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The Healing Power of Storytelling

Ludwig Ammann, © Qantara.de
October 4, 2004

The new German translation of Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) makes the oldest Arabic version of this famed collection of Oriental tales available for German readers for the first time.


Three hundred years ago, librarian Antoine Galland translated the story of "Sindbad the Sailor" for a noble woman. He then heard of other stories, got his hands on a manuscript from Syria and presented European readers with the first volume of "Thousand and One Nights" in 1704.

The book's popularity was like nothing ever seen before: overnight the stories took the West by storm, making hearts that shortly before had quaked in fear of the enemy from the East flutter in rapture for the enchanted Orient.

Literary triumph

Today the fabulous narratives even find favor with those more intellectual Arabs who once dismissed the folktales as "pathetic prattle;" only the eternally sanctimonious still take offence at the tales' provocative sensuality.

Galland had managed to uncover one of the world's great literary treasures. He translated the tales with a large measure of poetic freedom, in the style of his times, which probably only enhanced the work's success.

There has since been no lack of alternative translations, including famous editions like that of Enno Littmann (1921-1928). But these have all been based on more recent manuscripts. The original 15th-century fragment discovered by Galland, which included 282 nights, is not only older, but also told in a particularly lively fashion, since, despite the authors' efforts to stick to "correct" written Arabic, colloquialisms keep breaking through – making for a different, more vernacular tone.

Buchcover: Mahdi - Tausendundeine Nacht
The stories of "Thousand and One Night" moves people from young to old

In 1984 this original manuscript was published by Muhsin Mahdi. And now, to mark the 300th anniversary of the first publication of the tales, Arabic scholar Claudia Ott has produced a new translation -- unlike Galland keeping very close to the original text.

Freed from the imposed patina of the European fairytale idiom, the "delectable" adventures of kings and beggars, slaves, demons and the "dead drunk" hunchback shine fresher than ever before. Ott effortlessly orchestrates the changes in register between the coarse tone of some of the spoken exchanges and the nicely turned phrases of the rhymed prose.

Storytelling as last resort

Perhaps, more than the individual stories, it is the arrangement of the whole that is the stroke of genius, tying all the tales together: The fact that each story can act as a framework for further stories told within it, with the whole then subsumed under the wondrous tale of Sheherazade.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Moschee in Bandar Seri Begawan,der Hauptstadt von Brunei
Never was the healing power of storytelling presented in a more beautiful way, like it is in the "Arabian nights"Image: AP

The drama begins with the trauma of one man: Sultan Shahryar, a ruler in the island kingdom of India and China, discovers that his beloved wife is cheating on him every time he turns his back with a black slave.

When, on his flight from this horrendous scene, the wife and captive booty of a demon forces him to sleep with her in order to cuckold her hated demon husband, Ifrit, he has had more than enough: Shahryar decides from then on to kill each of his wives after their first night of lovemaking. Night after night.

In this brutal manner, the battle of the sexes culminates in a series of fatal one-night stands. Enter Sheherazade, the daughter of the Wazir. This well-read and educated young woman has a plan: She will tell stories to save herself, the king, and the world.

She proceeds to tell tales just like every TV series does – so enthralling that, each night when the sun goes down, a cliffhanger will make the Sultan desperate to hear what happens next ("And the Jinni drew his sword to strike…"), postponing her death until the beautiful storyteller is able to bear the Sultan a child and thus change his mind about the wiles of womanhood.

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