As if Edward Said had written in vain, it’s “Orientalism, the Mini-series!” – with magic lanterns, flying carpets, concubines, and camels. Such pillow talk. I will not impede the progress of this notice with excessive scholarship. About Arabian Nights (Sunday, April 30; 8 to 10 p.m., and Monday, May 1; 9 to 11 p.m.; ABC) – filmed mostly in Turkey and Morocco, although the Chinese dragons were computer-generated in London at the Jim Henson Creature Shop – we already think we know enough. A parent read to some of us from Sir Richard Burton’s 1885 translation of A Thousand and One Nights, leaving out the kinky parts. The rest of us have picked up snippets from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), with Maria Montez and Andy Devine. And from Sinbad the Sailor (1947), with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Maureen O’Hara. And from Aladdin (1992), with a genial Robin Williams, animated and Disneyfied. Or maybe from Sesame Street – named not for the bagel but for the magic words that sprung the door to the cave of treasures: “Open, Sesame!”
But you ought to know that only 480 of these bedtime stories go back as far as A.D. 942, to Persian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Iraqi, and Greek oral sources. The haphazard rest have been added since, to include new stuff from invading Mongols and propaganda for the counter-Crusades of militant Islam. And you should be forewarned that, out of all of these, the teleplaywright Peter Barnes (Merlin, Noah’s Ark, and The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns) and the director Steve Barron (Merlin, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and music videos for Michael Jackson, Def Leppard, and Dire Straits) have settled on just six, none of which is, alas, Sinbad.
Because almost all the men wear beards and almost all the women veils, it’s hard to tell them apart. Nevertheless, Dougray Scott plays Schariar, the sleepless sultan whose paranoia is practically Nixonian. Rufus Sewell is Ali Baba, Jason Scott Lee is Aladdin, John Leguizamo impersonates two different genies, Alan Bates is the all-pro Baghdad Storyteller who dispenses tips on narratology, and Israeli cutie-pie Mili Avital lounges about as Scheherazade. That an Israeli cutie-pie should play the heroine in a televised version of a classic of Arabic literature – perhaps even its Hypertext – may not say anything profound about the Oslo Peace Accords, but it does give me an opening to talk about the odd Catskills humor. From Sir Richard Burton, I don’t recall the hunchback Bacbac saying of a prince that he’s “so ugly even starvation can’t stare him in the face.” Nor a sultaness advising her sons to “wrap up warm, boys, and don’t get lost,” as they are about to embark on a yearlong quest to fabled Zirog, among other places. Or Commander of the Guard Nouz playing to the peanut gallery when his own pasha, the trickster Abraschild, is stabbed to death: “His last joke was a killer!” And certainly not Scheherazade telling us that Ali Baba “wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box.”
Anyway: Funny hats and flashing swords! Desert demons and Nubian slave girls! An all-seeing bronze telescope and an all-curing green apple! White stallions, Black Codas, minarets, singing chairs! I was going to say that Arabian Nights is harmless family entertainment, with more F/X than you can shake a magic lantern at, except that, as we are told, almost in italics, “stories show us how to win.” In the case of this mini-series, all of Scherezade’s stories add up to a war strategy, showing Schariar how, instead of having his wife executed, as has been his serial habit, he can instead slaughter an opposing army and kill his own brother. In other words, stories may be thought of as counterinsurgency scenarios.
They should have adapted, instead of Arabian Nights, a children’s book that derives from (while modernizing) the same classic text – Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. A storyteller, Rashid, and his young son, Haroun, are deserted by their wife and mother. The sorrowful storyteller can no longer speak, except to say “Ark.” His loving son embarks on a dream journey, leaving behind the “glumfish” and “factories of sadness” in a city that’s forgotten its own name, for a wonderland worthy of Jim Henson and called Kahani, where there are not only Children of Light (with a library instead of an army and pages instead of soldiers) and Creatures of Darkness (whose lips are sewn up with twine so that they cannot speak) but also water genies and shadow warriors, gryphons, trolls and manticores, Plentimaws and Blabbermouths. There, before he brings back speech, he will learn that by Naming, we create Being – and that the world is full of things we haven’t seen but nonetheless believe in, like submarines, Africa, kangaroos, and the North Pole; like the past (“Did it happen?”) and the future (“Will it come?”).