The Cultural Ubiquity of One Thousand and One Nights: A Conversation with Suzanne Gauch
by Colleen Kropp
Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have some familiarity with the collection of folktales One Thousand and One Nights. Known in the United States as the Arabian Nights, the compiled stories continue to be modified, translated and retranslated the world over. Assembled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age over many centuries, the stories trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Indian, Jewish, Persian and Turkish folklore and literature.
Professor Suzanne Gauch, Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of English, teaches courses on film, food politics, gender and post-colonial studies. She is also the recent recipient of the Presidential Humanities and Arts Research Program Award for her work, “Animated Nights: The Arabian Nights in Early European and American Fantasy Film.” Professor Gauch’s keen insight regarding the status of the Nights in American and European culture stems from her research into the way authors and filmmakers use the Nights to play with cultural difference, divisions and insights. In order to understand how she developed an intimate relationship with the work, we have to follow her to North Africa.
What drew you towards North Africa?
There is not really a clear starting point for that. I had numerous contacts in Europe with North African culture. At some point before I went to graduate school I found myself in Geneva, Switzerland, with people from all over the world. I was having a conversation about literature with someone and they said “You’ve never read Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma?” and that was true, so I went out and read it. It is a famous anti-colonial Algerian work. That is how I began reading literature in the field, well before I did film studies. Then I went to graduate school thinking I would do something twentieth century but I didn’t think anti-colonial and post-colonial literature was a viable field of study until I took my exams. This was also around the time that post-colonial studies became big.
So your graduate work was in post-colonial studies?
It was, but I didn’t really come from a department that had specializations in it. I took courses in Modernism, the philosophy of history and literary theory including post-colonial studies.
So where did film start to come in as an area of study and research?
It came in somewhat before I finished my first book, when people began asking me whether I had ever worked on film. I had always found it an intimidating medium, difficult to track down. This was before the DVD. But, I was fortunate enough to live in Toronto for a year, which has a really active cinematheque and a great group of people dedicated to African film, who hosted screenings and discussion groups. I’m not even sure how I connected with them, but I found them, they found me, and I started learning more about film. Then I lived in Cleveland for a couple of years, which also had an excellent cinematheque and two wonderful screening series that featured films from all over the world.
You just received an award for looking at the way that the Nights is reconstituted in European and American film. What exactly is the relationship?
This project — the current project — explores how many filmmakers make use of the Arabian Nights in their work. As it stands now, the project focuses exclusively on silent film, with some references to later stuff included for contrast. My initial premise was that the Nights are a driver of technological innovation and formal experimentation, playing with the limits of what film can do.
A number of early filmmakers, like Georges Méliès focused heavily on fairytales and — if anything — the Nights is like a fairytale on steroids
You have all these transformations, portals into different realms. But Méliès’ one film that deals solely with the Nights is really boring. The orientalism just overwhelms the playfulness found in his other fairy tale films. I found that with very early films, you get a simplification of the narrative structure of the Nights. And I think that film is really the place where the Nights gets boiled down to Aladdin and The Thief of Baghdad, which are not actually stories from the Nights.
Moving forward, I am exploring how early films from 1920s Germany deal somewhat differently with the Nights, so my next move is into Weimar Cinema. There are many films with Arabian Nights motifs, and at least two that are structured as a frame story with three different episodes, so that they also borrow a the general structure of the tales. This framing becomes a way of exploring how even early film starts to set up premises for the kind of work that Arab and African film can do —the notion that there’s a global division of cultural labor. What those films are expected to show and what we expect to see becomes codified really early.
Are you saying that European and American perceptions run counter to an Arab perspective?
Well, it’s hard to figure out what the Arab perspective would be, because the Arabian Nights are so manipulated, and because the films have nothing to do with any real Arab country. There is no original text, there is no author to go back to, there is just an accumulation of modifications and translations. Which people have done really interesting work on and continue to do. At the same time, there’s no pure image either.
I am looking more at the way we tend to anticipate a kind of content often misperceived as realist, and how certain topics and motifs are popularized with international film audiences, in such a way that films from North Africa and the Middle East can’t reach European or American audiences unless they engage those images, topics and motifs.
My argument is that orientalist tropes get encoded in film. It’s not just that film and the included depictions are orientalist, but it is actually an orientalization of a medium that kind of perpetuates this cultural division of labor. This is something that Arab filmmakers still struggle against.
What was it that drew you into thinking about the Nights this way? Were you just seeing it over and over again in your research?
My first book was mainly on literature, but I also studied a film that focused on reclamations of Shahrazad. But not even overtly. The structure of the Nights and the figure of the storyteller and how that factored into a kind of feminist narrative, or at least a narrative that challenged specific forms of authority — both narrative authority and cultural authority — was significant. I thought I was done with the Nights after that project, but while I was working on a second project on contemporary North African cinema, I was asked to give a talk about the Arabian Nights. Because I was working on film, I did not want to go back into the literature and I started looking at early cinema. I saw what seemed to me to be a more pervasive influence of the Nights in cinema than there was in literature. Though I’m not sure that is completely true, it is just that it stood out in a different way, which I found interesting. Then this project started taking shape.
What comes next from that? With this Weimar Cinema, for example, is there something specific about that region when it comes to modifications of the Nights? Are there very different representations between American and European film?
I’m currently working on a chapter on the earliest surviving feature-length animation film which is also on the Nights, called the Adventures of Prince Achmed. It was made by a woman, Lotte Reiniger. I would say following from after that, unless I uncover something else …
I’ll move onto the States and specifically this film called Thief of Baghdad — there are two versions of it. The Douglas Fairbanks/Raoul Walsh version, which was a landmark fantasy film, is much more playful than the Weimar films, which have a dark edge to them. They’ve been described as tyrant films and two of them dabble in what has come to be called German Expressionism. Even Reiniger’s animation has that because it is a silhouette animation, so it has that certain play of shadows. Walsh, however, creates a whole fantasy universe and it is also a breakthrough for set design, for effects, and for the way it was marketed. There was a huge marketing machine around it.
What year was that?
That was 1924. There is a later color version. There are a couple of tropes you start to see that cross from Weimar cinema into U.S. films. There’s always a chase sequence, the male hero is always climbing a rope to get into the forbidden palace. I had thought I would conclude with the color version of the “Thief of Bagdad” or some of the early cartoons like the Bugs Bunny or Popeye Arabian Nights.
When was the last time you traveled out to North Africa? Is it something you do every couple of years?
In May. I hadn’t been in a while and I’m actually kind of interested in going to Algeria because right now the kinds of films coming out in Algeria currently are more interesting to me than what is coming out of Morocco. I was also interested in maybe doing something related to my side interest in food studies.
[Laughs]. I wanted to ask about that. I was never exactly clear what food politics means. What is that?
It gets defined differently. Food Studies has exploded over the last ten years. It kind of ramped up in the 80s but the last ten years have been really significant. I designed the Eating Cultures course for GenEd a long time ago, around 2006. Then I didn’t teach it for years, but other people picked it up and it gained popularity, especially in Spanish. I taught it for the first time in 2014. It is not necessarily literature focused, but because I’m coming out of lit and film, I do a fair amount of exploration of the language of food and the representations of food, as well as how food signifies in novels and film, particularly postcolonial novels and film. There is some great work that explains the food politics connection to postcolonial literature. There is certainly overlap with the imposition of issues of food justice and food sovereignty and how literature and movies reflect those struggles.
And that is specifically very separate from the Nights project?
[Laughs]. Yes, well, there is a lot of food in the Nights too.