Kitab alf laylah wa-laylah, “One Thousand and One Nights,” is a collection of folktales compiled in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age. It is often known in English as the Arabian Nights from the first English language translation, 1706, which rendered the title as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment. The work was assembled over many centuries by various authors, translators and scholars across Asia, but the caliph Harun al-Rashid was in charge of one of the main editions, and he also features in some of the stories themselves. Other stories retell plots popular in Indian, Persian and Arabic folklore and include historical tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems, burlesques, and various forms of erotica. There are examples of murder mysteries, suspense thrillers and horror stories, featuring jinns, ghouls, apes, sorcerers and magicians together with historical figures. Many of the stories best known in the West, such as “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor,” were not parts of the original compilation but were instead added by European translators. They too, however, are undoubtedly tales with their origin in the Middle East.
All the editions of the Nights share the same framing device: the account of a Persian king who despairs at the infidelity of women. In order to stop his wife from being unfaithful he decides to marry a succession of virgins and have each one killed on the day after their wedding night. Eventually the king’s vizier, whose duty it is to provide the women, cannot find any more virgins. This is when Scheherazade, the vizier’s own daughter, offers herself as the king’s next bride. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell him a tale, but without finishing it. Curious to hear the conclusion to the story, the king postpones the execution. The next night, as soon as she finishes a tale, Scheherazade begins a new one, and the king is once again forced to let her live. This ruse is repeated for 1,001 consecutive nights. Scheherazade’s life is spared in the end — although the various versions of the story differ regarding the reasons why.