A new production of One Thousand and One Nights is set to break stereotypes and change the public perception of the famous Arabian Nights.
The production, scheduled for a world premiere in Toronto in June 2011, will be part of the Luminato Festival of Art and Creativity that takes place in the city every year.
One Thousand and One Nights is the brainchild of Tim Supple, director of the London-based Dash Arts production company, who convinced Luminato's management to finance the show. He says he hopes to offer a new understanding of the life of people in the Arab world.
These are not children's stories, such as Aladdin and Ali Baba, as people believe them to be. In fact, these two stories were never part of the collection. Contrary to general assumptions, the stories of One Thousand and One Nights are erotic, brutal and adult, Supple explained.
"They are real and strong stories from a certain time and place. This is what people do not know and must discover," he said. "They are about marriage, sex, power, fate and death.
"There is as much distortion of One Thousand and One Nights in the Arab world as in the West. Wherever people see it, I hope they will open their hearts and minds and be receptive to a new understanding."
It is an opportunity to show people that one can go to that part of the world and have an incredibly rich experience, said Janice Price, CEO of Luminato.
One Thousand and One Nights is financed by the Luminato Festival in Toronto and is their biggest commission to date.
The show, Price explained, will serve as the "perfect bridge to bring an awareness about the richness of the tradition".
Supple has been touring the Arab world for the past two years in search of actors, musicians and artistes to take part in the production. His travels have taken him to Baghdad, Abu Dhabi, Damascus, Beirut, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Alexandria, Casablanca, Algiers, Tunisia and Tehran, among others. It is a journey that he described as "a large experience still unfolding".
The new text has been adapted by Leban-ese writer Hanan Al Shaikh in both Arabic and English. According to Al Shaikh, Supple is bringing back the true value and essence of One Thousand and One Nights to the West.
While her adaptations of the stories are written in Arabic, she is also translating her work into English. "I'm like a gardener picking out flowers and putting them together," she said.
Al Shaikh, who relates to Scheherazade, the main character in One Thousand and One Nights, said she was happy to be part of the project not just because it is a great endeavour but because it has, for the first time, given a woman the opportunity to write an adaptation of the tales.
"You know, for such a long time it had been predominantly men who had worked on these stories. I felt it was important for me as a woman to be telling Scheherazade's stories the way I saw them," she said.
Not only are One Thousand and One Nights a collection of stories from the past of the Arab world but they are also part of its daily life today. "Our literature and our life are affected so much by these tales. It's as if we live in One Thousand and One Nights without knowing it," Al Shaikh said. "You can feel that she [Scheherazade] was always talking about the real world, even though she had such a lot of imagination."
The artistic expression, she said, is one avenue that addresses the problems of misunderstanding cultures. The team is travelling across the Arab world to bring artistes from the region to North America. "There's nothing that helps bridge the divide more than meeting those artistes," she said.
So far, the festival organisers have received a wide range of corporate sponsors and philanthropists in helping them bring the show to life. "The benefits for those who support it and who have businesses in the region are that the show is intended to tour in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia for as long as two years," Price said.
The production will be bringing together 20 artistes and five musicians from the Arab world. "We will put on stage real, serious actors of the Arab world. We will put on stage the stories as they are in the old Arabic texts," Supple said.
After the final auditions in November, rehearsals will kick off over March, April and May. They are planned to take place in either Syria or Egypt. The team will later go to Toronto for the final rehearsals.
"Before March, there will be more preparations with the designers and musicians," Supple said.
Speaking of the challenges along the way, Supple said this year will probably be the most difficult. "Of course, conceptualising the show has been a challenge," Supple said. "But in the end, it will be a genuinely international production."
The story of ‘One Thousand and One Nights'
‘One Thousand and One Nights', also known as ‘The Arabian Nights', is a collection of stories that comes from the Middle East, Persia and South Asia, dating back to Islam's Golden Age. The exact date and authorship of the tales remain uncertain. Today there are various versions of the tales because they were collected by authors and translators over centuries. Some include 100 nights while others include 1,001 or more. Contrary to the general assumption, stories such as ‘Aladdin' and ‘Ali Baba' were not part of the Arabic version of the book but were later introduced by European writers and translators.
The main story of ‘One Thousand and One Nights' is about a Persian sultan called Shahryar. When the sultan finds out about his wife's infidelity he orders her execution. Furious, he decides to marry a virgin every night, only to have her executed the next morning. To stop the sultan's vicious cycle of murders, Scheherazade offers herself as a bride to him. On the night of their marriage, she tells the sultan a tale but does not finish it. So the sultan postpones her execution till the next day to find out how the story ends. But as soon she finishes that tale, she begins to tell him a new one. This goes on for 1,001 nights, hence the name. Throughout the story, many tales are told. The stories are powerful, fictitious and stir up emotions. This literary technique of having a story within a story goes back to earlier Persian and Indian storytelling traditions.