Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

From Genie to Efreet: Fantastic Apparitions in the Tales of the Arabian Nights

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

From Genie to Efreet: Fantastic Apparitions in the Tales of the Arabian Nights

Article excerpt

Besides flying carpets, the image that most often comes to mind when thinking of the tales of The Arabian Nights is the genie, usually represented as a large, sometimes giant turban-clad Arab. One of its important late twentieth-century manifestations is that of Disney Studios' Aladdin (1992), the figure of the genie par excellence for those who grew up in the 1990s and afterwards. Featuring stereotypically Arab features and dark skin, the great genie who is simultaneously a slave and all-powerful nevertheless proves to be inoffensive. At the same time that Disney Studios maintained the racialized image of the genie which had emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, they also drew from a European film tradition in which the "potentially dangerous jinn of Arab folklore" were domesticated, becoming "the enslaved gift-giving genies of global folklore" (Peterson 93). (1)

However common this figure has become, the nature of the genie has evolved considerably since the first adaptation of the Nights in Europe by Antoine Galland at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Importantly, the genie was not always so ethnically or racially defined, nor was the genie always as unthreatening as Western filmic and television traditions often present him. The history of the genie that I will attempt to trace across texts and illustrations of The Arabian Nights does begin with a "domestication," in the sense that Lawrence Venuti gives the term, of a Syrian text. Discussing translation methods of the early modern period, Venuti observes that it "involves a process of domestication in which the foreign text is imprinted with values specific to the target-language culture" (49). But this domestication does not extend to the effect the apparition of the genie has on the characters to whom it appears. Ever since its emergence in Europe, whether assimilated to Western demonology or exoticized as an ethnic Other, the genie, whatever form it might take, terrifies. And it is this terror that links the apparition of the genie to the mode or register of the fantastic.

In some respects, this study complements that of Mark Allen Peterson, who examines the ways in which the Arab jinn is transformed into the more domesticated Western genie in twentieth-century film and television. Here I look at an earlier history, considering the evolution of the genie as a fantastic apparition from its emergence in French literature at the beginning of the eighteenth century to its development into the early twentieth century in both France and England, specifically in the domain of adaptations and illustrations of The Arabian Nights. I focus on tales from the Nights that were frequently depicted by illustrators of French and English editions, namely, the lady of the rings from the frame narrative; "The Merchant and the Genie"; "The Fisherman and the Genie"; and "Aladdin" in order to follow textual and visual evolutions of the figure.

By insisting upon the nature of the genie as a fantastic apparition, I approach the figure in relation to the question of alterity. Initially translated into an otherworldly Other, as is evident in eighteenth-century illustration, the genie comes instead to represent an ethnic or racial Other by the early twentieth century. We will follow the progressive ethnologization or racialization of the figure of the genie from Galland and Edward Lane to Joseph-Charles Mardrus, as well as in the history of illustration. Interestingly, this racialization occurs in textual representations of the genie well before the phenomenon spread to the domain of illustration, for reasons I will explore below. As will become evident, the illustrated genie of the Old Regime has nothing to do with the turban- or fez-wearers of the twentieth century. Regardless of its specific form, however, the one aspect the genie maintains throughout its transformations in eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century adaptations and illustrations of The Nights is the fear, associated with the fantastic, that the creature inspires in those before whom it appears. …

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