The "Orient" within "Us"

Narratives from the Muslim World in Western Oral Tradition


The narrative heritage the West owes to the Orient is neither commonly known nor adequately acknowledged, particularly not as far as modern oral tradition is concerned. For many centuries, tales have been an important part of the intellectual goods that travelled East to West. In addition to large collections of tales, such as Kalila wa-Dimna, the Sindbad-name/Seven Sages and The Thousand and One Nights, numerous single tales originating from or adapted by Muslim tradition were transmitted to the West. Predominantly, cultural contacts took place in the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Palestine and the Levant, Byzantium, and, later, in the contact zones with the Ottoman Empire in North Africa and the Balkans. Many Oriental tales eventually became integral parts of European oral tradition to an extent that the narrators and their audiences are not aware of their foreign origin. It is these tales that the present research project studies in their historical and modern dimension.

Methodologically, the research project is grounded in comparative folk narrative research with a particular emphasis on tales deriving from Arabic, Persian, and Turkish tradition. The project's result is an English-language handbook that contains detailed surveys of 101 Oriental narratives documented in Western oral tradition. It sheds light on the vernacular and popular dimension of the impact of Oriental narrative tradition, an aspect that previous research on Orientalism and cultural contacts between the Orient and the West has neglected. The adequate awareness for the Oriental and, particularly, the Muslim heritage of a considerable body of narratives prevalent in Western oral tradition is much needed as a humanist counterbalance in the late modern world where Muslims are again perceived as the essential Other.

The research project was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. The book resulting from the research project, "101 Middle Eastern Tales and Their Impact on Western Oral Tradition," was published by Wayne State University Press in August 2020.