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Oriental Soft Porn, Magic Carpets, Bedtime Tales in Paris

March 24, 2013

'The Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah'

"The Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah Travels on an Elephant" (c. 1750). The Indian gouache painting is on view at the Institut du Monde Arabe through April 28. Source: Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris via Bloomberg

Baghdad and Damascus are not exactly considered dream travel destinations.

Yet, once upon a time, those two cities were among the most attractive and glamorous in the world.

The show “Les Mille et Une Nuits” (One Thousand and One Nights) at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris uses the collection of the famous fairy tales, to explore that lost era.

Alongside illuminated manuscripts of the tales also known as “The Arabian Nights,” the exhibition displays ancient maps, carpets, ceramics, jewelry and other objects that conjure up the ancient world of oriental splendor.

On sofas, you can listen on headphones to some of the tales -- just as Shahriar, the emperor of Persia and India, had listened to Shahrazad, or Scheherazade, his beautiful and clever bride.

Disappointed by women, he had sworn to spend just one night with each new wife and have her executed the next morning.

Yet Shahrazad’s tale was so thrilling that he stayed her execution by one day so that he could learn the end of the story. Shahrazad knew a thing or two about cliffhangers, and kept him in suspense for 1,001 nights until he gave up and married her for good.

For the non-expert, the biggest surprise of the show is that the book, though based on oriental sources, is to a large extent a European creation. The first edition (12 volumes, 1704- 17) was published by the French orientalist Antoine Galland.

Magic Lamps

He translated a Syrian 15th-century manuscript, then added other stories a Syrian traveler had told him -- including some of the most popular such as “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” The first printed edition in Arabic appeared only in 1814.

There are many parallels with European literature. Tales embedded in a frame story can be found in Boccaccio’s “Decameron” and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” The adventures of Sindbad the Sailor are similar to those of Ulysses as related by Homer.

No wonder the “Nights” had a lasting influence on European literature, fine arts and music. The show includes amusing canvases by academic painters who catered to a bourgeoisie keen on oriental soft porn.

In 1985, an overzealous prosecutor in Cairo tried to have the book banned as immoral and an insult to Islam.

Costume designs and photographs remind us that “Scheherazade,” with music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was one of the triumphs of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Marlene Dietrich

Hollywood, of course, couldn’t resist cannibalizing the juicy stories. Dominican Republic-born beauty Maria Montez (in “Arabian Nights”), Marlene Dietrich (in “Kismet”) and others do their best to look exotic.

The most beautiful items, however, come from the Orient. Persian miniatures, Egyptian swords, Syrian panels, Afghan oil lamps and Mughal paintings evoke a universe of high culture and exquisite taste utterly different from contemporary life in those countries.

One of the show’s Arabian Nights heroes is the caliph Harun al-Rashid (766-809) under whose reign Baghdad reached its zenith. Legend has it that he acted as a one-man polling institute: On sleepless nights, he wandered through the city in disguise and asked people what they thought of their ruler.

The sumptuous show catalog is 39 euros (about $50) and will probably become a collector’s item.

“Les Mille et Une Nuits,” which is supported by the Fondation Total, runs through April 28.

Information: http://www.imarabe.org.

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, Robert Heller on music, Patrick Cole on charity and Elin McCoy on wine.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this review: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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