Orientalism in the Arabian Nights

I’m not getting into the ins and outs of the title, Arabian Nights, as it has a variety of meanings depending on translation and period but reading Sinbad and Aladdin has made me think of the nature of Orientalism and the first French translations.

The collection is not one whole nor is it thought to be complete as it was on oral cycle of stories but Galland’s translation in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is intriguing. As well as the three or possibly four manuscripts, he added in extra stories like the Sinbad cycle and Aladdin.

Sinbad comes from  cycle of stories which were not linked to the Arabian Nights but Galland translated it and added it in anway. Told in a sequence of seven nested stories, the tale describes Sinbad’s mercantile career, espousing the values of wit and intelligence (and very slight dishonesty). Aladdin, the story of lamp, is Galland’s creation and is clearly described in linear fashion.

He sets the scene using far away lands, this time named as China and Africa. As he had completed the Bibliothèque orientale (“Oriental Library”), a compendium of knowledge, the Near and Middle East were barred to him for the issue of imaginative geography. He follows in the well worn tradition of using far away lands (which, as I gather, European expansionism had only begun to penetrate) in which he was set his tale. In my mind, Herodotus wrote the first imaginative geographies in his Histories, using a vague background of fact to create some tall tales. Politically, it would have been a disaster for Galland to use the lands from which he was collecting as the basis of his tale as he could not deflect any criticism or create the sufficiently secondary world of fantastic Africa and China (the speed of travel between the two suggests his geography was out).

However he is also placing this into the fairy tale structure of the more popular craze of creating tales amongst the chattering (and occasionally scribbling) courtiers. He is trying to shift his tale not only into the somewhere but also the somewhen.

I’m not sure that Edward Said is entirely correct in his criticism of Galland but I can see his argument as to why.My problem with the argument is that it ignores the social context that Galland was working in and I suspect his translation was merely bolstering the nascent interest in the fantastic as well as a culmination of a variety of traditions such as setting the marvels in the unknown and imagining geography.

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