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One Thousand and One Nights
Alf Layla wa-Layla

1001 images

Like many I was attracted to what I knew as the Arabian Nights as a child. It has been a gradual revelation, but not a surprise, to discover that most of what excited me then has little to do with the actual stories as they were recorded by Arabic writers many years ago. There’s not one magic carpet although the supernatural is ubiquitous. There is no Geni offering his lucky rescuer three wishes although there are many Jinns, demons or Ifrits who are lost and dangerous souls, fallen angels, who are very like us, who live in a parallel world and who from time to time kidnap, threaten, help or fall in love with humans. There’s little fantasy adventure: while many of the stories involve great journeys and are, at times, fantastical, they are rooted in reality. The sky, the desert, the sea all feature strongly but the overwhelming setting of the stories is the city: the souks, streets, houses, courtyards and cellars of the cities of the great Arab Islamic empire are the arena for narratives of love and marriage, rich and poor, ruler and ruled, crime and punishment, fate and choice, life and death. These are not escapist vignettes of exotica created to titillate Western fascination with the Orient: these are great folk tales, hewn over hundreds of years- first in Indian mouths, then Persian script and which reached their fullest expression in Arabic. They offer a glimpse of how the world looked and felt to Arab artists in the years when Islamic trade and culture dominated the heart of the world and reached from Southern Spain to Western China.

There is no Aladdin, no Ali Baba- these tales were slipped in by the first French translator in the late 1600s- and, of course, no Arabian Nights- this title first emerged in the first English title in the early 1700s. The stories are called Alf Layla wa Layla- One Thousand and One Nights. And they were not created for children- they are explicit, erotic, violent, complex, difficult, long, tough and adult. Since the French translation the stories have enjoyed a sensational success throughout the world and have been adapted in European and Arabic literature, American and Indian films, English, Chinese and Japanese popular theatre. They have never left the popular imagination. But when I ask people what they know of the One Thousand and One Nights the answer is the same in London and Cairo: Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad and Shahrazad.

100 images 2We don’t know these tales any more: we’ve lost them. Like smoke, drifting through the pages, music, mouths and minds of the globe, they have changed and evolved in many different languages and forms over the years. But I am searching for their unique character: what were they before the West seized on them? What makes them themselves? What do they offer us and how?

Our One Thousand and One Nights will be a theatre show. We hope to give audiences all over the world an experience of the tales as they are in the Arabic texts. And to do this we are in the middle of a long journey. Reading all the texts we can in Arabic and English, travelling from London to Southern Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Syriah, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, the Gulf and Yemen. Via Paris and New York. We are looking at cities, listening to music and language, talking to artists and, above all, working with performers: actors, musicians, dancers. All the artists who create the show with me will be from the Arabic speaking countries or diaspora- starting with the exquisite Lebanese novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh, now living in London.

At the heart of this work is a simple desire to see beyond the general, the cliché, the collective fabrication. As I travel I see how far the Arabian Nights I was given as a child had strayed from the source and I see another falsehood- deeper, wider and more dangerous. All my life I have heard about ‘the Arab’, ‘Arabs’, the ‘Arab World’, the ‘Arab Street’. This is all meaningless in the face of the lives led in the vastly different nations loosely bound by the Arabic tongue and the Islamic faith. This project is an observation and a celebration of the specific and original in defiance of the general and received. Understanding becomes possible when we see and listen to what is actually there.

Tim Supple, Artistic Director, Dash Arts