Monday, February 22, 2016

Mapping the Arabian Nights: a collaborative research project

In generations past, Orientalists would retire to their studies to peruse lavishly illustrated volumes from their multi-lingual collections of The Arabian Nights. My own collection takes up half a shelf in a closet next to my bathroom. But as I was perusing it the other day, or at least looking at the pictures I did notice something interesting: the drawings in the 19th century British edition I have are clearly based on Egyptian architecture and street scenes, while the drawings in a German edition from the same period look like Istanbul. Meanwhile, in the one early 20th century Turkish version I've looked at, the setting appears vaguely Far Eastern, kind of a French art nouveau version of Japan.

I have no idea how representative these books are, but it would certainly be interesting, and not entirely surprising, if Western Europeans tended to illustrate the Arabian Nights according to their country's colonial possessions (or aspirations) in the Near East, while countries close to the region where  Europeans set their Arabian Nights had to further exoticize the stories by setting them even further east, and perhaps further removing themselves from the scene by using European styles to do so.

There's an excellent book about the history of illustrating the Arabian Nights in English, but it would be fun to see a comparative look both at how it was illustrated in other places, be they colonial powers or Middle Eastern states. In some cases the settings of the stories themselves almost certainly shaped artists' decisions but in other cases contemporary cultural factors must have done far more to inform their fantasies.

Anyways, if anyone has a copy of the Arabian Nights whose illustrations they think they can connect to a particular place, please send us in a picture or two and we can try to compile a collection. If we get enough responses we can do a completely unscientific map of where the Arabian Nights took place in different places over the past two centuries.