A year before the Middle East erupted in popular uprisings, British theatre director Tim Supple travelled through the region preparing his new stage adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights, talking to everyone from musicians and actors to royals.
At a dinner with female members of the Kuwaiti royal family, to whom he had been introduced by a friend, he discussed the framing tale of Scheherazade: Determined never to be betrayed again by a woman as promiscuous as his first wife, King Shahryar marries a new virgin every night and has her executed the next morning - until the crafty Scheherazade seduces him into keeping her alive with night after night of storytelling. But, the Kuwaiti women (Supple dined with the men separately) were shocked to learn, she always has to have sex with him first. Oh, and her sister is hiding under the bed listening.
Western audiences who adore the gauzy exoticism of One Thousand and One Nights and celebrate Scheherazade as the personification of female intellect and invention might also be surprised to know those erotic details. The often violent and explicitly sexual tales have been reduced to children's stories of magic carpets and wish-granting genies in the West, and dismissed as crude folk culture in the Arab world. But the political moment makes a collection narrated by a woman who tames a tyrant particularly ripe for some re-examination.
"These are details airbrushed out of the children's versions and the versions known to the Arab world," said Supple, whose two-part, six-hour revisioning of the celebrated literary text makes its world premiere at Toronto's Luminato festival on Saturday. For example, the genie in the bottle does not give the fisherman who releases him three magic wishes, but his choice of ways to die. Aladdin and his lamp were added by the French translator who introduced the medieval Arabic collection to Europe in the 18th century.
Featuring 24 Middle Eastern performers acting out 20 tales adapted by Lebanese feminist novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, Supple's One Thousand and One Nights attempts to restore those potent details and the complexity of the text.
"[The stories]are not about the questions of childhood; they are not magical adventures ... They are concerned with the extraordinary; they are supernatural, but they are about ... the profound issues of adult life, they are about marriage, love, power, fate, money, destiny, family and about relations with rulers," Supple said. "How could they not have contemporary resonance?"
Known for his interest in classical literary texts (he has done both Shakespeare and Grimm) and in cross-cultural interpretations, Supple won raves with his 2008 Anglo-Indian version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which appeared at Luminato. He'd long been intrigued by One Thousand and One Nights, which he saw as a way to begin a dialogue with the Middle East, and Luminato was the only organization ready to give him the funds for an ambitions pan-Arab project.
As the Arab world struggles to raise a voice against despotism and the West aches to find an Islam that cannot be reduced to terrorism, the production could hardly be more timely.
"In the West we are caught between two extremes, one of romanticism and one of fear and suspicion," Supple said. "We swing from romantic notions to fearful ones. We have to hear people as they truly are. That is what this project is about."
"The narrative we had grasped after 9/11 is a dead narrative," adds Luminato artistic director Chris Lorway, who also travelled through the Middle East to curate a 2011 lineup partly organized around the theme of Arab culture. He figures the arrival of his festival in the midst of the so-called Arab Spring is not entirely coincidental.
"There was something brewing in that part of the world ... My thinking was to illustrate what was really happening artistically. You got this sense from the artists there was this longing for change. That made it exciting."
Lorway and Supple agree with many observers that the current rebellions do not constitute an intellectual revolution led by artists, but rather a political revolt largely of young people angered by autocratic regimes at odds with their economic aspirations. But they also see an important role for art in building dialogue between East and West at a pivotal moment in Middle Eastern history.
"By sharing stories we understand each other better," Supple said. "We need to share stories as well as news about current events. I am not in the newspaper business; I work in theatre. This is not a play about the Arab Spring, this is a deeply rooted piece of Arab art that grew up in Arab soil."
To that end, the production was developed and workshopped in the Middle East, gathering groups of artists in Alexandria last year and settling on a team of 32 actors, musicians, writers and designers who were to begin rehearsals there in March. That changed with the unrest, requiring a move to the ancient city of Fez, Morocco.
Supple said many of the tales speak to an enduring Arab concern with the relationship between secular and religious power, the issue of who gets to make and enforce law. For example, the Nights' fictionalized version of the caliph Harun al-Rashid, an eighth-century political and religious leader, portray him not as the Western-style warrior king but rather as a social leader who, in one tale, goes about disguised as a merchant to see how his subjects live.
Not all kings are so concerned with the citizenry, of course, and One Thousand and One Nights can also speak to contemporary readers about the power of ordinary people against tyrants.
"Scheherazade herself is a tale of liberation, an effort by an ordinary woman who is outside the royal circle," said Muhsin al-Musawi, a professor of Arabic literature at New York's Columbia University who will speak at Luminato next Saturday. "If Scheherazade can achieve these things, one sees that with intelligence, there is space."
Al-Musawi explains that One Thousand and One Nights was historically dismissed by Arab literary elites as trashy stuff that should not be read. It was only in the 20th century, partly because of Western interest in the collection, that Arab scholars and writers turned to the folk tales for study and inspiration. For example, these medieval stories, set in cities and peopled with more artisans and professionals than kings and genies, foreshadow the urban, middle-class literature of the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who set his 20th-century political novels in the streets and cafés of Cairo.
More provocatively, al-Musawi suggests that the magical elements of the tales actually foreshadow the kind of miraculous modern communications that facilitate the so-called Facebook revolutions of the Middle East.
"Scherherazade's enchantments can be seen as a preparation for what is taking place," he said. "The magic carpet, the supernatural element, can be seen as a foreshadowing of virtual space. Imagination is being released in such a fashion it can take into account any possibility the human mind is capable of - in space and in time."
So, a clever commoner with astonishing powers of communication converts a tyrant to humanism.
"One would like to see a connection," al-Musawi agrees, expressing the hope an enduring classic has much to say to the politically active, social media generation. "A literature that cannot die, that is always renewable ... lending itself to this kind of discourse."
The Luminato festival and One Thousand and One Nights continue in Toronto through June 19.