Re-membering the Past: The Phallic Afterlife of The 1,001 Nights

I’d like to say a few words about the penis. I realise that it may not seem like the most polite way to start an article (or a conversation), but you have to admit that they are a fairly common anatomical feature, with approximately fifty percent of the population possessing one of their very own. Depending on the effectiveness of your junk mail filter you may even receive regular missives informing you about how you can increase the size of yours, whether you have one or not. There seems to be quite an obsession that modern Western culture has with the schlong, dick, pecker, willy, whatever it is you like to call it. Despite this, and the pervasive presence of online pornography in this modern age, we are surprisingly coy about mentioning it in polite society or indeed showing it on film or television. Indeed, that very discomfort that we feel provides fertile ground for humour, such as in this song from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life:

That’s all well and good, but what exactly does it have to do with The Thousand and One Nights (Arabic: أَلْفُ لَيْلَةٍ وَلَيْلَةٌ‎, ʾAlf Laylah wa-Laylah)? Let me explain.

This year has been the year of The Thousand and One Nights for me. I put a ‘greatest hits’ collection from it (Tales From 1,001 Nights, trans. Malcolm C. Lyons and Ursula Lyons) on the booklist as part of the World Literature elective that I teach. As part of our study of the stories I was particularly interested in getting my students to see the cultural reach and influence the stories have had, originally passed around in oral traditions before being collected in written form and translated by the Frenchman Antoine Galland from 1704–1717. Since then, the 1,001 Nights have been translated into a multitude of languages around the world and notably into English by the likes of Edward Lane (1840, 1859), by Sir Richard Francis Burton (1885). Not only have the original stories (including additional texts such as ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,’ ‘Sinbad’ and ‘Aladdin’ that have come to be included with them) spread around the world, but other works influenced by them, in written prose and poetry as well as in art, music and film. The 1,001 Nights have become part of world culture: constantly retold and reinterpreted according to the interests and concerns of people living in diverse places and times.

I first encountered the stories as a child, although I have no recollection of in what collection. They just seem to have always been a part of my world. In more recent years I was reminded of them through the enthusiasm of the American postmodernist writer John Barth, whose work I love. He alludes to the Nights directly in works such as ‘Dunyazadiad’ (part of Chimera), The Tidewater Tales and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. He encountered the Burton translation in his youth and developed an obsession with the stories that has stayed with him throughout his career. Another of my favourite writers, Salman Rushdie, also has an abiding fascination with the Nights, alluding to the role of Shahrazad (Scheherezade) in his classic novel Midnight’s Children and recently explicitly building a novel around them in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

This year, after reading the selection of stories in the Lyons translation I started reading ‘around’ The 1,001 Nights to see what else I could find that had been influenced by them and I’ve been encouraging my students to do the same. One of the most fascinating books I read was Marina Warner’s magisterial critical study Stranger Magic, which is essential reading even if you’re not interested in The 1,001 Nights. I also read The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by AS Byatt, Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and Jan Potocki’s remarkable The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. I enjoyed looking up artworks inspired by the stories and put together a piece here on Medium about some of those. As well as all of this, I watched some films, notably the Douglas Fairbanks silent extravaganza The Thief of Bagdad (1924, dir. Raoul Walsh) and the wonderful The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger (1926), the earliest feature length animated film. I even sucked it up and watched Disney’s animated version of Aladdin (1992), which I’m not such a fan of.

But wait, you’re thinking: wasn’t he going to say something about penises? Yes, I was; I’m just getting there now so I appreciate your patience. A couple of the works inspired by The 1,001 Nights turned my mind to things phallic. One was the film Il fiore delle mille e una notte (just known as Arabian Nights in its English release), written and directed by the Italian iconoclast Pier Paolo Pasolini. And the other was the novel Sons of the Rumour by acclaimed Australian writer David Foster. I’ll tell you more about them soon, but first, where do penises arise in the original? (No apologies for any lewd puns.)

The role of the phallus in The 1,001 Nights

For the casual reader who, like me, remembers the stories from childhood in no doubt expurgated versions it can be a bit of a shock to return them in a modern translation and see just how pervasive the sexuality in the stories is. The frame story itself focuses to Shahriyar’s extreme reaction to his wife’s infidelity: “Every night for the next three years, Shahriyar would take a virgin, deflower her and then kill her” (p. 7 — all quotations from Tales From 1,001 Nights, trans. Malcolm C. Lyons and Ursula Lyons, unless otherwise noted). This is the situation that Shahrazad tries to remedy through her storytelling, which has an educative and restorative function: she must convince Shahriyar through her stories that his view of women is mistaken and that his actions are not justified. The role of sexuality in the stories is therefore significant as this is where Shahriyar’s fixation lies, at the intersection of sex and death.

So there’s plenty of sex to be had throughout the stories, but what about specific mention of men’s bits? The first time they come up is in the story ‘The Porter and the Three Ladies’ which starts out like a classic male fantasy: our titular porter gets asked to help a beautiful and mysterious woman do her shopping at the market, she invites him in and he starts drinking and cavorting in a pool with the woman and her sisters. The situation includes a set-up for a joke when they’re naked in the pool and the first woman saucily asks what the name for her vulva is. The porter has only a loose understanding of female anatomy and proffers the suggestions ‘womb,’ ‘vagina’ and even ‘hornet,’ each time getting cuffed over the head for getting the answer wrong. Eventually he’s told the correct term is ‘The mint of the dykes.’ The scenario recurs with the other two women who respectively call their lady parts ‘husked sesame’ and ‘The khan of Abu Mansur.’ The porter then challenges them to name his penis, which leads to the eventual punchline:

For a time the wine circulated among them and the porter then got up, undressed and went into the pool. The girls looked at him swimming in the water and washing under his beard and beneath his armpits, as they had done. Then he came out and threw himself into the lap of the lady of the house, with his arms in the lap of the doorkeeper and his feet and legs in the lap of the girl who had bought the provisions. Then he pointed to his penis and said: ‘Ladies, what is the name of this?’ They all laughed at this until they fell over backwards. ‘Your zubb,’ one of them suggested. ‘No,’ he said, and he bit each of them. ‘Your air,’ they said, but he repeated ‘No’, and embraced each of them. They went on laughing until they said: ‘What is its name, then, brother?’ ‘Don’t you know?’ ‘No.’ ‘This is the mule that breaks barriers, browses on the mint of the dykes, eats the husked sesame and that passes the night in the khan of Abu Mansur.’ The girls laughed until they fell over backwards and then they continued with their drinking party, carrying on until nightfall. (p. 48)

It’s unclear if Shahrazad intends this tale of debauchery to teach Shahriyar to use his own equipment more appropriately, although already by this stage he has adjusted his behaviour to the extent that he has gone ten nights without killing her in the morning, thanks to her practice of cutting off her stories mid-stream so that he feels compelled to let her live in order to hear the conclusion (one of the breaks is actually part way through the passage quoted above, just before the punchline — a classic case of metaphorical coitus interruptus).

Another notable (dis)appearance of a penis is in ‘The Story of ‘Aziz and ‘Aziza,’ which is itself embedded within ‘Story of Taj Al-Muluk and Princess Dunya.’ Aziz is one of many underwhelming men in the Nights, who nevertheless luck their way into the arms of beautiful women or wealth or both. Aziz is a chronically faithless and hopeless guy who rejects his cousin Aziza, to whom he is betrothed, in favour of a random woman he sees in a window. Aziza turns out to be the real heroine of the story, but by the time Aziz realises that his luck has run out. She was trying to protect him from this other woman, who now has her way with Aziz:

I found myself held down by the slave girls, with my cheeks rubbed in the dust and the knife being sharpened. Certain that I was going to die, I implored her to help me, but this only added to her mercilessness. She told the slave girls to pinion me, which they did, and they threw me on my back, sitting on my stomach and holding my head. Two of them sat on my shins while another two held my hands, and their mistress then came up with two more, whom she ordered to beat me. They did this until I lost consciousness and could not speak, and when I recovered I said to myself: ‘It would be better for me to have my throat cut as this would be easier to bear than this beating.’ I remembered that my cousin had been in the habit of saying: ‘May God protect you from her evil,’ and I shrieked and wept until my voice failed me and I was left without feeling or breath.

She sharpened the knife and told her girls to bare my throat. Then God inspired me to quote the two sayings that my cousin had told me and recommended to me, and so I said: ‘My lady, don’t you know that loyalty is good and treachery is evil?’ On hearing this, she cried out and said: ‘May God have mercy on you, ‘Aziza, and reward you with Paradise in exchange for your youth.’ Then she said to me: ‘ ‘Aziza helped you both in her lifetime and after her death, and by these two sayings she has saved you from me. But I cannot let you go like this; I must leave a mark on you in order to hurt that shameless whore who has kept you away from me.’

She called out to her girls, telling them to tie my legs with rope and after that to sit on top of me, which they did. She left me and fetched a copper pan, which she put on top of a brazier. She poured in sesame oil and fried some cheese in it. I knew nothing of what was happening until she came up to me, undid my trousers and tied a rope round my testicles. She held the rope, but then gave it to two of her slave girls, telling them to pull. They both pulled and I fainted with the pain, losing all touch with this world. She then came with a steel razor and cut off my penis, so that I was left like a woman, and, while I was still unconscious, she cauterized the wound and rubbed it with powder.

When I came to my senses, the flow of blood had stopped and she told the slave girls to untie me. Then, after giving me a cup of wine to drink, she said: ‘You can go now to the one whom you married and who grudged me one single night. May God have mercy on your cousin, who is the reason why you have escaped with your life. She never revealed her secret, and if you had not quoted her two sayings, I would have cut your throat. Go off now to anyone you want. There is nothing that I needed from you except what I have cut off. You have nothing more for me, and I neither want you or need you. Get up, touch your head and invoke God’s mercy on your cousin.’ She then kicked me and I got up, but I could not walk properly and so I moved very slowly to the door of but I could not walk properly and so I moved very slowly to the door of my house, which I found open. I threw myself down there in a faint and my wife came out and carried me into the hall, where she found that I had been emasculated. I fell into a deep sleep and when had I recovered my senses, I found that I had been thrown down by the garden gate.

The warning here from Shahrazad is rather more explicit to Shahriyar. She’s made it 126 nights now and is rather more confident in what she feels she can get away with. Not only does the story show that men can be the unfaithful ones, contrary to the stereotype he has developed about women, but the warning is not too subtle that he should take care of his own equipment if he knows what’s good for him. This is not even the only instance of penis removal in The 1,001 Nights. It brings to mind ‘The Story of John and Lorena Bobbitt,’ who hit headlines worldwide in 1993 when Lorena took her revenge decisively on her abusive husband. It seems that centuries later men still haven’t learned their lesson.

Pasolini’s Arabian Nights

Both of the above stories are included in the 1974 film adaptation by Pier Paolo Pasolini known in English as Arabian Nights. Pasolini was a filmmaker who didn’t shy away from controversy: frequently depicting sexual acts in his films, not least in his notorious and much banned Salo: 120 Days of Sodom. His version of The 1,001 Nights dispenses with the frame tale of Shahrazad and Shahriyar, replacing them with a young man called Nur-e-Din who falls in love with a slave girl called Zumurrud. They take on the roles of various characters within the Nights (Nur-e-Din substitutes for the Porter and gets to cavort in the pool, for example) and there are many stories within stories that get told, including that of Aziz.

One of the most memorable scenes is when Aziz is cavorting with his lover (named Budur in the film) and invents a new form of archery that even made it onto some of the posters for the film (too explicit for this story). The Guardian recently published a story about the Belgian film Patrick that had the evocative headline, ‘Free willy: are film and TV finally growing up about male nudity?’ Well, Pasolini was already there nearly fifty years ago, in what could be considered a case of ‘Too Many Dicks (on the Dance Floor)’:

Pasolini was an innovator in more ways than one and his film is a subtle and imaginative adaptation in many ways (as are many of his other films: his adaptations of other literary works, including The Decameron and Medea are equally remarkable). As a gay man living in a country dominated by the Catholic Church, Pasolini was transgressing boundaries in his life and this encouraged him to do it on film as well. He was known for his use of non-professional actors (following in the tradition of Italian Neo-Realism) and filmed on location in some astonishing settings. Where Douglas Fairbanks constructed his vision of The 1,001 Nights entirely on a studio set (at great expense and admittedly very impressively), Pasolini took his film crew to Isfahan, Iran, the deserts of Eritrea, Yemen and Ethiopia as well as in Nepal and India, paying tribute to the international scope of the original stories, which take place not just in the Middle East but range from Africa to East Asia.

As wonderful as the film is, an abiding image that you’re left with from the film is all of those penises on display. Pasolini mostly shies away from the supernatural aspects of the stories, although late in the film we do see a Jinni appear and fly his victim across a rather dodgy backdrop. His strength is conveying a sense of realism despite the outlandish nature of some of the stories: we see real markets and real people and we get a feeling that he’s taking us into the private lives and bedrooms that we don’t normally get to see in the travel brochures and getting escorted around by tour guides. The early translators of The 1,001 Nights often tried to give that sense: that they were a on some level and accurate depiction of the lives of people in the Middle East. This was often tied up with Colonialism (particularly for the British, who were trying to establish a foothold in the region in the 19th Century) and inevitably became a form of Orientalism, but Pasolini feels like he’s doing something a bit different. He’s genuinely subversive and all of the penises are an essential part of his project to depict life in all of its aspects without giving a damn about what is polite and respectable.

David Foster’s Sons of the Rumour

The concept of phallocentrism arose in the early twentieth century, emerging from the work of Freud, coined by his disciple Ernest Jones. There’s something about the supposed symbolic power of the phallus that seems very important in the 1,001 Nights, particularly with the frame story and Shahriyar’s actions in deflowering and then killing all those virgins. The association between sex and death is a common one, but here it’s almost as if Shahriyar is using his sexual organ as a weapon as he seeks his revenge.

The Australian writer David Foster has a literary career stretching back nearly fifty years that has included winning the Miles Franklin Award for his novel The Glade Within the Grove. His 2009 novel, Sons of the Rumour, is a rich and complex novel inspired by the 1,001 Nights that is incredibly erudite but nevertheless frequently has its mind in the gutter of sexuality. Foster adapts the frame story, transforming Shahriyar into Shahrban al-Marwazi, ruler of the city of Merv in seventh century Persia. He has also been stalled in his killing spree by Shahrazad, who spins stories to him, even though he is more interested in (and intimidated by) her enormous breasts. He escapes from her during the daytime in sections Foster labels as ‘Iranian Days’ and most of the embedded stories come from other people he encounters as he wanders the city. Despite the historical setting, Foster is unafraid of anachronisms and has his characters speak modern colloquial Australian English.

One of the anachronisms is the obsession that Shahrban has with the size of his equipment, almost as if he has been getting too many ‘enhancement’ emails or watching too much online pornography, which trades in exaggerated size (both of breasts and penises). When the Shah encounters “a sun-tanned ‘Ifrit, A Jinni built like Brad Thorn, whose red turband touches the cloudless sky” and is granted a wish he has only one thing on his mind: “Ifrit, by the power invested in me by the Most High Name, I command thou bestow on me a virile member longer and thicker than that of any blackamoor.” In a scene of low comedy his aspirations are foiled, however, as his new member is of such size that his heart is unable to pump sufficient blood to make it erect. As another character observes: “He’s out of action. Women of the world may sleep abed in peace.” It’s almost a case of be careful what you wish for until he finds another jinni and a second wish enables him to use it, turning his penis into a deadly weapon: “No woman has yet survived a deed of kind with the thing and these are working girls. Oh, you should see the smile on his dial. He’s a bad man, Hamdillah.”

Penises are often metaphorically described as weapons (Shakespeare frequently refers to his characters drawing their swords with this kind of innuendo), but in this novel Foster has it literally become the cause of death of numerous women. Shahrban still has a number of humiliations in store for him in Foster’s story, but for a period of time he wields his member in a way that brings the metaphor to life.

Even though Pasolini also depicted the explicit imagery of penis as weapon in one scene, he uses his film more as a celebration of sexuality than the kind of destructiveness we see in Sons of the Rumour. It may partly be to do with the change in time period: Pasolini made his film at a time of ‘free love’ in the mid 70s, whereas Foster wrote his novel (as he observes in an afterword) in the wake of the Cronulla Riots, when tensions were at a peak in Australia and elsewhere in the world between Muslims and non-Muslims, and he was attempting to explore different attitudes towards sexuality in terms of permisiveness.

‘If I can close with him, I care not for his thrust’

As the above line from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 indicates, The 1,001 Nights is not the only literary text that plays with sexuality and the imagery of the penis. Am I making too much of a relatively small thing when it comes to the importance of the male sexual organ in the text and in the later works that were inspired by it? After all, Shahrazad has been cited as a feminist icon in the way that she brings an end to the patriarchal destructiveness of Shahriyar through the power of her storytelling ability. Shouldn’t I be focusing on the role of female power in the text? Perhaps, but the works of Pasolini and Foster (both male, of course) show that the storytelling didn’t end after just 1,001 nights. The story is still being retold and reinterpreted by countless others, both men and women, in different times and places. This is just one more story that aims to contribute to the rich tapestry that continues to evolve around what is perhaps the quintessential piece of world literature.

I think we need to move beyond the dominance of the phallus and the way it gets seen as a stand-in for masculine power, with its overtones of toxic masculinity, as this excellent article suggests: ‘How to overcome phallus-obsessed, toxic masculinity.’ In my opinion, both the original stories in The 1,001 Nights as well as Pasolini’s and Foster’s retellings serve not to reinforce the toxic masculinity displayed by Shahriyar (or Shahrban), but to either gently mock masculine insecurities or to show men that there are other ways to be masculine that are less destructive. We can and should use the power of storytelling to do this, which is really what The 1,001 Nights is all about. Not just men being dicks.

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Blair Mahoney

Blair Mahoney

Teacher of Literature and Philosophy, prolific reader and sometime writer