A Middle Eastern Fairy Tale

The Nights

When I first decided to set a fairy tale in the middle east, I immediately thought of the Arabian Nights. After all, the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights are the oriental equivalent to european fairy tales. They were first told orally thousands of years ago, and while the stories were passed on by many generations, there is no definitive version: “Trying to pin down the origin of stories that have passed down orally is akin to juggling with water” (Richard E Grant, 2011). They are said to include tales that spread through the middle east by travellers and merchants most likely journeying along the Chinese Silk Route, however the Nights as we know them today developed during several centuries. Like fairy tales, the Nights’s exact origins are unclear. The earliest known reference is said to date back to the ninth century. They are mentioned once again in 947 and in 987, when Abu Abdulla Ibn Abdus al-Jashyari is said to have started a collection of a thousand tales that he was unable to finish – he died and only 480 were written.

Antoine Galland was the first to write a european translation of some of the tales in 1704, in french. He apparently mainly used a four-volume Syrian manuscript of the Arabian Nights that dated back to the fourteenth century. More versions were written in the early nineteenth century; Richard Francis Burton published his own translation of one of these versions in 1885.

An interesting anecdote I wasn’t aware of concerns the origins of the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves as well as Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. It is argued that these stories were not part of the original oriental tales told throughout the centuries but were “arrivistes, with no legitimate Arab parents” (Wendy Doniger, 2012). Galland would have apparently added the tales to the ones he translated after seeing their popularity. It is said that he may have heard the tale from a story teller from Aleppo.

When reading these tales, it is easy to see the similarities with our european folk tales; the morals and lessons are similar, and the main characters who are usually flawed ordinary human beings like any one of us, are thrown into either dangerous or magical situations that they need to solve with their intelligence and morality in order for them to survive.

The Fisherman and the Jinni

The Fisherman and the Jinni from the One Thousand and One Nights has a recurring concept found in other tales such as Puss in Boots whereby a smaller, weaker character manages to save himself from the wrath of an all-mighty giant by tricking it into taking the form of something small and vulnerable. However that original story carries many more messages than that single one. The tale’s about a fisherman who throws his net in the water three times, however does not manage to catch anything. That is until he tries a fourth time which rewards him with an old jar. A jinni appears explaining that he has been trapped for four hundred years in the jar. He tells that he once swore to make the one who frees him from his fate, the richest man on earth. But after a century passed and none did, he swore he would instead enable his saviour to access all the treasures of the world. However another century passed and the jinni stayed trapped. He then promised, that he would reward the one who frees him by granting them three wishes everyday. Eventually, as another century goes by, out of frustration, the genie swears to kill the one who frees him. And this happens to be the unfortunate fisherman. When pleading does nothing to change the jinni’s mind, the fisherman decides to trick the jinni asking him how he managed to fit into such a small jar. The jinni shows him and shrinks back into the bottle that the fisherman quickly shuts. The story finishes with a happy ending after the fisherman and the jinni come to an agreement that leads the fisherman to lead a happy life with his family, held in high regards by the sultan himself.

This is an example of a tale from the Arabian Nights which can be compared to a fairy tale. It is constructed in the same fashion.

Bruno Bettleheim argued that the many tries of the fisherman when he throws his net four times even though the first three ones were a failure, teaches the child not to give up even though it may seem his efforts are fruitless. Eventually, they will be rewarded. He argues that it is important for the child that the deceived giant be an imaginary character rather than a rational adult, otherwise, it may be frightening for them to imagine that adults, who are supposed to be a reliable protection, can be tricked so easily by weaker individuals.

Religion in the Historical Adaptation

While designing my characters and sets for a story set in an 11th century middle east, I realised that there may be confusion on the audience’s part when it comes to religion and magical beings (in particular, the Djinn). While we have all heard of the crusades, we may not be very familiar with the history around it. After deciding to set the story during the first crusade, I realised that I actually did not know much about this time period. I lacked major information regarding who lived in which city, what the main religions of the well-known cities of Jerusalem or Constantinople were and in general, what type of architecture and style did the cities have. This is why I had such a great time researching the ways to adapt Donkey Skin to this time period in particular: it really helped me learn more about a historic period I knew very little about.

Originally, in the tale of Donkey Skin, there is the idea of fleeing and travelling, disguise and concealment. Hence, when I thought about having the crusades and Jerusalem as a backdrop for the adaptation, I wanted the protagonist to be able to travel there. In a way, Jerusalem is the equivalent to the adjoining kingdom of the original tale. Religion is a very sensitive subject, current and always present in the news around us. This idea also went into the decision to choose the crusades for the historical adaptation. However I quickly realised that I had a dilemma regarding the beliefs of the main protagonist. Some research was in order…

Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine empire. It was a christian city until 1453, when it was conquered by the sultan Mehmet II who made Constantinople capital of the Ottoman Empire. (He renamed it as Istanbul “city of Islam”). However for the time our story is set in, the city was christian. It was actually after the muslims captured Jerusalem in 1076 that Alexius I of Constantinople called on the Pope Urban II for help. Jerusalem being in the hands of the muslims made it difficult for christian pilgrims to travel to the holy city for pilgrimage. It was fear for his city that led Alexius I to ask for help. In 1095, Urban II spoke to the people, asking for volunteers to join in the crusades to recapture the holy city of Jerusalem. The crusaders stopped by Constantinople before marching off to Nicea’s siege.

Byzantium was an ancient Greek colony founded by Byzas. In 330 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine I chose Byzantium as the site of a new Roman capital. Hence he renamed the city Constantinople. Five years earlier, at the Council of Nicaea, Constantine had established Christianity (once an obscure Jewish sect) as Rome’s official religion. Therefore when researching the Byzantine style – be it in clothing or architecture – it was interesting to see this roman influence.

In Jerusalem however, the architecture is different. While some buildings feature byzantine architectural styles, Romanesque architecture is quite popular. It combines features from western roman and byzantine buildings and is characterised by its thick walls, round arches, large towers and decorative arcading. Examples of romanesque buildings in Jerusalem dating back to the time of the first crusade include the 11th century church of the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Cross and the 12th century Church of St. Anne.

A decision needed to be made regarding whose side the protagonist should be on. This would in turn lead to the film taking on a political aspect as whoever the villain would be, would probably be linked to their religion. And this isn’t what I was looking for. While wars of religion are a current subject and are dealt with in the crusades, I wanted to adapt a fairy tale to an oriental setting. It isn’t about taking sides or pointing fingers. While fairy tales have a sort of black and white view of life quality about them with the hero and the villain, real life isn’t as easily depicted. Therefore to adapt a fairy tale for a modern audience, this needs to be taken into account: I believe that giving this quality and realism to a fairy story can make the story more interesting and keep the audience enthralled. However this needs to be done to a certain extent in order to keep the magical quality of these folk tales that feed our imagination and dreams. Thus, things aren’t as simple as stating that during the crusades there were heros and villains. The protagonist, Donkey Skin, has her own problems to deal with regarding her father (or step father) and needing to leave her home to find an honest life. She isn’t on anyone’s side in particular. So in order to do this, I decided to have her live, initially, in Constantinople. Therefore, it stands to reason that she is christian. However, this does not mean in any way that she is on the crusaders’ side. On the contrary. She flees with them and should probably get separated on the way, making her way to Jerusalem on her own, where she meets new friends and foes and perhaps the equivalent of her prince. And as Jerusalem is depicted as a peaceful colourful city, the battle scene of the siege of Jerusalem would probably lead the audience to root against the crusaders that destroy and slaughter the beautiful city shown in earlier scenes. Hence, there are heros and villains on both sides.

This study and research of religion and the way to adapt the fairy tale so as to make it acceptable by countries and cultures all over the world, has also come in useful when turning the fairy godmother into a Djinn – something I will discuss in a future post.

Grant, R.E., 2011. Richard E Grant unravels origins of The Arabian Nights. BBC World. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-13086639 [09/03/2015]

The Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights Summary and Analysis of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” [online]. Grade Saver. Available at: http://www.gradesaver.com/the-arabian-nights-one-thousand-and-one-nights/study-guide/summary-ali-baba-and-the-forty-thieves [Accessed 09/03/2015]

2009. The History of the Arabian Nights [online]. Candlelight Stories. Available at: http://www.candlelightstories.com/2009/03/27/the-history-of-the-arabian-nights/ [Accessed 09/03/2015]

Doniger, W., 2012. The Magic of the Arabian Nights [online]. The Times Literary Supplement. Available at: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1069412.ece [Accessed 09/03/2015]

The Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights [online]. Grade Saver. Available at: http://www.gradesaver.com/the-arabian-nights-one-thousand-and-one-nights/study-guide/summary [Accessed 09/03/2015]

Al-Olaqi, F., 2012. The Influence of the Arabian Nights on English Literature: A Selective Study [online]. Academia. Available at: http://www.academia.edu/1780309/The_Influence_of_the_Arabian_Nights_on_English_Literature_A_Selective_Study [Accessed 09/03/2015]

Trueman, C. The Crusades [online]. The History Learning Site. Available at: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval-england/the-crusades/ [Accessed 09/03/2015]


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