Invitation to World Literature
The Thousand and One Nights The Thousand and One Nights – Expert’s View
Experts' View: Stories Within Stories
An excerpt from The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad tells the sultan about Harun al-Rashid
“Shahrazad said, ‘It is related that one night Harun al-Rashid felt himself weighed down by a heavy depression. He said to his lieutenant Jafar, ‘Brother and Wazir, my heart is heavy.’ Jafar replied, ‘O King of Time, all joy and sorrow come from within, but sometimes outside shows may have an influence upon these humors. Have you made trial of any outside shows today?’
“The sultan said, ‘I have taken up in my fingers and let fall all the jewels of my treasury; the rubies, the emeralds, and the sapphires, but not one of them lifted my soul to pleasure. I have been to my harem and passed in review the white and the brown, the copper colored and the dark, but none of them lifted my soul to gladness. I went to my stables, but not one of my countless horses could amuse me, and the veil of the world has not lifted.'”
“One of the things that Shahrazad does throughout her storytelling is focus on stories on Harun al-Rashid, who is a sort of wonderful, beautiful model of a king. As opposed to the king that she’s telling the stories to, who’s out of his mind.
When Shahrazad tells this story of Harun al-Rashid, she says that Jafar suggests to the sultan that he hear the stories of other people, and that this will cure his depression and take him away from this endless internal fixation. And that’s exactly what King Shahrayar needs. And it’s exactly what Shahrazad is doing for him.”
David Damrosch Sums It Up
The Thousand and One Nights is full of stories about the power of storytelling. Shahrazad is able to cure her king of his murderous grief through her stories, which often (as in this case) slyly present Shahrayar with models of better behavior. At the same time, like any powerful force, storytelling can be death-dealing as well as life-giving. As a recurrent figure in the tales, Haroun is a prime image of the sometimes dangerous lure of stories, as he prowls his city in disguise at night seeking new and more marvelous tales, nearly losing his life as a result of his insatiable curiosity in the tale of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad.” When he does succeed in gaining new and wonderful tales, he has them written up in letters of gold, making them into a treasury of jewels more precious than those that have surfeited him. Yet in its fullest versions, the Tales end with a melancholy sequence of storytelling featuring Haroun al-Rashid. In a late story called “The Downfall of Jafar and the Barmakids”—closely based on the historical account of an early historian named al-Tabari—Haroun suddenly and inexplicably orders his executioner Masrur to behead Jafar. When Masrur brings Jafar’s head to him, Haroun spits on it. Everyone at court is horrified, but no one dares to say anything. After some time, Haroun’s favorite sister musters the courage to ask the reason for his shocking destruction of his trusted vizier and friend. “If I thought that my shirt knew the reason,” Haroun grimly replies, “I would tear it in pieces.”
Following al-Tabari, the narrative speculates that Jafar and his clan may have become too rich and powerful; or that vicious rumors—storytelling spinning out of control—may have accused them of indulging in unorthodox behavior; or else—a romantic story that the Nights plays up—Jafar may have had a secret love affair with Haroun’s sister. But at the end, the text says Jafar’s downfall may simply have been fated, for no reason that humans will ever know. The cumulative effect of reading through The Thousand and One Nights greatly deepens the theme of storytelling and the tales’ other recurring themes, revealing new facets of both light and darkness in their jeweled surfaces.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.