How long is an Arabian Night?

When the next night came, Dinarazad said to her sister Shahrazad: ‘In God’s name, sister, if you are not asleep, then tell us one of your stories!’ Shahrazad answered: ‘With great pleasure! I have heard tell, honoured King, that…’

I’m planning to do a series of blog posts about Alf Laylah Wa Laylah, the Stories of One Thousand and One Nights. This collection of folk tales, collected over many centuries by various authors, translators, and scholars across West, Central and South Asia and North Africa, forms a huge narrative wheel with an overarching plot, created by the frame story of Shahrazad.

The stories begin with the tale of king Shahryar and his brother, who, both deceived by their respective Sultanas, leave their kingdom, only to return when they have found someone who — in their view — was wronged even more. On their journey the two brothers encounter a huge jinn who carries a glass box containing a beautiful young woman. The two brothers hide as quickly as they can in a tree. The jinn lays his head on the girl’s lap and as soon as he is asleep, the girl demands the two kings to make love to her or else she will wake her ‘husband’. They reluctantly give in and the brothers soon discover that the girl has already betrayed the jinn ninety-eight times before. This exemplar of lust and treachery strengthens the Sultan’s opinion that all women are wicked and not to be trusted.

When king Shahryar returns home, his wrath against women has grown to an unprecedented level. To temper his anger, each night the king sleeps with a virgin only to execute her the next morning. In order to make an end to this cruelty and save womanhood from a “virgin scarcity”, Sharazad offers herself as the next king’s bride. On the first night, Sharazad begins to tell the king a story, but she does not end it. The king’s curiosity to know how the story ends, prevents him from executing Shahrazad. The next night Shahrazad finishes her story, and begins a new one. The king, eager to know the ending of this tale as well, postpones her execution once more. Using this strategy for One Thousand and One Nights in a labyrinth of stories-within-stories-within-stories, Shahrazad attempts to gradually move the king’s cynical stance against women towards a politics of love and justice (see Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic (2013)).

The first European version of the Nights was translated into French by Antoine Galland. Many translations (in different languages) followed, such as the (heavily criticized) English translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton entitled The Book of the Thousand and a Night (1885). This version is freely available from the Gutenberg project (see here), and will be the one I will explore here.

I am intrigued by the suspense created by Shahrazad’s story-telling skills, especially the “cliff-hanger” ending each night with she uses to avert her own execution (and possibly that of womanhood). Every night she tells the Sultan a story only to stop at dawn and she picks up the thread the next night. But does it really take the whole night to tell a particular story?

I am not aware of any exact numbers about how many words people speak per minute. Averages seem to fluctuate between 100 and 200 words per minute. Narrators are advised to use approximately 150 words per minute in audiobooks. I suspect that this number is a little lower for live storytelling and assume it lies around 130 words per minute (including pauses) (cf. this). Using this information, we can compute the time it takes to tell a particular story as follows:

$$ST(t) = \frac{\textrm{number of words in t}}{\textrm{words per minute}}$$

So, a story of 4000 words would take approximately 4000 / 130 = 30 minutes. (To be honest, this actually seems quite fast to me.) I took Burton’s translation of Alf Laylah Wa Laylah and computed for each night how long it would take to tell the story. The plot below visualizes this for each story. I add a smoothing curve (in blue) for interpretability. On average, each night only lasts nine minutes. Remarkably short!

Then Shahrazad reached the morning, and fell silent in the telling of her tale…