Some thoughts on cultural appropriation and the 1001 Arabian Nights

by Matt Parry, Writer & Producer for The Opus Pocus

I feel it’s important to acknowledge the potential issue of cultural appropriation with the 1001 Arabian Nights story and my adaptation of it. Indeed I have had the point rasied a couple of times, so it does need be addressed. Firstly, to define what I am talking about. From the Oxford English Dictionary:

“Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

So I hope, in the first instance, by at least acknowledging this as a potential issue I have made a start in addressing it.

But on whether using the 1001 Nights as the source material and then adapting it for this project is inappropriate – given that I am a white British citizen – to be honest I have conflicting thoughts on this. I can see how it might fall under the second part of the definition: the inappropriate adoption of the ideas of one people (the 1001 Nights stories from the Middle Eastern culture) by another (me, a white, British writer) and certainly – historically – the latter culture was more dominant, especially when the version of 1001 Nights that we in Britain are most familiar with was primarily disseminated here at the height of the British Empire by Sir Richard Francis Burton, an explorer and former captain in the army of the East India Company. But I also think this is a somewhat superficial analysis of the issue both in general and in my specific case. Plus I am not sure who gets to define what is and isn’t ‘appropriate’! Let’s deal with these points one by one.

Intrinsically inappropriate?

So in general, yes, it’s important to recognise that one culture taking source material from another can be problematic. But is it intrinsically inappropriate? No, I don’t think so. And indeed I believe this would be quite an extreme position to take, inhibiting creativity and the exchange of cultural ideas. As an example, given that I am British (well, half Celtic, and currently applying for an Irish passport…) should I only be able to source material from “British” culture? So I get Shakespeare, Arthurian legends and Robin Hood – but the rest of the world doesn’t? Indeed half of Shakespeare wouldn’t exist in the first instance as he sourced so much from material from stories foreign to British culture at the time: Othello, Julius Caesar and Two Gentlemen of Verona, to pick an obvious three.

But is it then inappropriate if the material is used to characterise the other culture it in a derogatory way or to critique it perhaps? Probably yes, but I think not always so. I’m pretty sure that ‘characterising another culture in a derogatory way’ would, most likely, always be wrong, for the obvious reason that – assuming you did have a valid criticism of another culture – you can still never stereotype a group of people as ‘all being the same’. However, we are allowed to critique other cultures, in the same way that we’re allowed to criticise our own. Or perhaps these two things should be tied? I.e. we’re allowed to criticise other cultures so long as we apply the same, unsparing criticism to our own. I think that’s fair, otherwise we’d just be hypocrites.

So, to conclude so far, nothing wrong in sourcing material from another culture, so long as it is acknowledged and anything that might be critical of it is only what the author has or would apply to their own (or indeed any) culture. Okay, feels like we are getting somewhere.

My specific adaptation of 1001 Nights

So, what about in my specific case – have I done this? Um, I don’t think so… I’ve only taken what was in the original stories: the premise of a Sultan who feels so betrayed by women he makes the extreme decision to execute each of his wives after their first wedding night; a pirate searching the High Seas for adventure and treasure; an evil genie (or “djinn” in the original) that transforms men into baboons; a brave princess who spins these yarns to save herself (and her sisterhood), who eventually outwits the ultimate patriarch in the form of the Sultan with the final moral being that love conquers all. I didn’t invent any of this.

But have I treated this material disrespectfully in some way? Perhaps by presenting it so comically, including the violence against women that is so fundamental to the story? Well, it is all in the original! If anything, I’ve just given it what I would call the ‘Horrible Histories treatment’, which is to leave all the gory bits in, because, let’s be honest, this really engages children. But I still think it’s clear who is in the right or wrong throughout the story, despite how ironic some of my writing around this might be. Please don’t underestimate children: they get it.

Better source material perhaps?

But in choosing the 1001 Nights as the source material does this always depict Middle Eastern culture in a certain derogatory way? Is it just standard outdated tropes of pirates, captive princesses and mad sultans? I think I might have had concerns about this a few decades ago, when 1001 Nights – perhaps – was the only material from Middle Eastern culture that the majority of the British public engaged with (e.g. through pantomime or Disney maybe), but nowadays with such entrenched multiculturalism (definitely a good thing in my opinion) I think we’re well beyond that. Does anyone of Middle Eastern heritage really believe that “the British” still just think of them all as “pirates and mad sultans”? Surely not. It feels ridiculous to even write that. Despite clear issues of racism in present day UK, I would still say we’re well beyond that viewpoint as a society and a new retelling of the magical, captivating 1001 Nights story for children is surely harmless in this respect.

Or is there other better source material? Something from the Middle East that is more enlightening and provides a wider and fresher perspective on what is an immeasurably rich source of culture? To be honest I suspect there probably is. I think I’m right in saying that the 1001 Nights isn’t particularly popular in Middle Eastern culture, or certainly not as much as it is in that of Western / British. But I would still argue that the fundamental feature of the 1001 Nights is a strong female protagonist who eventually heals the Sultan through love, which is interesting and progressive in its own right, though parts of it perhaps still unfold in an imperfect way. However the starting point of this – and of all the stories from The Opus Pocus – is to get children listening to classical music. So Rimsky-Korsakov’s incredible narrative composition was the initial inspiration and thus the story had to be 1001 Arabian Nights.

A more dominant society, but what about the individuals?

I think there is another part of the cultural appropriation definition that again is perhaps treated too superficially. To go back to this definition and the “typically more dominant people or society” part of it, I mentioned how the 1001 Nights stories were primarily disseminated in the English speaking population at the height of the British Empire by the explorer and former captain in the army of the East India Company, Sir Richard Francis Burton. Superficially this looks pretty bad! The British Empire was clearly the more dominant society at the time and, as a former captain in the East India Company, this Burton chap sounds like he might be one of the typical sociopaths the British Empire manufactured in its dehumanising boarding school system to send out and subjugate the rest of the world fuelled, I suspect, by their unresolved childhood trauma. Something that, when one looks at the recent crop of callous, deceitful ministers (prime or otherwise) that this country has had to endure, sadly appears to continue to this day.

But this doesn’t provide the full picture of Burton. Yes he fought for the East India Company (apparently so ferociously he earned the nickname “Ruffian Dick”) but he also extensively criticised colonial policies of the British Empire, immersed himself in Middle Eastern culture (amongst others), learned to speak as many as twenty-nine different languages and generally made a nuisance of himself to anyone in a position of authority. He was clearly an outsider, more keen to follow his own path than to be a representative of the British Empire in some way, including publishing the first English translation of the Kama Sutra, causing some scandal at the time.

So I think his unexpunged, risque translation of the 1001 Nights (as opposed to the earlier well-known French translation by Antoine Galland, which didn’t include all the sex and violence) was not some “cultural land grab” by a dominant society, but more a passion project by a very particular individual, who regarded himself as an outsider to his own culture and who had a keen interest in discovering and sharing the ideas of other cultures ultimately, I suspect, to provide a more authentic insight into the human condition.

Likewise when I look at myself as a writer, or just simply as an individual, whilst I might have been born in Britain to British parents (who both grew up in relative poverty by the way – I might be from a doctor’s family but I’m not descended from some landed gentry or anything like that), primarily I regard myself as a human being born on planet earth. Secondary to this I happen to have been born in Britain (and I am fully aware of the privileges that come with my nationality, race, gender and education) but I’m really no representative of the British Empire – I’m highly critical of it – and, like Burton, I am fascinated to learn from cultures around the world with no prejudice as to any cultural dominance or superiority. I also can’t do anything about who I am and and into which country/society/culture I was born, so I think it’s a little unfair to say I can’t use this material due to a bunch of things beyond my control!

Ultimately what I am doing here is making pains to address the first part of the cultural appropriation definition: stressing how much I fully acknowledge it as a potential issue.

Who decides what’s appropriate?

One other thing I want to mention is how we define what’s ‘appropriate’. To me, it’s a bit like the word lawyers love to use in contracts: ‘reasonable’: there’s no fixed definition, it’s actually something quite fluid and thus lawyers love how they can earn a lot of money by arguing endlessly over what it actually means. Whilst I doubt I can earn any money over trying to define what’s ‘appropriate’ here, I can at least write some thoughts on it. For me it’s another word in danger of being interpreted superficially within the cultural appropriation definition. Basically, who decides what is and isn’t appropriate? To go to one ‘representative’ of a particular culture (or two, or ten, or a hundred?) and have them say “yep this is all ok” or “no it’s completely inappropriate” is actually quite superficial. There’s as many different opinions on this as there are individuals of that culture.

So how do we work out what is and isn’t appropriate? You ask all of these individuals, i.e. you let the audience decide. They will respond and this response might even change over time (think Roald Dahl), but my point is there’s a danger of inhibiting work from being created in the first instance for fear of any criticism – in regard to cultural appropriation or anything else – from even a single individual. Instead I say “publish and be damned”. Some of my favourite content – and in my opinion of huge positive influence to the world – would not have been created if this inhibition had applied: think Book of Mormon, Monty Python, or indeed Horrible Histories, the last of which I find incredibly inspiring as a brilliantly subversive approach to what is often perceived to be a “dry academic subject” (history), which I thoroughly intend The Opus Pocus to emulate for classical music.

A final note on the diversity of our cast & creatives

An important final point to add. I actually started this project more than ten years ago now (there is a whole other story as to why it took so long to bring it to fruition, which I think sadly indicates the poor attitude amongst the major classical music record labels in recognising the responsibility they have to invest in the future of this music, anyway…) and I think I’d consider more carefully the diversity of our team if I were starting from scratch now. Then again, I can not think of any one of the incredible contributors who I would not have wanted in each of the various roles for this project. But generally diversity in the arts is hugely important and I think even more so in classical music. For me this works best from the grassroots up and at the end of the day, that is exactly what this project is intended to do: make classical music fun and accessible to all.