No Aladdin in this never-ending story

One Thousand and One Nights, actors on stage One Thousand and One Nights which is showing as part of the Edinburgh International Festival

There is no Aladdin or Sinbad the sailor in the version of One Thousand and One Nights which is being presented at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Director Tim Supple has gone back to the original source and recreated tales which are definitely not the sanitised, "Disneyfied", children's stories we have come to know.

Supple said: "What we know is something called the Arabian Nights which changes One Thousand and One Nights into something else.

"The children's tales of the Arabian Nights are a complete invention.

"The real One Thousand and One Nights are powerful, violent, complex, thoughtful folk stories about the questions of existence," he says.

The tales were written in Arabic but stretch back to stories gathered in India, Persia and the great Arab empire more than 1,000 years ago.

The containing narrative tells of Shahrazad, the latest young girl to be offered to a king who believes all women to be unfaithful.

King Shahrayar marries a virgin every night and kills her in the morning.

Shahrazad spins a web of tales which keep the king in suspense night after night, prolonging her life.

Lebanese-born writer Hanan al-Shaykh has adapted 19 of the 1,001 tales for this retelling, which will be performed in two parts on different days over the next two weeks.

Houda Echouafni, who plays Shahrazad, said she was familiar with the tales from her own childhood, where there were seen as moral lessons from the Arab world as well as Disney characters.

Show facts

  • Director Tim Supple
  • Houda Echouafni plays Shahrazad
  • 19 actors and five musicians
  • Show involves people from Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco
  • One Thousand and One Nights is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh from 21 August to 3 September

But when she was introduced to the original stories by the director, Echouafni said she was amazed by how "unapologetic" they were about human nature.

She said she felt like Lewis Carroll's Alice falling down the well into an unfamiliar new world.

"Instead of Alice in Wonderland, it was Alice in Arabland," she said.

"It struck me how brutally honest they were about how dark we are as human beings. I just found them fascinating.

"I thought I knew about them but no-one ever talks about this."

Supple said the cast, 19 actors and five musicians from countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco, were closer to the stories because they had been told about them when they were growing up.

Frank and erotic

"But actually they had no greater knowledge of the original stories than I had," Supple said.

"There is censorship in both the East and the West.

"The censorship in the Arabic world is that the stories are so explicit, so frank, so erotic, that they can't really be shared."

The production arrives in Edinburgh after a run in Toronto.

Start Quote

Great art transcends power relationships. Shahrazad says to the king: 'You can kill me now but my stories will live forever'”

End Quote Jonathan Mills Edinburgh International Festival director

However, its rehearsals earlier in the year were thrown into chaos by the Arab spring.

The cast and crew had to move from Egypt to Morocco after the uprising.

Echouafni, who grew up in the UK with parents from Egypt and Morocco, said the cast had clung together like none she had ever been involved with before.

She said that, like the tales in the play, the events in Egypt, Libya and Syria showed there were ways to stand up to tyrants who believed they could act as if the law was their will.

Jonathan Mills, the director of the Edinburgh International Festival, said he could not have known how the events of the Arab Spring would unfold when he was programming the festival last year.

His primary interest had been in retelling these great traditional stories.

However, he said that the stories of One Thousand and One Nights mirrored the struggles in the Middle East today.

"Politicians might define territories but they cannot define the geography of the imagination," he said.

"Great art transcends power relationships. Shahrazad says to the king: 'You can kill me now but my stories will live forever'."

One Thousand and One Nights is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh from 21 August to 3 September.

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