Islamic Negrophobia in "The Arabian Nights"
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The Thousand and One Nights (a.k.a., The Arabian Nights) are a famous collection of tales from the medieval Middle East.

They are frequently organized in frame stories: Character A goes on an adventure in the middle of which his hosts ask him to tell them a story, so he begins a story about Character B who goes on an adventure, during which he is asked to tell a story about Character C and so forth. Eventually, the whole thing unwinds in reverse order with the second half of the stories about C, B, and A. (It sounds pretty sophisticated, although I haven’t noticed much actually being done with the opportunities the way a 20th Century writer like Umberto Eco or Charlie Kaufman would have played around with the opportunities afforded by these complicated structures.)

The famous outside frame story of the whole collection is about an angry King Shahryar who resolves to marry a virgin every night and chop off her head the next morning. The grand vizier’s daughter Scherezade heroically volunteers to be a bride. Each night she tells part of a story so fascinating that the sultan postpones chopping off her head so he can find out what happens tomorrow night. Eventually, after 1001 nights, he relents of the whole head-chopping plan.

But what I hadn’t known until very recently is the first part of the story of why the king is so angry at women. From Sir Richard Burton’s translation:


In the Name of Allah, the Compassionating, the Compassionate!

His name was King Shahryar, and he made his younger brother, Shah Zaman hight, King of Samarkand in Barbarian land. …

So anyway, King Shahryar sends for his kid brother, the Shah of Samarkand, to come for a visit. But as the Shah sets out,

But when the night was half-spent he bethought him that he had forgotten in his palace somewhat which he should have brought with him, so he returned privily and entered his apartments, where he found the Queen, his wife, asleep on his own carpet bed embracing with both arms a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime. When he saw this the world waxed black before his sight and he said: “If such case happen while I am yet within sight of the city, what will be the doings of this damned whore during my long absence at my brother’s court?” So he drew his scimitar, and cutting the two in four pieces with a single blow, left them on the carpet and returned presently to his camp without letting anyone know of what had happened.

But then it turns out his big brother the King has similar domestic problems with his wife and the black help:

But the Queen, who was left alone, presently cried out in a loud voice, “Here to me, O my lord Saeed!”

And then sprang with a drop leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly…

So that’s what sets off the whole 1001 Nights.

My vague impression is that anti-black sentiments like these play a large role in Islamic culture. But it’s not a topic that’s much discussed in the West.

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