CREATIVE WRITING, ENGLISH, LIFE

On the footsteps of fairy tales – from Persia to Iran

As I was saying – the decision to go to Iran was unexpected even for myself. I like to I travel, but since the pandemic has slowed down our travelling impulses, I try to remind myself how today we can travel virtually very well with the help of the internet. And even though I don’t have the technology that allows me to immerse myself in a certain virtual reality, I can still travel comfortably almost anywhere in the world without leaving my favourite place at home where I feel relaxed and comfy. Actually, there are places difficult to reach except virtually. I don’t necessarily mean the bottom of the oceans or the heights of the Himalayas or the outer space. There are places, which for different reasons, are not accessible to us. Opportunity, excessive costs, we’re not all in the same league with Elon Musk, can be some disincentives.

But, lo and behold, the stars aligned and the algorithm tracking me sent me the unrefusable offer and … the decision was made. I’m going to Iran. Why? Probably because, since over one decade ago, I have been looking to the world that exists beyond Europe, whether Central, Eastern or Western, and I wonder how we came to the point of looking at this huge and so diverse world only through our cultural glasses which are so narrow and distorting?! Did I say cultural? Is ideology part of culture? Or is it vice versa? It is a simple question, and yet the answers are multiple and not easy to give. At least not here, in this column where I want to get, I hope, to tell you about 1001 nights of fairy tales chosen and told by a woman to a powerful ruler whose life and death decision she thus influenced. Hey, what am I doing here? Have I put on the glasses of a very fashionable ideology now? Whether we call it feminism or gender studies or gender balance or intersectional feminism doesn’t really matter. We all know the reality I am referring to.

Let me return to fairy tales. Everybody knows that “1001 nights” is a collection of Arabian stories! Why then bring it up in an account of Iran or Persia? Of course, we live in an area of the world where Bucharest is often confused with Budapest, and of course that irritates us in various degrees; and we usually think of the Middle East, with one truly exceptional exception, as inhabited by Arabs. And that leaves us more or less indifferent. Who cares anyway? Maybe most of us don’t, but what about those who live there?

I remember my Persian students who, very politely, were trying to tell us that they are not Arabs. Yeah, but you speak a Semitic language and you write with characters that look very much like the Arab ones. “Not at all”, they would answer patiently. “We speak an Indo-European language, quite different from Arabic. True in Iran we use the Arabic cursive script which is particularly ornamental. And just as true is that we highly appreciate the art of calligraphy.”

Streets  Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash  
Jérémie B. – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46694272

True indeed. I was impressed by the patience and discipline with which they work or should I rather say they painstakingly create works of great delicacy and fineness – words I no longer hear nowadays except probably in book titles such as “The Painstaking Chronophage/ Migălosul cronofag” by Adrian Săhlean [1] the excellent translator of Eminescu into a fresh and intelligible English. The Persians took the art of calligraphy to an extraordinary refinement and their constant respect for and inclination towards literature, especially towards poetry preserved Persian making it intelligible even today.

The truth is that things are never simple: either to explain or to grasp. As a teacher I have known this for a very long time. And I also know how frustrating it is for everyone involved in the learning process to discover that there aren’t always simple, clear and universally applicable rules. “But I want to know the rule” many learners would say, especially those who come from the exact sciences. The rule and possibly some exceptions. But what do we do when there is a rule and multiple exceptions, as in learning English and not only. Let me, however, come back to “1001 nights” one of the charming books of our childhood. I am particularly thinking of the 1001 nights: Arabic fairy tales retold by Eusebiu Camilar, which came out at Tineretului Publishing House in 1956.

Today the stories of 1001 nights are no longer told by Scheherazade, but by Hollywood and Walt Disney, or even by various local film industries that have the power, and the budgets, to look at the stories of Scheherazade and Shahriar from multiple angles, and many of those who watch them most likely don’t even know that those stories started to be told probably in the 8th century and travelled over huge territories, from India through the Middle East to Turkey.

As in other similar situations, there are many voices that claim their primacy over the collection of fairy tales. Ulrich Marzolph, Professor and specialist in Islamic studies and Persian narrative tradition at the Georg-August University of Göttingen, believes that the general public thinks of the book as a collection of Persian, Arabic and Indian folk tales collected and transcribed into Arabic about a thousand years ago [2]. Despite this popular perception, Marzolph believes, based on documents, that the stories were first written in middle Persian known as Pahlavi. Their transcription took place between the 8th and 13th centuries and only later were they translated into Arabic.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica [3] says about the same thing, underlining the diversity of the contributions to the widely read collection of fairy tales. The person who wrote the article from The Encyclopaedia Britannica considers that although the names of the main characters are Iranian, the frame of the story seems to be Indian and most of the other names are Arabic. And, of course, the style of stories and other elements of internal analysis of the text lead to the same conclusions: multiple, uncertain authorship.

Britannica also tells us that the first known reference to the tales is a fragment from the 9th century. Incidentally, Britannica also agrees that the Persians were the first to mention the legendary collections of stories from Iran, India and Greece called in those times “One thousand nights”. In 987 Abū ʿAbd Allah ibn ʿAbdūs al-Jahshiyārī began to write down a collection of 1,000 Arabic, Iranian, Greek and other folktales, but died leaving only 480 written.

And this is how we realize that “A thousand and one…”, with its various titles, is only a way to indicate a large number. This was an age with no obsessions related to the accuracy of numbers. Subsequently, after the West began to translate the fairy tales into French and later into English, the number was interpreted literally. And more stories and fairy tales were added.

But who cares about these details today? From the wonderful collection, most of those formed in the Western culture (is this use of terms about to become an oxymoron?) remember, at best, the stories about Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad who did not even exist in the original corpus. Is that really how things are today?

To check whether young people know about the 1001 stories and taking advantage of a written exam that I had with my students from Applied Modern Languages in the ASE I made a small experiment. I asked the students to write at the end of their papers what they knew about Scheherazade.

‘Who?’

‘Do you want me to write it down?”

‘Yes, please. Yes.’

I did as asked.

‘And if we don’t know anything?’

‘If you really don’t know anything, write: Scheherazade – I don’t know.’

I was really looking forward to the end of the exam to see the results. All I could do on the spot was to verify whether they answered the question or not. The vast majority had. The outcome?

Out of the 43 students present in the exam room, twenty answered they “didn’t know/heard/or even ???”. Twelve gave me various correct options. And I also had a separate category, eleven answers, with some very interesting explanations. I considered these 11 responses as positive, although you will notice below that some prove otherwise, but they have the merit of being extremely hilarious. Therefore, out of 43 respondents, 20 did not know who Scheherazade was, and 23 did give some sort of correct answers from which we can conclude that they probably know.

So what? For me this situation clearly represents the loss of a cultural reference system that deepens the gap of lack of communication not necessarily between generations, but between those who “know” and those who “don’t know”. I forgot to mention that my students did not have access to the Internet, which partially explains the results. Over the years I have sadly discovered that many young people no longer know proverbs or other classical cultural references. Of course, there are those who respond after discreetly consulting their friend Google. But when you don’t have access to a friend?

And here are the “special” answers that I can’t resist sharing with you: Scheherazade is a poem; a wise woman – a doctor; a story – a revolt; a sonorous name, but I don’t remember the context; a Persian sultana/queen; a character/a female character; cinema. And most remarkable for its ingenuity and comic: Scheherazade is an organizational model stylized in organizations for their better performance. It is probably relevant to mention that the end of semester test during which this mini-quiz took place is called “People and organizations”.

The most elaborate answer was from one of the students with a clear and declared interest in literature in general and poetry in particular. “Scheherazade is a name that seems to represent the quintessence of Orientalism. Being a made (not born) ‘Eurocentrist’, I can almost hear Edward Said criticizing and dismantling my claim. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the name of a soap opera watched by my grandmothers. I know however, in the spirit of René Guénon, that the true essence of Orientalism is another one.”

The results of the ad hoc quiz given to my students can be interpreted in many ways, but I’m not interested in those interpretations here. Especially when some of those who answered “don’t know” are people with advanced soft and professional skills they consider to be their priority at the moment.

I’m thinking however about the importance the Eastern world, and yes, we are right at its gates not having the guts or the will to enter, grants to history, culture, literature and especially poetry as pillars of classical culture. Over here, we are satisfied with adopting culture as a social and mainly organizational binder; culture theorized by Hall, Hofstede et co. often not knowing even them or their works.

Blue Tiles of Jame Mosque in Yazd, Iran, Photo by Mansour Kiaei on Unsplash

I was wondering upon reading an article in The Economist [4] about what happens when algorithms become so advanced that they cannot be distinguished from human writers? The answers are very exciting, but about them next time.

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