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THE 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS: Feasting with the Caliph/ LITERATURE MAIN

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Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

Of all the stories ever told, the magical tales of The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights must be among the best-known. From Chaucer's times onward the enchanted  horse, Aladdin, Ali-Baba, Sinbad the Sailor and the Genie have inspired writers, playwrights, poets and film-makers, and have been the stuff of every child's bedtime stories.

The earliest tales came from India and Persia in the eighth century AD. In the ninth century a group of stories from Baghdad was added, featuring Caliph Harun al' Rashid. In the thirteenth century came further Egyptian and Syrian tales. The final stories may have been written by eighteenth-century French scholar Galland, who translated - and expurgated - all twelve volumes and published them in 1717. Translated into English, this version captivated writers such as Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.

The tales use a literary device known as 'framing' - telling a story within a story. The outmost frame is the story of Scheherazade and the supreme ruler, Shahryar. On discovering that his wife has been unfaithful, Shahryar decides to marry a new wife each day and kill her the following morning. When the supply of willing ladies runs short Scheherazade, the grand vizier's daughter, offers herself in marriage. On their wedding night Scheherazade's sister comes into their bedroom and asks her to tell them a story. The king is fascinated by Scheherazade's tale but dawn comes before it is done, so he postpones her execution until the following dawn when she has finished the story. The next night Scheherazade finishes the tale, but starts on another, and another...and so the nights go on, through all 1001 tales.

The second frame, used in the stories from Baghdad, is that of the Caliph Harun al' Rashid. Harun and his foster brother Ja'far bin Yahya disguise themselves as ordinary citizens and wander the streets of Baghdad. The caliph gets to understand the troubles of his people, and each night they discover a new wonder or are told a new tale. Whether the real Harun al' Rashid actually wandered the streets of Baghdad is questionable. He was the fifth caliph in the Caliphate of the Abbasids, who had become absolute rulers of Islam in 750 AD.

The essential traditional dishes dating back to Abbasid times, are still served in Iraq today. Large plates of fresh herbs, salads and pickles are served with every Arab meal and would include spring onions, radishes, celery and lost of mint, parsley, coriander and tarragon. You can buy the pickles in most Middle Eastern shops, and you should make sure that you offer pickled cucumber, turnip, beetroot, baby aubergine (eggplant), garlic, ginger and lemon. Most dishes use a combination of spices, comprising black and white pepper, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, coriander and turmeric. You should also be able to buy dried limes, which give a quite delicious sweet-sour flavour to the food.

Although the consumption of alcohol is strictly forbidden by the Qur'an, wines may well have been served at great banquets. Harun al' Rashis himself was known to be a devout Muslim so his feats may have been 'dry', but there is a report of a banquet in the time of his son at which beautiful women formed themselves into a fountain down which wines were poured into a basin below where guests were invited to fill their glasses.

Baghdad is situated on the river Tigris, only 40 miles from the junction with the river Euphrates. Together with its position astride the trading routes to the east, this location accounted for much of its prosperity as a mercantile centre. However, it also meant that there was always a liberal supply of fresh fish, much of which is still cooked in riverside restaurants in the modern city.

Extract from Festive Feasts Cookbook, copyright 2003 Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, published by The British Museum Press

 
 
 

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