Nights 1 to 18: Keep Talking

1—3 • The merchant and the jinni • 1—2 The story of the first old man • 2 The story of the second old man • 2—3 The story of the third old man • 3—9 The fisherman and the ‘ifrit • 4—5 The story of King Yunan and Duban the sage • 5 The story of King Sindbad and the falcon • 5 The story of the treacherous vizier • 7—8 The story of the semi-petrified prince • 9—19 The porter and the three ladies • 11—12 The story of the first dervish • 12—14 The story of the second dervish • 13 The story of the envious and the envied • 14—16 The story of the third dervish • 17—18 The story of the lady of the house • 18 The story of the doorkeeper


“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Ch. 64)

The prospect of reading The Arabian Nights is a daunting one. It will be an epic journey of sorts, even if it is one taken from the comfort of one’s home rather than a trudge across the dunes or a hike up a mountain.

But just as every journey begins with a single step, our assault on this three-volume mountain of literature must begin with the first page and the first Night.

Nights 1 to 18 comprise three sets of stories: ‘The Merchant and the Jinni’, ‘The Fisherman and the Ifrit’, and ‘The Porter and the Three Ladies’. Each is slightly longer than the last, and each is more ‘nested’ as Shahrazad presents more stories within stories. But I’d say that these tales do a good job of setting expectations for the Nights to come. Themes are established and, even in these early literary foothills, we see tropes recurring in different stories.

The fisherman and the Ifrit
“At the appearance of this huge monster the fisherman wished to run away’ – Illustration by Louis Rhead

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Prelude: Shahrazad’s selfless gamble

The one thing that I (and, one suspects, most new readers) know about The Arabian Nights is the basic premise: that Shahrazad finds herself in the king’s presence, telling stories to save her life. We open with a framing narrative that explains why this should be so: the king has been cuckolded by a slave and therefore killed his queen. Fearful of a repeat, he resolves to ‘deflower’ a different girl every night and kill her in the morning.

Shariyar and Shahrazad by Rene Bull
Shariyar and Shahrazad by Rene Bull

Continue reading “Prelude: Shahrazad’s selfless gamble”