Sinbad, Spark and Arabian Influence in the West

Arabian Literature has produced many classics, definitively one of the most sold books ever (The Quran) as well as having strong connections with what is arguably the most sold book ever, The Bible. Though these texts have Arabian origins, they aren’t often what we picture when we think of Arabian Literature, instead our mind wanders to tales produced throughout the Peninsula’s golden era that have found their way into Western Civilisation — and one of the most notable of these is of course Tales from 1001 Nights. Whilst few people have read the entirety of 1001 Nights (which is understandable with the bulk of the full text) the majority of people will have at least have an idea of one of the many tales; most likely Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and The Magic Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves or even The Ebony Horse.

Sinbad the Sailor is one of the better known stories that takes a part in Shahrazad’s tales. Sinbad the Sailor takes place over seven voyages as well as having representation in a frame story — that of Sinbad the Porter. The stories form as a later addition to the 1001 Nights only appearing in the tales that reached Western Europe in the 17th and 18th Century, though similar tales of Arabian origins predate the Common Era. Just like may other of the later tales that entered the realm of the 1001 Nights, the story has been re-imagined and adapted many times. One of the adaptations includes Sinbad the Sailor meets Popeye the Sailor, a mix of two classics in Popeye and The Tales from 1001 Nights. Sinbad is portrayed as a nemesis of Popeye and an alternative to Bluto with almost no connection to the 1001 Nights bar name. These colour special episodes were also made for two other tales from the 1001 Nights; Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, which has Popeye stranded in the desert and attacked by the Forty Thieves — following a similar plot to almost every other Popeye episode involving the kidnapping of Olive; and Aladdin and His Magic Lamp, where Popeye acts as Aladdin and Olive as the Princess — the storyline similar to Disney’s 1992 adaptation. The main difference between the Popeye adaptation and the Tales is how Sinbad is viewed, whilst in the 1001 Nights he comes across as a great adventurer, successful merchant and to an extent a hero; the Popeye adaptation still labels him as great — perhaps the greatest there’s ever been, only for him to then become inferior due to Popeye’s spinach eating habits. Popeye has never lost a fight and seems to have a bit of a superiority complex going on.

All three tales that were reworked for the Popeye Colour Feature are some of the most recent added to the recounts of the 1001 Nights further proving that tales created for the West, will be absorbed by the West. Like Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, we see Sinbad performing somewhat to the ideals of Western literature (though nowhere near the level seen in both Aladdin and Ali Baba). A quote from Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic sums up the ideas that we see in Aladdin that conform to Western society and can to an extent be applied to Sinbad the Sailor, “the hero’s unlooked-for, undeserved high destiny, fulfilled love pursued freely across the boundaries of status, and the caprices and faults of princes”. Sinbad is looking for wealth but he isn’t looking for any destiny his character is just a simple merchant who has the luck of coming across great riches and perils as he sails around buying and selling, though love doesn’t shine through in Sinbad the Sailor, status does. Sinbad starts off as a merchant struggling to continue his lavish lifestyle after the death of his father, part of the middle class but one of the less wealthy, only to become the wealthiest and most important merchant in the city of Baghdad.

Popeye the Sailor meets Sindbad the Sailor (note Sindbad in this instance is spelt with another D)

Many other pieces of work have been inspired by the nights, especially poetry and music; Spark’s Scheherazade tells its own tale, that of the kings views towards Shahrazad. The lyrics tell the story of the king enslaved to Shahrazad’s tales,

“Scheherazade, you enslave me
Others begged, crying “save me”
Wasted words, hatred tore me
Scheherazade, tell me stories”

The opening section describes the methodology in which Shahrazad used her stories to keep herself alive and leave the king wanting more. While the song is entirely based upon Shahrazad’s storytelling, the lyrics tend to take backseat compared to the mellow tune in the song and even though are blatantly obvious could easily fly over ones head. As far as Spark’s music goes this song definitely isn’t one of their best and understandably the album Balls didn’t chart at all in the US, UK or Germany. In the grand scheme of things the average person doesn’t read too often, roughly a book a month, but the average person definitely listen to more than one song a month. The spread of literary icons such as the 1001 Nights through other medias like music is mutually beneficial, the literature gets greater exposure (though not the best), whilst musicians stranded for ideas have new music. There is so much to the 1001 Nights and therefore there are so many different musical adaptations, from rap to opera and rock to pop artists have basically covered everything without having to come up with an original idea from scratch.

The 1001 Nights provide an insight, though one that has often been quite westernised, as a view of Arabian and Middle-Eastern culture. My suburb is home to a large Lebanese population following the Arab-Israeli war and the Lebanese civil war with around 3% of people speaking Arabic as their first language (nationally this sits closer to 1.1% so it’s considerably more than average, many people are also of Arab descent but use English as their first language). At Primary School whenever we played soccer or footy at lunch or recess it would be “Wogs vs Whites” (yes Wog is a derogatory term but we were kids and nobody cared), this early look at Arabic culture gave me insight into the way there ancestors lived and the food and customs — especially Eid and Ramadan. So many of the kids though were already integrated into stereotypical Australian life, mainly being third generation immigrants you didn’t get the full picture. Though fantastical stories still can’t give us a true picture, the way they are written and the elements as well as livelihoods of characters we see in them open our eyes to a new dimension of the world.

Through reading 1001 Nights I’ve come across a better understanding of the world we live in and the culture of the kids I grew up amongst, to me the better understanding of the differences we have around the world, the better we can strive together.