treatment of the sultan [“who, in his defeat and his refusal to be baptised, embodies unregenerate Saracen might”] ... goes far beyond any necessity in the plot. (Metlitzki, 1977, p. 160)
This is not to say, however, that it is not “a vital element in a ‘heightened’ characterisation obviously relished by narrator and audience.”

Metlitzki could thus be said to have painted herself into a corner. On the one hand she betrays a set of essentialist notions about the respective character of ‘East’ and ‘West’ as manifested in the distinctive cultures of Christianity and Islam. Hence her asides about “oriental despotism, servility and intrigue.” Hence also her comment that the episode in the medieval Greek epic Digenes Akrites where Akrites commits adultery with a Moslem girl whom he has promised to restore to her lover, a Byzantine nobleman “is another indication of mores that originated in the households of Muslims as depicted in the Arabian Nights” (1977, p. 151).

It appears, astonishingly enough, that when the hero commits adultery he is committing a “Muslim” act, but when he “restores the betrayed lover to her false partner” he is behaving as a Christian! On the other hand, she is obviously disgusted by the excesses of Christian populist sentiment against Islam, and is continually making unfavourable comparisons between the two cultures:

In the Arabian tales of conversion,the Christian god is never insulted. In Western romance, on the other hand, whenever a Christian knight in Saracen captivity refuses to convert to Islam, he throws insults at the other religion ... (Metlitzki, 1977, p. 191)
While Christian knights in Saracen lands are invariably characterised by a fierce missionary spirit, the striking lack of religious fanaticism in their Saracen opponents is not due to the poet’s sophistication. It is the result of his unwillingness to put vilifying statements about Christianity into anyone’s mouth. (p. 208)
My intention, however, is not so much to vilify Metlitzki as to establish that such a conflict of attitudes is to a large extent inherent in her choice of theme. One cannot contrast Islam and the West without committing oneself to some sort of position on their “essential” natures.

Of course this objection applies just as well to the imitation of her method which I resorted to in the first part of this chapter – and you thought that was just me being naive and simple-minded!

And yet, Christianity and Islam do indeed exist, as do their portrayals (and the characteristic stereotypes associated with those portrayals) in popular culture. Surely, then, it’s just a matter of refining our critical methodology in order to accommodate such objections?

The problem, on reflection, is not a straightforward one. Without wanting to commit myself too wholeheartedly to Edward Said’s strictures on Orientalism, it must be admitted that far too much work has been done in the past on the “Orient” and its reactions to this, that and the other, without enough attention being paid toteh question whether so general a designation can really be thought of as critically useful.

Descending to the practicalities demanded by this particular topic, though, it seems to me that there are at least three possible ways to define our chosen material more closely:

The first is Chronological:

One could try to correlate more precisely the relationships between the historical periods purportedly portrayed in our various stories, and the actual dates of their composition (one advantage of this might be to get away from the evergreen cliché of the “unchanging East”).

This is, of course, the standard method which has been applied to the subject in the past; witness the remarks of Jacques Cazotte appended to his joint translation of the “l’Histoire d’Habib ... ou le chevalier, “ which he describes as “décidément un roman de chevalerie” [definitely a chivalric romance ] (Chavis & Cazotte, 1788-89, 4: 74):

Ce petit roman doit avoir été composé postérieurement aux victoires de Saladin, & peut-être par un poète de sa cour; on y trouve un mélange trop marqué des idées européennes et arabesques sur la chevalerie, pour que cet assemblage peut être entré dans un cerveau qui n’eut connu que les opinions d’une des deux parties du monde; il ne s’agit point ici d’un objet purement naturel, dont l’effet est de faire naître des pensées analogues. (Chavis & Cazotte, 1788-89, 4 : 76)

[This little romance must have been composed after the victories of Saladin, and perhaps by a poet of his court. We find there too marked a mixture of European and Arabic ideas about chivalry for such an ensemble to have entered into a mind which was only acquainted with the opinions of one of the two halves of the world. It’s after all not a question of a purely natural phenomenon which has the effect of inspiring analogous thoughts.]
Burton comments acidly “I cannot but suspect when reading all this Western travesty of an Eastern work that M. Cazotte ... had grafted his own ideas of morale upon the wild stem of the Arabian novel” (1886-88, 16: 202), but it is interesting that Cazotte is already thinking in terms of ascertaining dates by measuring the alleged “Westernness” of chivalric sentiments.

This kind of diachronic adjustment, while perhaps just possible for most of the materials dealt with centrally by Metlitzki, becomes very complicated when one is dealing with the Nights, however.

To take just one example, King Omar bin al-Nu’uman is supposed to have reigned in Baghdad, the “City of Safety ... before the Caliphate of Abd al-Malik bin Marwán” (Burton, 1885, 2: 77). Now as Jamel Eddine Bencheikh reminds us in his recent translation of the story, Baghdad was founded by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur in 762, while Abd al-Malik bin Marwan, fifth of the Ummayad Caliphs, reigned in Damascus between 685 and 705 (Bencheikh et al., 1991a, 1: 223]. Nor is that the end of the story. The name “Omar,” though strictly speaking here it must refer to a pre-Islamic monarch, seems to have inspired thoughts of the second Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem in 638, and whose successors fought and conquered all the way to the walls of Constantinople (like the Moslem host in the story). There was a siege of Constantinople in 674-678, and again around 718.

As Bencheikh sums up, rather laconically, “il est très difficile de déterminer exactement la période historique dans laquelle ces affrontements prennent place” (Bencheikh et al., 1991a, 1: 223) [it is very difficult to determine exactly in what historical era these confrontations are taking place].

As far as the composition of the story goes, the material included in the Thousand and one Nights is usually divided into three main layers of accretion. The first (obviously) is Persian, and is associated with the lost Hazār Afsāna or “Thousand Nights,” even before its translation into Arabic. This section includes the frame-story, the various groups of fables and apologues, and many of the stories dealing with Jinni and magicians – in short, the traditional Nights.

The second layer is usually identified with the city of Baghdad, in ancient Babylonia. This includes (probably) the final version of “Sindbad the Sailor,” the establishment of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid as a central character, and also the story of “King Omar bin al-Nu’uman and his sons,” which Enno Littmann, in his standard article on the Nights in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, refers to rather dauntingly as containing “Persian, Mesopotamian and Syrian materials” (1960, 1: 363).

Finally there is a third level – probably the largest in sheer bulk – of material composed or added to the collection in Egypt. This includes many stories of Persian magic and of Harun al-Rashid and his court created in imitation of the already existing stories. This layer probably includes “Ali Nur al-Din and Miriam the Girdle-Girl,” and some of the anecdotes we have been discussing (certainly “The Man of Upper Egypt and his Frankish wife”) as well.

To return to “King Omar,” though, many of the names, such as “Sharrkan” and “Zau al-Makan,” are undoubtedly Persian in origin (like the names of Shahrázád and Shahryár themselves in the frame story); the references to the exploits of the early Caliphs presumably contribute the “Mesopotamian” portion of the story; but the principal component is undoubtedly Syrian. Its historical roots in a so-called “Akritan” cycle of stories, centring around the hero Akrites of Asia Minor, have been reconstructed in a series of articles which appeared in the journal Byzantion in the 1930s.[5]

This would tend to place at least some parts of the story in the tenth century – but (as we have seen) the materials go back much further, and points in the development may be much later.

All in all, I don't think one can avoid this type of inquiry altogether (it is, after all, one of the justifications for Literary historians), but it does not always yield immediately useful results – as in this case.

The second method is Statistical:

I mentioned above, in my Introduction, the French scholar André Miquel’s astute idea of counting all the place names and geographical indications to be found in Burton’s complete translation of the Nights. To quote a few more of the conclusions he has extracted from this exercise:

Incontestablement ... l’Iran est un des acteurs premiers des Nuits. Mais sous quelle forme? A dire le vrai, ses pays, villes ou grandes fleuves ... émergent à peine. (Bencheikh, Bremond & Miquel, 1991b, p.60)

[Iran ... is indisputably one of the major components of the Nights. But in what form? To tell the truth, its landscapes, towns and great rivers ... hardly appear.]
This absence of precision he attributes to the transformation brought about by the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century: “Vu des centres de Syrie et surtout du Caire, l’Iran devient ainsi un pays lointain, à demi-légendaire même” (Bencheikh et al., 1991b, p. 61) [Seen from Syria and above all from Cairo, Iran thus becomes a far-off country, even a half-legendary one]. He goes on to point out that for all the space accorded to the city of Baghdad, it, too, is “peu connue ... tant elle est devenue lointaine sur la carte comme dans le souvenir, et qui ne nous offre guère, en fait de toponymes inclus dans celui, général, de la ville, que le nom d’Al-Kharkh, le grand marché sur la rive droite du Tigre, aux abords de la première cité palatine” (Bencheikh et al., 1991b, p. 65) [little known ... so far away has it become on the map as well as in memory, and hardly offers us any details in the way of place-names, besides that of the city itself, except the name of the great market al-Kharkh on the right bank of the Tigris, on the borders of the first royal domain]. This is by contrast with cities like Mecca and Medinah, and above all Cairo, the descriptions of which include a great deal of specialised and accurate topographical information.

Applying the same method to the story of “Omar bin al-Nu’uman,” he summarises his discoveries as follows:

Première constatation: le peu de place tenu par le merveilleux dans les toponymes ... Aussi mal ou à peine mieux traités, la Chine, l’Inde, ses îles et le Cachemire, la Nubie, les pays des Tartares, des Noirs (Sûdan) et des Berbères: l’ étranger au sens large. En force au contraire, les Turcs et surtout les pays de l’Iran; trente-quatre citations, dont dix pour la seule Khurâsân. Ici se situe un des premiers nÏuds de cette histoire: l’alliance de ce monde turco-persan avec les Arabes, que soulignent regulièrement l’appellation, pour le roi ‘Umar, de seigneur de Bagdad et du Khurâsân et le rattachement non moins explicite, en début du conte, du domaine iranien à ses possessions. (Bencheikh et al., 1991b, p.74)

[The first point to note is this: few of the names included refer to mythical places ... just as badly or perhaps a little better represented are China, India, its islands, Kashmir, Nubia, the lands of the Tartars, the Blacks (Sudan), and the Berbers – foreign in the true sense of the word. Emphasis is placed by the contrast with the Turks and, above all, the regions of Iran: thirty-four citations, including ten for Khorasan alone. And here we can see one of the principal germs of the narrative: the alliance of this Turco-Persian world with that of the Arabs, which is underlined by the regular citation of King Omar as lord of Baghdad and Khorasan and the no less explicit attachment of Iran to his domains at the beginning of the story.]
The results of this study are, I think, admirable because they are so unexpected. One is not surprised to discover that the authors of at least the “Egyptian Recension” of the Nights knew more details about the topography of Cairo than of far-off, fallen Baghdad; but it is certainly is surprising to have the importance of the “Persian elements” in the story of King Omar confirmed in this unequivocal way. We already knew that the world referred to must be pre-Mongol (and of course pre-Crusader), but now it seems that a considerable Iranian and Turkish input into the story must be allowed for.

A word of caution must be added here, however. Miquel has used Burton’s translation in compiling his statistics, but many of the place-name identifications made by Burton are rather speculative, as one can easily establish by comparing parts of his translation with that of J. E. Bencheikh.

This is not simply a difference of text (though that aspect is present too), but of philosophy. Burton’s interests are avowedly “anthropological” – hence all the footnotes on such peripheral matters as male and female circumcision (5: 279), and childbirthing techniques in various parts of the world (2: 80) which are scattered piecemeal about his pages. Hence, too, his nineteenth-century interest in historical philology and derivations, which has led him to make many a daring and conjectural identification.

The solid kernel of Miquel’s study is largely unaffected by this, as most of the major place-names are beyond dispute, but when it comes to the “pays lointains” of Persia, China, and even Mesopotamia, there is less certainty that what Burton writes in his translation is what was originally intended by the possibly less erudite authors of the original stories.

The third and final method, already fairly familiar to us, is Thematic:

This is the method I employed in the first section of this chapter, and subjected to critical interrogation in the second. What I would like to say now about this approach is that the problem with isolating such a collection of “themes” or “types” is that by changing the terms of the definition, one can make the same pieces of information bear very different interpretations.

Take, for instance, the type of the “Christian monster” – as exemplified by Zat al-Dawahi or the Frankish King’s Wazir. The Nights contain many parallel characters – evil magicians and sorcerers (there is one in “Aladdin,” a rather tainted source for our purposes, and a much better example in the tale of “Hasan of Bassorah”). These people tend to be described either as “Magians” or fire-worshippers (Burton, 1885, 8: 8) , or else as “Maghrabi” (Burton, 1886-88, 13: 53) – North African sorcerers. One could easily see our Christian examples as being cast in the mould of these rather similar villains.

The act of conversion to Islam, and subsequent rescue from persecution, could also be paralleled in “The Eldest Lady’s Tale” from “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad,” only here it is Zoroastrianism that the young man in question has abandoned (Burton, 1885, 1: 168-69). The combative type of Christian “monster” might be seen to descend from such creatures as the “old man of the sea” in “Sindbad the Sailor,” or even the hosts of Jinni and demons who fight in romances like “Hasan of Bassorah” or “The City of Brass.”

In short, it is one thing to define stereotypes and “stock figures of medieval romance” (as Metlitzki puts it), but it is another to attach them definitively to certain intellectual or historical strands in the stories they inhabit.

Another danger of this method is illustrated by the tendency of commentators on this larger theme of medieval views of Islam to feel ashamed of the material they are describing. Thus Norman Daniel begins his book Islam and the West: The Making of an Image by saying “I hope that Muslim readers will not be scandalised by some of the things in this book, or consider that I have been wrong to revive the memory of, among other things, certain silly and unpleasant libels of their religion and prophet” (1958, p. v).

Hence, too, Metlitzki’s continual preference for the Islamic over the Christian portrayal of the same theme. I hope that my plot-summaries (or, better still, the texts themselves if you get a chance to read them) of “Omar bin al-Nu’uman” and “Miriam the Girdle-girl” have illustrated the futility of this procedure. One's as bad as the other, if those are the terms you want to use.

To sum up, then, certain facts which have a definite bearing on this study of Europe, Christianity and the Crusades, as they manifest themselves in the Thousand and One Nights should now be acknowledged.

The main one is the relative lack of interest displayed by Moslem intellectuals or common people in the West or its religion. As Philip K. Hitti remarks, “We know of no Moslem scholars who made a serious study of Latin or any of its successor languages. We know of no important works translated into Arabic by such scholars from those languages” (1962, p. 62). He goes on to record the following entry from the “voluminous geographical dictionary of Yaqut (d.1227),” one of the few references to the West in Medieval Islamic literature:

Afranjah, a great nation in possession of a vast territory and numerous kingdoms. The nation is Christian. The name is acquired from an ancestor called Ifranjish. They call themselves Franks. Their land is adjacent to Rome and the Byzantine territory. Starting north of Andalusia it extends eastward to Rome. Their capital is Lombardy. (Hitti, 1962, p. 64)
And this was written after the First Crusade and the foundation of Outremer! It’s not a lot to go on, really, though the lack of detail accounts for a lot of the confusion between “Greeks,” “Franks” and “Romans” which appears in the Nights and elsewhere. Such people only become real when they impinge on the centres of the Islamic world.

The real point to be gleaned from this apparent lack of curiosity about “us,” though, is that that tends to be how ideas and information get transmitted anyway. The imagination abhors a vacuum, so it will take anything as grist for its mill. Applying, very loosely, the methods of André Miquel, one could say that the very few references to the Crusades in the Nights constitute, in themselves, an important datum – a demonstration of their lack of importance in the popular imagination of Syrian and Egypt, at least.

Christianity, however – particularly the Orthodox and other Eastern varieties – is an accepted part of the landscape. “King Omar bin al-Nu’uman,” is, in a way, the narrative of a counter-Crusade, but it is the ninth and tenth century warfare between the Turks and Byzantines that it really reflects.

The West, Europe, and Christianity are not really, it would appear, interchangeable terms, however convenient it may be at times to use them as if they were. One cannot contrast “Islam and the West” without recognising the limitations inherent in such large, generalising categories – and above all, you must include yourself in the experiment.

Dorothee Metlitzki (to use the example I’ve rather unfairly singled out) goes wrong because the unthinking prejudices about “Eastern” mores and ways she betrays from time to time have been over-compensated for by a conscious boosting of Islam at the expense of Christianity.

Perhaps, in the end, contingent rather than systematic analysis – such as our stories themselves display – may be the best way out of the dilemma. My own conclusion is a far less ambitious one – until we can say what the West and the East actually are, it’s pointless to try and generalise about their “views” of each other.


1. Borges (1986, p. 50): “The Arabs say that no one can read The Thousand and One Nights to the end. Not for reasons of boredom: one feels the book is infinite. At home I have the seventeen volumes of Burton’s version. I know that I’ll never read all of them, but I know that there the nights are waiting for me; that my life may be wretched but the seventeen volumes will be there; there will be that species of eternity.”

2. (Burton, 1885, 2: 77 - 3:114 (2:109). I have been fortunate enough to be able to collate Burton’s version of this story with the composite text translated in Les Mille et Une Nuits: Contes choisis (Bencheikh, Miquel and Bencheikh, 1991, 1: 221-658) – particularly on matters connected with the identification of place-names.

3. Burton (1885, 2: 119) points out that the line “So she sat down and unveiled her face” in front of the King demonstrates that she was still a Christian, and it is the subsequent revelation of her beauty which (presumably) causes all the trouble.

4.Perhaps the sort of passage the Rev. Cameron Mann had in mind when he said that certain “details would insure the prompt suppression of the publication and the prosecution of the publisher.”

5. The most important of these articles are: Roger Goossens, “Autour de Digénis Akritas. La ‘Geste d’Omar’ dans Les Mille et Une Nuits” (1932, 303-16); Henri Grégoire, “Echanges épiques Arabo-Grecs: Sharkan-Charzanis” (1932, 371-82); and Roger Goossens, “Eléments iraniens et folkloriques dans le conte d’’Omar Al No’mân” (1934, 420-28).

Works Cited:

  • Bencheikh, Jamel Eddine, Claude Bremond & André Miquel. (1991a). Mille et un Contes de la Nuit. Bibliothèque des Idées. Paris: Gallimard.

  • Bencheikh, Jamel Eddine, André Miquel & Touhami Bencheikh, trans. (1991b). Les Mille et Une Nuits: Contes choisis. 2 vols. Paris: Gallimard.

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. (1986). Seven Nights. 1980. Trans. Eliot Weinberger. London: Faber.

  • Burton, Richard F., trans. (1885). The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments. 10 vols. U.S.A.: Burton Society, n.d.

  • Burton, Richard F., trans. (1886-88). Supplemental Nights to the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night with Notes Anthropological and Explanatory. 6 vols. U.S.A.: The Burton Club, n.d.

  • Chavis, Dom, & Jacques Cazotte, trans. (1788-89). La Suite des Mille et une nuits, Contes arabes. 4 vols. Cabinet des Fées 38-41. Genève: Barde, Manget.

  • Daniel, Norman. (1958). Islam and the West: The Making of an Image. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

  • Goossens, Roger. (1932). Autour de Digénis Akritas. La ‘Geste d’Omar’ dans Les Mille et Une Nuits. Byzantion 7: 303-16.

  • Goossens, Roger. (1934). Eléments iraniens et folkloriques dans le conte d’’Omar Al No’mân. Byzantion 9: 420-28.

  • Grégoire, Henri. (1932). Echanges épiques Arabo-Grecs: Sharkan-Charzanis. Byzantion 7: 371-82.

  • Hitti, Philip K. (1962). Islam and the West: A Historical Cultural Survey. Anvil Original 63. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand.

  • Littmann, Enno. (1960). Alf Layla wa-Layla. The Encyclopaedia of Islam, New ed. Leiden & London: E. J. Brill & Luzac, 1960. 1: 363.

  • Mann, Rev. Cameron (1907). The “Thousand and One Nights” and the “Morte d’Arthure”. North American Review. 184: 150-56.

  • Metlitzki, Dorothee. (1977). The Matter of Araby in Medieval England. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  • Vinaver, Eugène, ed. (1990). The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. 3 vols. 1947. 3rd ed. rev. P. J. C. Field. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[This paper, under the title “Europe, Christianity and the Crusades in The Thousand and One Nights” was read at the ANZMRS-AHMEME Joint Conference at the University of Tasmania on 2 February, 1994.]

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