Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Creativity, Random Selection, and Pia Fraus: Observations on Compilation and Transmission of the Arabian Nights

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Creativity, Random Selection, and Pia Fraus: Observations on Compilation and Transmission of the Arabian Nights

Article excerpt

The earliest proof of the very existence of the work entitled Alf laylah is the paper fragment published by Nabia Abbott. The last decisive act in the text history of the work now commonly known as The Thousand and One Nights (henceforth: Nights) took place with the printed editions Bulaq 1835 and Calcutta 1839-42, which, by their wide distribution, put an end to the development of the work's Arabic text. In between these two points, there is a period of a thousand years during which the work has changed continually. Except for the fragment mentioned above, dating from the middle of the ninth century, we do not know of any text or fragment of a text of Alf laylah transcribed before the second half of the fifteenth century. Nevertheless the-relatively-few times the work is mentioned in Arabic literature allow us to assume that the development of the manuscripts of Alf laylah wa-laylah and their imbedded stories prior to the fifteenth century did not differ decisively from the one we can observe in the extant manuscripts dating from the end of the fifteenth century up to the 1830s. The work's continual change is already mirrored by significant variants in the two earliest references. In a note by the tenth-century historian al-Mas'ûdî (the extant version of his Murûj al-dhahab was written in 943 and revised in 947; see Pellat), Dînâzâd is the slave-girl (jâriya) or-according to other manuscripts of Mas'ûdî-Shahrazâd's nurse (dâya);1 in the passage included in the Fihrist (Catalogue) of Ibn an-Nadîm, dating from 987, Dînârzâd is the king's stewardess (qahramâna). In the extant texts of Alf laylah, she is, as everybody knows, Shahrazâd's sister.

Ibn an-Nadîm's note is particularly valuable. He mentions that he has seen the book in its entirety several times. Moreover, he adds, presumably based on his own inspection, that it contains a thousand nights but less than two hundred stories. In the first place, this remark proves the existence of complete sets of Alf laylah in Ibn al-Nadîm's time. From the fact that he explicitly states "in its entirety" (bi-tamâmihi), we may even infer that complete sets were rather an exception, and that incomplete sets and fragmentary copies were far more common. The title and the first text page of the fragment published by Abbot prove that such fragmentary manuscripts of the Nights already existed in the ninth century.

Ibn an-Nadîm further remarks that the book "contains less than two hundred stories, for the narration of a story often lasted through several nights". This remark has to be evaluated against the background of the book's Persian title, which is mentioned as Hazâr afsân[a], "A Thousand Stories." This title gave rise to a misunderstanding that prompted peculiar developments, already in the tenth century. Originally, the term hazâr, "a thousand," within the title only indicated a large number. When, soon after, it was taken literally, it became obvious that "a thousand" did not correspond to the actual number of stories. The exaggerated expectation of readers seeking exactly the number of stories mentioned in the books title, no doubt, has stimulated the medieval Arabic author al-Jahshiyârî (d. 942) to start his ambitious project of compiling a book truly containing a thousand full-length stories "each part independent in itself and unconnected with another." According to Ibn an-Nadîm's account, al-Jahshiyârî eventually brought together 480 nights, "for each night a complete story consisting of fifty folios, more or less." From these notes we may deduce that story-cycles or frame-stories-like that of "The Merchant and the Jinni" at the beginning of the later standard texts of the Nights-were typical of the book Alf laylah, and that the portions told by Shahrazâd during the consecutive single nights did not really "fill" the nights. Most likely, these portions did not differ much from what can be observed in the first nights of the extant texts, viz. some 35-40 lines.

Ibn an-Nadîm's account of al-Jahshiyârî's project does not mention whether Jahshiyârî's "Nights" were imbedded in the frame-tale of Alf laylah (the stories being told by Shahrazâd) or whether the single elements (or chapters) of his collection were simply denoted as "nights. …

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