1001 Ways to Save Your Life: Shahrazad and The Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights is a story of stories. Not only is it a rich interwoven carpet of stories within stories within stories within stories, it is also a story about the power of stories, the power of fiction to save lives, to tame murderers and to change the world.

Arabian NightsThe most authentic English translation (by Husain Haddawy) begins, “It is related — but God knows and sees best what lies hidden in the old accounts of bygone people and times — that long ago, during the time of the Sasanid dynasty, in the peninsulas of India and Indochina, there lived two kings who were brothers” (5), reminding us from the very start that we are reading a story “related” by someone. Unlike the other stories in The Arabian Nights, we do not know who is telling us the frame story, the big tale that includes all other tales, instead we get the passive form “it is related,” followed by a warning that only God knows “what lies hidden in the old accounts,” in other words only Allah knows the truth of these fictions or even the secret meaning of them.

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Stories Come From God and God Comes From Death

In my last post, Hunters, the First Readers to Write a Story, I suggested that the first narrative went something like this: “A young deer passed this way.” Now I offer a story of the development of stories, the story of religion. (This will be a controversial one for some of you, so feel free to include your version in the comments below.)

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The Tale a Tail Tells

Who told the first stories? Do animals tell stories?

Well, they certainly communicate! No one doubts what a Doberman means when it crouches and bears its teeth. Going on your guard when a dog growls may be instinctual, but there are many animal signs which we must learn to read. I remember being told, let’s say it was by my father, that the wagging of a dog’s tail meant it was happy and wanted to play, but a tail between the legs and flattened ears meant the dog was afraid or even angry and therefore dangerous. In other words, my father had to translate the language of the dog for me.

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