The early feature films set in Baghdad borrow much of their form and many of their characters from the Thousand and One Nights

The early feature films set in Baghdad borrow much of their form and many of
their characters from the Thousand and One Nights. Misunderstanding and
misrepresenting the Thousand and One Nights has a long history in Europe and the
United States. The Arabic title of the collection is ? ? (Alf Layla wa Layla),
literally “Thousand Nights and a Night,” but the first English translation was renamed
The Arabian Nights Entertainments. Furthermore, this was a translation not of the
original Arabic, but of a previous French version by Antoine Galland between 1704 and
1717.37 Galland produced more of an adaptation than a translation, bending the stories at
will and adding additional stories from other sources, including those of “Aladdin,” “Ali
Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.” It was this
37 In fact, there is not really an “original;” the closest thing to it is a fourteenth-century Syrian text.
The stories probably existed in oral form for centuries before they were written down, and they
circulated in different versions before being compiled into what was probably the first definitive
collection in the late thirteenth century. That original and its initial copies are lost, but two branches of
manuscripts evolved from the original versions: one Egyptian and the other Syrian. There are four
surviving manuscripts from the Syrian branch, three from the sixteenth century and one from the
re-worked version that was subsequently (and loosely) translated into English and then
evolved through various adaptations until over eighty versions existed by the end of the
eighteenth century.38
So why was Baghdad so closely associated with the fantasy world of the
Thousand and One Nights? In part, it may be because it was a recognizable “Arabian”
city without the pre-existing associations of a city such as Cairo, which conjures ideas
related to ancient Egypt,39 and thus it was available to be “created” or “imagined” anew
on screen. Most westerners knew nothing concrete about the city, so it could serve as the
setting for fantasy without clashing with any preconceived notions. In this sense, it was as
vulnerable to artistic re-creation as a magical realm in popular cinema as it was to being
politically/militarily dominated in reality. Its subjection to domination, moreover, tamed
the city in western minds, making it even more suitable as a setting for adventure/fantasy
It is important to remember that these films were made for an audience that had
no real knowledge of Baghdad and certainly had never been there, allowing the
filmmakers to create rather than capture the city. Cindy Wong and Gary McDonogh have
examined how portrayals of Philadelphia and Hong Kong in film simultaneously create
an image that both references common associations with those cities that residents would
have and acts as an advertisement for travel to them. They thus identify the very different
38 Husain Haddawy, The Arabian Nights (Based on the fourteenth-century manuscript edited by
Muhsin Mahdi). Norton & Company: New York, NY; 2008 (First published 1990) pp. xiv-xxi.
39 This is evident in the various versions of The Mummy, which draw on a rich nineteenth-century
literary and theatrical tradition, and in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark.
interactions with the cities experienced by residents as compared to outsiders.40 The
Baghdad portrayed in American cinema, however, is always depicted from an external
perspective. It is represented by outsiders, for outsiders, and no thought is given to how
residents of Baghdad perceive their city. This is true both of the early fantasy/adventure
Baghdad films, and of the more recent war/adventure Baghdad films, which contain
references to their predecessors.


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