There is no doubt that The Arabian Nights is one of the most well known works of literature in the world. From the hearty ballad that opens Disney’s Aladdin (1992) to the ongoing analysis of Islamic culture in the 21st century, the “Western world” is fascinated by the past, present, and future of the Eastern – or “Oriental” – lands. Fueling the Eastern enchantment, in 1978, Edward W. Said discussed Western perceptions of the Eastern world in his book, Orientalism. The views expressed in his writing were, and remain to this day, the stereotypes that the “civilized” West places upon the “backwards” East. *********** The themes, culture, and human components evident in The Arabian Nights both reinforce and contradict the broad concept of Orientalism.
Throughout history, each culture has had different societal expectations for each gender. The current (but attempting to change) American expectations are based on the early 20th century ideology of republican motherhood – men were expected to get an education and then work to support for their family; women were expected to end their education before secondary schooling, learn how to maintain a household, and to teach the same ideals to their children. While the idea is dated, it set the structure of the “normal” American household. In current Middle Eastern gender perceptions, women are seen are quiet, submissive, and loyal to their husbands. This can most likely be traced back to the traditional Islamic hijab, worn to hide a woman’s beauty from everyone other than her family. However, in The Arabian Nights, women are portrayed as appealing yet untrustworthy. As retold in “The Tale of the Husband and the Parrot,” a man suspects his wife is infinitely loyal to him because she insists that he never leave her. But on the day that he must take a journey without her she does not hesitate to carry on with her sexual needs with another man. Her husband’s unwavering loyalty proves the alluring power of women in Middle Eastern culture, and her ability to later deceive him into mistrusting and killing his parrot illustrates her cunning and wit. Furthermore, the frame tale of The Arabian Nights is rooted in the mistrust of promiscuous and cunning women. In the Prologue, the dishonest nature of women is explored – Shahzaman’s wife is secretly cheating on him, Shahrayar’s wife and slaves are openly engaging in loose sexual relations, and a powerful demon’s attempts to keep a woman to himself are futile. As powerful as the demon might be, his woman is like any other woman depicted in The Nights – captivating yet devious. When coercing the king brothers to make love to her, she states that the demon has “tried to keep [her] pure and chaste, not realizing…when a woman desires something, no one can stop her.” Both her words and actions illustrate the untamable nature of women in Middle Eastern culture, which starkly contrasts with the Western stereotypes of demure and docile women of the East.
However, there is an element of truth in the Western labels on Eastern women. While they may not appear to be as reserved as the labels make them out to be, the stereotype that they are accepting and indifferent towards their husbands’ actions can be taken with a grain of salt. In “The Tale of the Merchant and His Wife,” a man mercilessly beats his wife when she begins questioning his actions – to the point where she pleads for him to stop and claims she doesn’t want to know anything anymore. Thus, her husband’s actions demonstrate the dominant role that males were expected to take in traditional marriages – aligning with our Western stereotypes.
Given the Western world’s encounters with the Middle East over the past twenty years, we have a strict “understanding” of how they deal with internal conflict. In Orientalism, through Harold W. Glidden, we are told, “…Arabs stress conformity; that Arabs inhabit a shame culture…” Shortly after, Glidden is quoted again: “the Arab need for vengeance overrides everything, otherwise the Arab would feel ‘ego-destroying’ shame.” However, The Arabian Nights paints a very different picture in regards to internal disagreements in the Middle East. The saying, “Spare me, your Majesty, and God will spare you; destroy me, and God will destroy you” is repeated many times throughout “The Tale of King Yunan and the Sage Duban.” Throughout the tale, it is insinuated that good things come to those who do good deeds, while bad things happen to those who commit evil. This concept varies from Glidden’s findings in that “the Arab” is not always constantly seeking vengeance; he is trying to avoid it by preventing wrongdoings from happening. However, one could argue that this story also supports Glidden’s argument. After his final plea to the king to change his mind about the execution, the sage effectively tricks the king into dying before the execution by lacing the pages of the book with a poison. His cleverness and trickery demonstrate that humans take vengeance into their own hands – God doesn’t get involved no matter what the sage claims. Thus, the Middle Eastern internal conflicts depicted in The Nights both support and contradict Glidden’s assertion of the Middle Eastern desire for revenge.
The conviction that the East was “exotic,” “mysterious,” and “profound” was widely held before, during, and after the publication of Said’s Orientalism. In many ways, this notion contains an element of truth. From Cleopatra, Troy, the Sphinx, Babylon, the Genii, Nineveh, and the Magi, the stories that originated in the East contained “half-imagined [and] half-known” concepts and creatures. For the West, the initial allure to explore (and later conquer) the East came from the captivating and magical stories that originated in the land “East” of them. To an extent, the expectation of an enchanted land is true; The Arabian Nights contains many supernatural elements seamlessly blended into the natural world. The omnipresent nature of demons in The Nights is somewhat alarming. For instance, “The Story of the Merchant and the Demon” begins with a demon’s appearance, as he demands to kill a merchant for the murder of his son. The presence of a demon a countryside orchard is neither questioned nor denied; it is simply accepted. In “The Tale of the Enchanted King,” the king’s wife curses him “with [her] magic and cunning [to] be half man, half stone.” Similarly, neither the existence nor the possession of magic is doubted. While demons and magic are not commonplace in the everyday Middle East, they certainly play a significant role in the culture’s legends and folklore. In this way, the classification of the East as a vast, supernatural, and mystical land is reinforced by The Nights.
The people themselves – or “Orientals” – of the Middle East are also subject to Orientalism’s scrutiny. Said references Cromer, who asserts the Arabs are “deficient” with their “disordered minds”; they are “inveterate liars… ‘lethargic and suspicious’.” His claims are supported by their failure to understand European inventions (such as the sidewalk), but he fails to consider that Europeans themselves were taughthow to use their inventions when they were first designed. The Arabian Nights, on the other hand, depicts Easterners as cunning, tricky, and witty – all of which are valued in their culture. In “The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon,” the fisherman is able to outwit the demon genie back into the jar: “Don’t you believe that I was inside [the jar]?” His ability to conjure a scheme in the face of an imminent death is regarded as a useful and respectable quality in Middle Eastern culture. In no way were the fisherman’s actions “lethargic” and “suspicious” as Cromer suggested in Orientalism. Thus, the characterization of the people of the Eastern world is rejected by The Nights.
In many aspects, The Arabian Nights contradicts Said’s Orientalism; from other viewpoints, The Nights reinforce the stereotypes presented in Orientalism. At times, the women challenge our Western expectations, but they also exhibit characteristics aligned with our stereotypes. The way that Middle Easterners manage internal conflicts refutes our expectancies; but the exotic nature of the East as depicted in The Nights provides support for Orientalism’s expectation. The derogatory view of the people in the East, however, is sharply rejected by The Nights in that the characters possess charm, wit, and intellection in the face of danger. These ancient tales complicate our expectations in many ways – what is the East really like? Scholars over the decades have analyzed and reanalyzed the “Oriental” culture and peoples, but how much of their findings can be true? Can we assume any of it is? ***** (It is important because we shouldn’t judge cultures different from ours; coexist and move on)
 Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 50.
 Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 51.
 Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 6, 7, 13.
 Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 13.
 Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 20.
 Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 48.
 Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 49.
 Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 54.
 Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 57.
 Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 51.
 Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 63.
 Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 22.
 Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 73.
 Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 38-39.
 Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 43.