Roots of Oral Tradition in The Arabian Nights
By Zaid Numan Mahir
Master’s Thesis, University of Missouri, 2007
Introduction: The rich oral tradition in the Arab world is one of a collective imaginary and a reflection of the collective consciousness. Tales and stories have had a twofold purpose. On the one hand, they provide entertainment to an audience so long accustomed to orality that they have developed a particular taste for, and an appreciation of, verbal imagery. On the other hand, tales respond to a variety of needs– cultural, social, religious, etc– that emerge constantly from the individual’s interaction with the surroundings, as well as from the influence of society on the individual. Tales also display concerns and dreams shared generally by human beings and particularly by certain communities at certain periods of time. Thus they find their echo in an audience willing to be part of the world of the tale being orally narrated. Moreover, tales have an educational effect in the Arab world, and the morality emerging from such tales serves as a model of correct behavior, not only for youth but also for adults who need to be reassured about their disciplines and creed.
The act of storytelling itself has played a key role in reinforcing the multipurpose message of oral tales, giving meaning and value to life. Traveling from one area, region, or province to another, a tale was sometimes slightly changed to fit the taste of the new audience whose would-be reaction, however, often was of crucial significance to the act of storytelling itself and, therefore, had a bearing on the narrator’s performance. As such, the same story was often told differently to an audience of children than to an audience of adults. And heroes and single-handed deeds of heroism, for instance, had to be adjusted to suit a given community’s historical background; heroic protagonists would have to belong to that community or to its historical background, whereas the wicked and cowardly belong to other groups or regions.