It is a biological truism that the place of a species' origins, if continually inhabited, has the greatest genetic variation. The Middle East is subject to the same law on a cultural plain. Being the location of the longest and most concentrated experience of sustained civilization and urban living, it also has the richest variety of cultural artifacts, particularly in its stories and literature. There are tales that reach right back to the dawn of recorded history and which have survived down to today. Being a cross-road between Africa, Europe and Asia, there are tales and echoes of tales from just about every major culture, tucked away somewhere.
While the news reports tend to give us the impression of the Middle East as uniformly ethnically Arab, linguistically Arabic speaking and religiously Muslim, the picture is much more kaleidoscopic than that. Many of the large countries have very heterogeneous populations. Across the region there is a wonderfully eclectic compilation of languages such as Arabic, Aramaic (Syriac), Hebrew, Turkish, Farsi, Assyrian, Coptic (religious), Kurdish, Dimli, Azeri, Kabardian, Gagauz, Armenian, English, and French; ethnic groups such as Arabs, Bedouin, Jews, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Turkmen, Assyrians, Persians, and Copts; and of course an incredibly rich panoply of religious traditions including Muslims (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Isma'ilite, and Alawite), Jews (Orthodox, Reformed, Conservative), Christians (Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Copt, Protestant), Baha'i, Druze, Yazdanism, and even the ancient Zoroastrianism.
This rich potpourri of peoples, languages and religions of course is often a source of tension but it is also a tremendous reservoir of literary and story-telling traditions. The primary bridge between folktales of the Middle East and European civilization has been the ancient collection of tales known as One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The tale is told in the form of a frame story; a story within a story. The Persian king Shahryar is stricken to discover that his beloved bride has been unfaithful to him. In a moment of blind rage, he has her executed. He resolves to never be betrayed in such a fashion again and his solution to this is to marry a new wife each day and for her to be executed the following morning.
The king's vizier has a beautiful and clever daughter, Scheherazade, who resolves to put an end to this needless squandering of lives and offers herself as a bride to the king. On the night of their wedding, Scheherazade entertains the king with a story but is unable to finish it. The king makes an exception to his rule and spares Scheherazade for an additional day in order to hear the end of the tale. As you might imagine, one story leads to another and one day leads to another for one thousand days and one day. At this point the king comes to the realization of both his love for Scheherazade and her goodness and cleverness.
The stories told by Scheherazade include tales that can be traced back to India (the Panchatantra and Jataka tales in particular), to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as Arabia and Yemen. The first collections of Arabian Night tales of which we are aware are from circa 800AD, not too long after the blossoming of Islam in the region. The versions we have handed down to us are a testament to the diversity and evolution of Islam. In the original Arabian Nights there are many very worldly stories and quite a number that are notably salacious and not likely to pass muster under certain Islamic strictures today.
The oldest manuscript extant is from the fourteenth century. One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is not unlike our own Mother Goose in that there is no single fixed collection against which subsequent versions can be compared. Rather, there are a core of stories generally common across most versions with a large number of additional stories added or subtracted depending on the transcriber.
Antoine Galland (a contemporary and friend of Charles Perrault, collector of European folktales including Cinderella) translated a fourteenth century Arabic manuscript version of the Arabian Nights in 1704 - the first publication in the West. Galland modified the original text by omitting some of the more erotic tales and all of the poetry. Regardless of its fidelity to the original, the first publication was a profound success with many writers and enlightenment figures reading the exotic tales of the Middle East. There were many take-offs of Galland's work. He followed up his first volume with a further eleven collections. Among the most notable tales that entered the European canon of stories through the works of Galland were Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp.
There is a mystery in these first collections. Among Galland's tales were a number that were not in the original Arabic manuscripts but which supposedly he heard from Hanna Diab, a Maronite monk from Aleppo. He might have heard them from Diab, and they might have been folktales in common parlance at the time but since there is no other written record of these tales before Galland recorded them, there is speculation that he actually just made up these stories. Among them are a couple of the most iconic in the whole collection - Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp.
Another irony surrounding One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is that the very first printed version in Arabic was actually printed by the British East India Company in 1814 in Calcutta, India.
Beyond the incredibly rich collection of folktales in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, there are many other sources of folktales of a sort in the Middle East. As a child I was fascinated by all things Egyptological and it was at that time that I came across a two folktales, The Story of Sinuhe and The Story of Two Brothers, which were recorded on papyrus circa 2000BC and which continued in circulation for some thousand years. I was fascinated by the idea that a tale could be so old and have endured so long but then have fallen out of common parlance.
But many tales did not disappear. They just took on another form or became incorporated elsewhere. For example, among the stories recorded by the ancient Egyptians were a number that were variations of a tale of seven fat years and seven lean years, just as with the Biblical story of Joseph. There are also some collections of ancient Egyptian poetry that point to their having been antecedents to the Song of Solomon.
Of course there are a variety of creation stories and ancient myths and legends which extend beyond the normal definition of folktales. But Gilgamesh perhaps ought to be included as the oldest adventure story. Although it predates all of them by many centuries, Gilgamesh is something of a fusion between the Iliad, Beowulf, and the Authurian quests.
Selecting appropriate folktales from the Middle East presents a number of challenges. Many ethnic/religious groups claim variants of the same tale and want to present their version as the only legitimate rendition. There are of course the normal challenges of linguistic translation in which accuracy to the text often undermines the beauty of the story and vice versa where a beautiful rendition departs from the strict text. There is of course also the challenge of translating between cultures as well. And not just between cultures of today. As mentioned before, rendering the early versions of Arabian Nights into the modern Middle East would present huge challenges because of the behavior represented in the stories. The culture reflected in the Arabian Nights is as lascivious as any modern country in Europe and both are equally distant from the more Wahhabist strands of Islam in the Middle East today.
We have put together a list of books that principally draw upon various renditions of Arabian Nights (collections as well as stand alone tales) but include some religious tales, creation legends, ancient epics such as Gilgamesh, a few tales of notable figures from Arabian history (the equivalents of Charlemagne and the like), and a couple of fiction/fantasy stories that build upon some Middle Eastern folktale.
We have grouped the more complete versions of both Gilgamesh and Arabian Nights into the Young Adult level because of the more mature content.
I hope your children enjoy these magical stories and not only engage with them as a story but absorb them as part of understanding a fascinating corner of the world.
How the Amazon Queen Fought the Prince of Egypt by Tamara Bower Recommended
The Persian Cinderella by Shirley Climo and illustrated by Robert Florczak Recommended
Gilgamesh the King by Ludmila Zeman Recommended
Sindbad's Secret by Ludmila Zeman Recommended
The Revenge of Ishtar by Ludmila Zeman Recommended
The Last Quest of Gilgamesh by Ludmila Zeman Recommended
The Egyptian Cinderella by Shirley Climo and illustrated by Ruth Helle Suggested
Muhammad by Demi Suggested
Clever Ali by Nancy Farmer and illustrated by Gail De Marcken Suggested
The White Ram by Mordicai Gerstein Suggested
The Golden Sandal by Rebecca Hickox and illustrated by Will Hillenbrand Suggested
The Stone by Dianne Hofmeyr and illustrated by Jude Daly Suggested
Aziz the Storyteller by VI Hughes and illustrated by Stefan Czernecki Suggested
My Father's Shop by Satomi Ichikawa Suggested
A Gift Of The Sands by Julia Johnson and illustrated by Emily Styles Suggested
Goha the Wise Fool by Denys Johnson-Davies and illustrated by Hag Hamdy and Mohamed Fattoug Suggested
Tunjur! Tunjur! Tunjur! by Margaret Read MacDonald and Ibrahim Muhawi and illustrated by Alik Arzoumanian Suggested
The Hundredth Name by Shulamith Levey Oppenheim and illustrated by Michael Hays Suggested
Aladdin And The Enchanted Lamp by Philip Pullman and illustrated by Sophy Williams Suggested
The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor by James Riordan and illustrated by Shelley Fowles Suggested
1001 Arabian Nights by Geraldine McCaughrean and illustrated by Rosamund Fowler Recommended
Genies, Meanies, and Magic Rings by Stephen Mitchell and illustrated by Tom Pohrt Recommended
Traveling Man by James Rumford Recommended
Saladin by Diane Stanley Recommended
Arabian Nights Retold and illustrated by Earle Goodenow Recommended
The Arabian Nights by Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin and Nora A. Smith and illustrated by Maxfield Parrish Recommended
Aladdin and Other Tales from the Arabian Nights Retold and illustrated by W. Heath Robinson Suggested
The Children's Encyclopedia of Arabia by Mary Beardwood Suggested
Seven Daughters & Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy Suggested
Aladdin and Other Tales from the Arabian Nights by N. J. Dawood and illustrated by William Harvey Suggested
From The Land Of Sheba by Carolyn Han Suggested
Tales of Juha by Salma Khadra Jayyusi Suggested
Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies Suggested
The Akhenaten Adventure by Philip Kerr Suggested
Mosque by David MacAulay Suggested
Abu Jmeel's Daughter and Other Stories by Jamal Sleem Nuweihed and Salma Khadra Jayyusi Suggested
Rachel the Clever and Other Jewish Folktales by Josepha Sherman Suggested
Watermelons, Walnuts and the Wisdom of Allah by Barbara K. Walker and illustrated by Harold Berson Suggested
The Arabian Nights by Richard Francis Burton Recommended
The Arabian Nights by Husain Haddawy Recommended
Arabian Nights II by Husain Haddawy Recommended
The Arabian Nights by Robert Irwin Recommended
Gilgamesh by John Gardner Suggested
Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell Suggested