My five-year-old nephew rarely has the patience to sit down quietly for more than a couple of minutes at the time. The exception is when he is being told a story, whether it is through television, a book, or one I make up ad hoc.
A while back he came dragging an elaborately decorated book he had found in the bookcase. “Read me a story from this book?” he demanded.
I could not resist, of course. We share a love for stories, my nephew and I, and reading has been an important bonding experience for the two of us. The book he had picked, however, offered some challenges.
One Thousand and One Nights. I am not overly familiar with these stories, because I grew up with Norwegian folktales and a selection from the Grimm collection. What I know of Arabian tales is mostly what Disney has taught me. Obviously, I know the basic concept and a few of the stories, but I wasn’t familiar with this book. However, I assumed it was similar to the Norwegian and German stories that in their modern versions have been “child proofed”. The Norwegian collectors, Peder Christian Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, actually censored the stories that had been orally transmitted to them, and they made separate collections of tales with adult content.
Apparently the Arabs were less prudish.
As my nephew handed me the book, I picked a story I knew, but not word by word. “Ali Baba and the Robbers” in my memory was a story about a boy who outsmarted some villains, and I figured it would be both entertaining (and morally acceptable) for a five-year-old. Well…
I didn’t realize Ali Baba had a brother. Or that this brother is a jealous man.
I’ll spare you the details but it suffices to say that I discovered mid-read that a decapitation puts a rather definite end of the chilly relationship between the brothers. This was most certainly no children’s story!
Like my countrymen 150 years ago I took to censoring. I skipped the gory parts, and added a nice moralistic end where the brothers make up and decide to split the treasure. I even made the story more interactive my teaching my nephew the difference between sesame seeds and sunflower seeds (I’m TONS of fun, I know…) The boy was happy, I was happy. I’m pretty sure old Scheherazade is turning in her grave, but that’s not really my problem…