The Arabian Nights essentially reflect the world of Egyptian and Syrian urban culture of the Mamluk period (1260-1517) and the heroes of the stories are as often merchants as kings and princes, something that would be unimaginable in the contemporary world of Arthurian romance. There is lots of talk of commerce and money, the everyday life of the souks and ports from which the unsuspecting, but not unwilling, merchant can be lured to unimaginable adventures. Some of tales are set in clearly defined historical contexts. The most famous of these are the ones featuring the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), the vizier Ja’far the Barma kid, Harun’s wife Zubayda and the poet/court jester Abu Nuwas. These are all well-known historical figures but none of the stories in which they figure has any known historical basis, and the caliph’s night-time, incognito wanderings through his mysterious capital of Baghdad are no more than devices to introduce more fabulous events. In most cases the stories are set in a sort of never-never land, just far enough beyond the horizons of the familiar world to allow for marvels and wonders of all sorts.
It is fair to say that the Nights was looked down on, or more often simply disregarded, by the literary elite of the Arabic-speaking world. The simple narrative flow, the numerous marvels and wholly improbable events, the questionable morality and, perhaps most of all, the sex with which the “Nights” are, to use Robert Irwin’s expression, “suffused”, all combined to ensure that they were never part of the classical Arabic canon.