Activities for The Arabian Nights

Dr. Diane Thompson,  NVCC, ELI

Read through the Arabian Nights Study Guide and all of the Activities below before making your selection. Make a copy of the Activity question to begin your response. Post your Activity to the Blackboard Activity 7: Arabian Nights Forum.

Women in the Nights. Look closely at the character and role of Shahrazad in the main story frame. She is a hero, because she saves her own life and the life of many of her people, yet she lives in a culture where men buy and sell women and cut off their heads when they are displeased. Compare/contrast her to a female character in a story you have read earlier in the semester. Be sure to use plenty of specific detailed examples from both texts to support your ideas, and don't forget to make some interesting point.
Speaking of "off with their heads," look at the way kings behave in the Nights. They are able to make a poor man rich or a rich man dead on an instant whim. What kind of government do you see operating in the Nights? Describe it in as much detail as you can find in the stories you have read. Are there any good points to this kind of government? Any serious problems? Would you want to live there?
Select two or three interesting demons (or jinnis) or other monsters in the Nights and compare them to monsters you've met earlier in the course. Can you think of any ways in which they are similar? How are they different? Can you think of any reasons why? Be sure to use plenty of specific examples from the texts to support your ideas.
Compare the attitudes toward that which is foreign, strange and amazing in the Nights to the attitudes towards foreigners and differences in Roland. Which side of the Pyrenees (mountains dividing France from Spain) would you prefer to have lived on in the twelfth century? Why? Please support your choice of location with plenty of specific examples from the two texts.
In the world of the Nights, there are good, pious demons, and bad, impious demons, but all demons seem to obey certain rules or laws. Explain exactly what kinds of laws/rules demons do seem to obey. Do you have any idea why this is so? Support your position with examples from the stories.
If you are very ambitious, you might want to read or reread "Gawain and the Green Knight," which is in your textbook or online at Sir Gawain, and compare it to "The Story of the Merchant and the Demon" in the Nights. Both are tales of keeping faith to meet with a magical fellow on New Year's Day who intends to cut off one's head. If you choose this one, I'll leave you to pose your own question and figure out how to answer it in less than a book. If you do this one very well, it is worth double credit; be sure to mention that on your essay. Good luck. 
Several stories in the Nights give examples of why it is better to be just than to be unjust. Find at least three such examples and explain what is the nature of justice in the Nights as you understand it. Give examples, of course, and try to find the point to it all.
Stories in the Nights range from the pious to the bawdy. Select one of each and try to see how they belong in the same collection, or do they? Explain and support your position using examples from the stories, not from your own opinions.
Destiny, or fate, or predestination is an important thread running through the stories of the Nights. This expresses, at least in part, the ideal of a good Muslim, which is to submit to God's will. Select two or three stories that express this idea, compare/ contrast them to one another, and see what conclusions you can draw about the role of destiny in the Nights. Use specific examples from the stories to support your response.
Compare the idea of destiny in the Aeneid to the frequent references to predestination and fate in two or three stories of the Nights. Do you see any interesting similarities or differences? Explain your insights using a number of specific examples from each text to support your ideas. I suggest starting with reading a good dictionary definition of "destiny." You may copy and cite it in your essay.
The Nights is a collection of tales that are organized by means of the frame story of Shahrazad, who is telling stories to save the lives of the other maidens in her country.  The Odyssey also uses a frame when Odysseus tells the stories of his wanderings to Nausicaa's folks to persuade them to send him home at last. The Odyssey, like the Nights, was told orally for many centuries in one form or another before being finally written down. Compare/contrast the frames in the Odyssey and the Nights. How does each function? And, so what? Use specific examples from both texts to support your ideas.
Read the selection from the Koran, Sura 4, "Women," (see the link to the Koran on the Course Materials Table on the Course Home Page) and discuss any connections, similarities or differences you see between its precepts and the roles of women as depicted in the Nights. Note: the stance of the Koran toward women was actually quite enlightened for its time. Women, for example, were allowed some property rights, while in the general society of that time, they had none.
There are fascinating parallels between the story of Sharazad and the story of the Biblical Esther. Both are clever, beautiful women who live in the courts of oriental despots and must use their wits to save the lives of others. Do a careful, detailed compare/contrast of these two heroines, using plenty of specific details from both stories to support your ideas.
Potential for double credit: Read Crescent: a novel by Diana Abu-Jaber (Norton, 2003). It is a delightful double tale, partly about Iraqi exiles who work and eat at Nadia's Cafe in West Los Angeles--their food, their loves and their longing for their homeland--and partly a magical tale in the spirit of the Arabian Nights, but ending up in Hollywood. After enjoying the book (I loved it!), explain in some detail why you think the author included the magical Arabian Nights tale along with the more realistic story of Nadia's Cafe in West Los Angeles. What is she drawing from the Nights and how does she use it to illuminate what she calls at times the "Arab soul?" Use plenty of specific examples, both from Crescent and from the Nights to support your ideas. Be sure to note that this is for potential double credit when you post it.
According to D. L. Ashliman, "One of India's most influential contributions to world literature, the Panchatantra ... consists of five books of animal fables and magic tales (some 87 stories in all) that were compiled, in their current form, between the third and fifth centuries AD. It is believed that even then the stories were already ancient. The tales' self-proclaimed purpose is to educate the sons of royalty." Read a few of these stories and compare them to stories in the Nights that are told to heal a mad king. Here is a link to a selection from the Panchatantra.
Potential for double credit: Robert Irwin has written a fascinating riff on the Arabian Nights called The Arabian Nightmare. It tells of a 12th c. English scholar-wanderer who ends up in Cairo under the influence of The Father of Cats who is a corrupt teacher of dreams and sleep. There are many interwoven stories and wonders, including of course talking apes and virgins locked in enclosed gardens. If this interests you, read Irwin's book (I don't know if it is in print, but I got a used copy easily from Amazon Marketplace) after reading the selections from the assigned sections of the Nights. Then, compare the two sets of stories in some interesting way.
Make up an interesting question of your own that deals with some aspect of the Nights, and then answer it in fully developed detail. Please run the question by me for a quick response before you go on to write about it. I will not accept such a question unless I have approved it in advance.


(c) Diane Thompson: 8/14/98; updated: 01/25/2012