In an essay on toy theatres, ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’, the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson recalled the evening when as a child ‘I brought back with me “The Arabian Nights Entertainments” in a fat, old double-columned volume with prints. I was well into the story of the Hunchback, I remember, when my clergyman grandfather (a man we counted pretty stiff) came up behind me. I grew blind with terror. But instead of ordering the book away, he said he envied me. As well he might!’ The innocent childhood delight in reading The Arabian Nights (or more correctly The Thousand and One Nights) has been much celebrated in Victorian and subsequent literature.

The stories are indeed delightful, but how innocent are they? A fisherman, desperate to make a living, casts his net out four times a day. On the particular day in question he has little luck until the fourth attempt when he finds a brass jar in his net. When he unstoppers the jar an enormous ‘ifrit (a kind of jinni) comes billowing out and the ‘ifrit, whom Solomon had imprisoned in the flask, now threatens to kill the fisherman. Yet the wily fisherman tricks the jinni into re-entering the flask and only releases the ‘ifrit on receiving the promise that he, the ‘ifrit, will not harm him, but reward him. So then the ‘ifrit takes him to a lake where there are white, red, blue and yellow fish. The fisherman takes some of these fish to the sultan’s palace where he is richly rewarded. The sultan orders that the fish should be cooked, but just as the fish are put in the pan, ready to be fried, the wall of the kitchen bursts open and a woman appears who demands to know if the fish are true to their oath. They affirm that they are.

Now the sultan and the fisherman are determined to solve the mystery of the curiously coloured fish and they set out towards the lake that no one has ever seen before. Then the sultan proceeds on alone and enters a palace in the middle of which he encounters a prince who has been turned to stone from the waist down. The prince tells the sultan his story… So far so mysterious. And so innocent. But just as the leisurely flow of the Thames in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness carries the novel’s readers to the depths of the Congo and the horrors that were being practised there, so the bizarre and meandering narratives of the linked stories of ‘The fisherman and the ‘ifrit’ and ‘The semi-petrified prince’ conduct us to a tale that is dark and cruel. 

The prince relates how he used to rule over the Black Islands and believed that he was happily married, but eavesdropping on his wife’s slave-girls he learned that he was being cuckolded: every night his wife had been giving him a sleeping draught before going out to visit her lover. So the following night the prince pretended to take the sleeping draught and feigned sleep before following his wife out of the palace. When she entered a hut he climbed on the roof to spy on her. She went up to a black slave. ‘One of his lips looked like a pot lid and the other like the sole of a shoe – a lip that could pick up sand from the top of a pebble. The slave was lying on cane stalks; he was leprous and covered in rags and tatters. As my wife kissed the ground before him, he raised his head and said: “Damn you, why have you been so slow? My black cousins were here drinking and each left with a girl, but because of you I didn’t want to drink.” The prince watched his wife humble herself before the slave and cook for him, but when he saw her undress and get in the bed of rags and tatters with the black slave, he lost control of himself and, descending from the roof, he unsheathed his sword and struck at the neck of the slave with what he hoped was a fatal blow before slipping away. When his wife, a sorceress, eventually discovered it was he who had come close to killing her beloved, she cast the spell upon him that turned his lower half into stone.

There is no need here to follow this story any further. ‘The semi-petrified prince’ is a tale told by Shahrazad to King Shahriyar as she tells stories night after night with the aim of prolonging her life. King Shahriyar had previously resolved to sleep with a virgin every night and then have her killed the following dawn. He had resolved on this brutal measure after learning from his brother Shah Zaman that he had been the victim of sexual betrayal by his beautiful wife. ‘“Mas‘ud,” the queen called, at which a black slave came up to her and, after they had embraced each other, he lay with her, while the other slaves lay with the slave girls and they spent their time kissing, embracing, fornicating and drinking wine until the end of the day’. Shahriyar has the wife and all her slaves executed.

So a story of sexual betrayal, a fantasy of a black man secretly pleasuring a queen, provides the pretext for the long sequence of framed tales that follow concerning magic, romance, revenge, travels to distant lands, holiness, and more sexual betrayals. Daniel Beaumont, one of the few critics of the Nights to focus on the originating frame story’s implicit taboo against black men sleeping with white women has this to say: ‘The racism involved is unmistakable. The scandal is clearly worsened by the fact of the slave’s blackness. The view that slavery was a divine punishment imposed on blacks was known in medieval Islam’. Beaumont goes on to cite the tenth-century historian and belletrist al-Mas‘udi’s account of how Noah was alleged to have cursed his son Ham and called on God to make Ham ugly and black, and to make Ham’s son a slave to the son of Shem.

The sexual threat posed by black men, as well as the disparagement of their looks and intelligence, features in a significant number of the stories of the Nights, including ‘King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family’, ‘Judar and his brothers’, ‘Gharib and Ajib’ and ‘Sayf al-Muluk’. The innocence of pre-modern fantasy is precisely a fantasy. The stories reveal racist prejudices not only regarding blacks, but also with respect to Jews, Persians and Europeans. Moreover, racism is not the only issue, for the stories also provide many instances of sexist and misogynistic assumptions, as well as a taste for Schadenfreude and the heartless mockery of cripples.

These ugly passions can be found elsewhere in medieval Arabic popular literature. Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange is a rival story collection to the Nights, though much less well known. It includes ‘The Story of Ashraf and Anjab and the Marvellous Things That Happened to Them’, a sustained fictional exercise in racial abuse, in which the black slave Anjab usurps the young Arab noble Ashraf’s place and goes on to perpetrate monstrous crimes. As with ‘The story of the of the semi-petrified prince’ in the Nights, there is an aesthetic aspect to the racial abuse. The sadistic and villainous Anjab is described to Harun al-Rashid as follows: ‘This man is black as a negro … with red eyes, a nose like a clay pot and lips like kidneys’ and his mother is no better looking for she ‘was black as pitch with a snub nose, red eyes and an unpleasant smell’. There are many instances of racism and misogyny in Tales of the Marvellous and its anonymous author, or authors, took additional delight in mocking cripples and in piling misfortunes on them.

Of course parallels for the sort of racism found in the Nights and Tales of the Marvellous can easily be also discovered in British popular literature, in novels by Sax Rohmer, Sapper, Dennis Wheatley and Ian Fleming in which the villains customarily suffer from the dual misfortune of being ugly and not being British. In such books a swarthy complexion and a foreign accent can be used to signal criminal intentions to dim-witted readers. To stick with popular literature, the second half of Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel, Gone With The Wind (1936) harped on the sexual threat posed to white women in the wake of the American Civil War, as in the following passage: ‘But these ignominies and dangers were as nothing compared with the peril of white women, many bereft by the war of male protection, who lived alone in outlying districts and on lonely roads. It was the large number of outrages on women and the ever-present fear for the safety of their wives and daughters that drove Southern men to cold and trembling fury and caused the Ku Klux Khan to spring up overnight.’

The Thousand and One Nights is the product of many anonymous authors over the centuries; a version of the Nights existed in the tenth century. A more extensive version survives from the fifteenth century (and it was this that was translated into French by Antoine Galland at the opening of the eighteenth century), but the Arabic story collection was still being added to as late as the opening of the nineteenth century. While some of the stories are folk tales, many stories have been taken from high literature and reflect courtly or scholarly preoccupations. Therefore the stories do not present a consistent attitude towards race or towards anything else and there are quite a few positive representations of black people. In particular Masrur, Harun al-Rashid’s sword bearer and executioner, features in several stories and is always presented positively. Bizarrely in one short story, ‘The pious black slave’, the slave in question is rewarded for his piety by being turned white at the hour of his death.

But the question of race is brought to the fore and in a most positive way in ‘The story of al-Ma’mun, the Yemeni and the six slave girls’. In this story the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun is told of a wealthy Yemeni who possesses six beautiful slave girls. ‘Of these one was white, the second dark, the third plump, the fourth thin, the fifth yellow and the sixth black.’ These slave girls are like hetairas or geishas, for they are highly cultivated and consequently, when their owner asks them to first sing and then engage in a boasting contest concerning their respective merits, the result is a civilised symposium. Though the white girl disparages the black girl and, among other things, relates the story of the curse of Ham, the black girl is more than equal to this verbal contest and she cites the Qur’an as well as a string of poets in praise of darkness. She concludes by comparing the white girl’s complexion to leprosy before reciting a poem:

Do you not see how high a price is fetched by musk,
While a load of white lime fetches one dirham?
Whiteness in the eye is ugly in a young man,
While black eyes shoot arrows.’

The Yemeni delivers no verdict at the end of the debate, whose implicit message must be that all races are equal. (By the way, the yellow girl will not have been Chinese, but Greek, for the Byzantines were conventionally referred to as Banu’l-Asfar, ‘the Sons of the Yellow’.)

‘The story of al-Ma’mun, the Yemeni and the six slave girls’ is a specimen of munazara, a genre of Arabic high literature in which the respective merits of things or people were debated, for example, Kufa versus Basra, the pen versus the sword, the Abbasids versus the Umayyads. ‘The dispute about the merits of men and women’ is another example of munazara that has been included in the Nights. The genre of munazara overlapped with that of mufakhara, or boasting. The master of this kind of literature was the prolific and brilliant essayist al-Jahiz (c.776-868 or 9), by common consent the finest prose writer of the Arab Middle Ages. Al-Jahiz, whose grandfather is said to have been a black cameleer, composed the Kitab fakhr al-sudan ‘ala al-bidan, (The book of vaunting of blacks over whites), a sustained defence of black people, albeit one that worked with stereotypes: ‘These people have a natural talent for dancing to the rhythm of a tambourine without needing to learn it.’ Blacks were also described as great singers and al-Jahiz claimed that in general they were strong, good tempered, cheerful and generous. The Arab perception of the black man had been warped by only encountering them as slaves. Al-Jahiz also argued that skin colour was not determined by heredity, but was entirely due to climate and soil and, if blacks moved into the clime, or zone, occupied by the Arabs, over time they would lose their blackness. In this he was to be echoed by the fourteenth-century philosopher and historian ibn Khaldun.

Al-Jahiz wrote that Arabs used to accept black husbands for their daughters in pre-Islamic times, but not in his own time. His perception that racial prejudice had increased in the Islamic centuries may have been correct. In pre-Islamic times and during the first century of Islam, the aghribat al-Arab, or (Crows of the Arabs), poets of black ancestry, enjoyed considerable reputations in Arabia and the most famous of them, ‘Antara ibn Shaddad, a warrior as well as a poet, had a popular epic devoted to him. Even in al-Jahiz’s time religious, scholarly and high literature was almost entirely free of prejudice against black people.

To return to the Nights, the stories that form part of the early core of the story collection are fairly free of anti-Semitism and there are no disparaging comments about Jewish physiognomy. For example, the Jewish doctor in the ‘Hunchback’ cycle of stories is presented as the equal of the Muslim storytellers he is with. Moreover the Nights contains several stories about pious Israelites. But some of the stories that were later added to the corpus of Nights have a nasty feel. For example, in ‘Three princes of China’, two of the princes are murdered by a Jewish community in Iraq and rolled inside mats, but when the third prince arrives, he tricks the leader of the Jews into killing his own son. In ‘Masrur and Zayn al-Mawasif’ Zayn al-Mawasif’s Jewish husband is cuckolded by Masrur and ends up being buried alive by a slave-girl. In ‘The fisherman and his son’ the fisherman gets the jinni at his command to throw a Jewish merchant into the fire. Villainous and drunken Jewish pirates feature in ‘The merchant’s daughter and the prince of al-Iraq’. It is possible though unprovable that growing Arab anti-Semitism was influenced by Western anti-Semitism. In Reason and Society in the Middle Ages, Alexander Murray has argued that anti-Semitism and the pogroms that followed in Europe got under way in the late eleventh century.

Those who read the Nights in English or French translations should be warned that, though there are certainly racist passages in the original Arabic, the racist abuse has been heightened or actually invented in the English translation of Richard Burton (1885–8) and the French translation of Joseph Charles Mardrus (1899–1904). Burton was a firm believer in the legend of Jewish ritual murder and wrote a treatise on it that was posthumously published. In ‘The semi-petrified prince’, Burton has the king imitate ‘blackamoor’ speech: ‘he keeps on calling ‘eaven for aid until sleep is strange to me from evenin’ till mawnin’, and he prays and damns, cussing us two’. The original Arabic gives no licence to Burton’s rendering of ‘blackamoor’ speech. In a note to the opening account in the Nights of the sexual betrayal of Shahriyar by his wife, Burton notes that ‘debauched women prefer negroes on account of the size of their parts’.

As for Mardrus’s elegantly composed but essentially fraudulent ‘translation’, he imported extra ‘nègres’ and ‘négresses’ to serve as slaves in the stories. His work was a product of its times and, since he wrote at a time when the virulent right-wing and Catholic campaign against the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus had reached a feverish pitch, his ‘translation’ is peppered with anti-Semitic digs. (Dreyfus was tried for treason and sent to Devil’s Island in 1894. He was only exonerated in 1906.) It is possible that the ethnic prejudices that feature in many of the stories of the Nights gave additional impetus to the racism of Burton and Mardrus. Certainly some famous racists came to cherish the Nights, it was the favourite book of the racial theorist Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau (1816–82). In the Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853–5), for example, he wrote, ‘in the Arabian Nights—a book which though apparently trivial is a mine of true sayings and well observed facts—we read that some natives regard Adam and his wife as black, and since these were created in the image of God, God must also be black….’ The Nights was also the favourite book of the fantasy author H.P. Lovecraft and the pulp thriller writer, Sax Rohmer; instances of racist attitudes abound in Lovecraft’s stories and he was also the author of a poem On the Creation of Niggers (1912). As for Sax Rohmer, the creator of the villainous mastermind Fu Manchu, his fictions do not betray any particular animus against the Chinese (as one might have expected), but they do show that he was virulently prejudiced against blacks and Jews.

There is no space and perhaps no need to provide a full discussion of the other forms of racist attitudes embedded in the Arabic stories of the Nights. Persians often feature as pagan Magians and as such they have a propensity for homosexuality, cannibalism, sorcery and piracy. Byzantines are customarily shown to be cowards. The Franks are barbarous, lecherous and not fond of washing. Yet though examples of racial prejudice are easy to find, there is little sign of the converse—that is, an awareness of and pride in an Arab self-identity. The Arabs’ status as Muslims seems to take precedence over their ethnic origin. When the term ‘Arab’ does feature in the stories, it is often used to refer specifically to Bedouin and the Bedouin are usually, though not always, depicted as cruel and thieving. They are also portrayed as stupid, and, for instance, in ‘Dalila the crafty’, Dalila, who is being crucified, tricks a Bedouin into taking her place in exchange for the promise of fritters.

In recent decades there has been a marked tendency to write about racism as if it is something that was invented in the West in fairly modern times. Thus the philosopher and cultural historian Michel Foucault presented racism as a uniquely modern and Western phenomenon which originated in Europe in the seventeenth century. The electronic catalogue of the library of London University’s School of Oriental African Studies lists 724 books as dealing with race and 137 specifically devoted to racism. As far as I can tell, only one book deals with pre-modern racism (in medieval Europe). In effect racism is a crime without a history.

There has also been a tendency to trace racism back to racial theorists such as Gobineau, Ernest Renan and Houston Chamberlain, but this is surely a case of putting the cart before the horse. Racism did not need theoretical articulation to serve as its midwife. In a recent book, Racisms from the Crusade to the Twentieth Century (2014), François Bettencourt has defined racism as ‘prejudice concerning ethnic descent coupled with discriminatory action’. So in what sense can there be racist literature? Must literature call for discriminatory action before it can be termed ‘racist’? Bettencourt argues that the ideological origins of systematic racism can be traced back to Europe in the twelfth century and that the expulsion of the Moriscos (the Christian Arab and Berber descendants of Muslims who had been forced to convert to Christianity) from Spain in the years 1609-14 was the first practical instance of systematic racism. But this is questionable, as it was not so much the racial origins of the Moriscos that was in question as the genuineness of their adherence to the Christian faith. Bettencourt maintains that ‘discriminatory action’ is a necessary part of the definition of racism. Of course no such ‘discriminatory action’ follows from the hostile portraits of blacks, Jews, Franks and others in the Nights, yet if we are not to describe those portraits as racist, what other adjective is available?

The opening story of the Nights, the story of Shahriyar’s sexual betrayal, closely followed by the account of his brother Shahzaman’s similar betrayal and then that of the sleeping jinn by the woman with a hundred signet rings, all of this leading on to the account of Shahrazad’s telling stories for her life, has an undeniably potent charge. The erotic force of the opening scene, was of course, given dramatic expression in Diaghilev’s production of the ballet Schéhérazade in 1910. The plain truth is that the stories of the Nights, like the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays, derive much of their power from cruelty, prejudice, violence, deceit and hatred. My murshid (my spiritual guide) used to say ‘Il faut beaucoup de noire pour voire la lumière’ – it takes a lot of black to get some light. It is an unwelcome conclusion, but is it possible that the stories of The Thousand and One Nights fascinate, not in spite of their sinister blemishes, but because of them?

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