Friday, April 3, 2009
Following my dream self into the Arabian Nights
I've been absorbed for a couple of days in the nested stories and serial cliff-hangers of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, widely known as the Arabian Nights, in an effort to catch up with my dream self. Let me explain. A good friend emailed me a dream report last week in which I was holding forth on my latest discoveries, seated in a comfortable armchair with a drink at my elbow, in altogether familiar style. There were black cats in the dream of the kind that lived with me years ago, one of which was the very model of a "cat that walks through walls". As my friend reported my dream monologue, I used a key word that sounded somewhat French yet more exotic. She decided that the word was "Alatrous," pronounced the French way.
Both of us have learned, over the years, never to discount odd words that turn up in dreams. Initial research at this juncture turned up just one "Alatrous": a genie, or jinni mentioned in the "Histoire du roi Sapor, souverain des iles Bellour" in volume 7 of Gauttier's 1822 edition of the Mille et Une Nuits. I have yet to locate the full text of that volume, but a general direction was set. I've been looking into the history and morphology of the jinni (the word means "invisible" or "concealed") and his high-powered cousins the ifrit and the marid in a number of English translations of the Arabian Nights, including Captain Richard Francis Burton's classic and Husein Haddawy's recent translation of Muhsin Mahdi's definitive edition of the 14th century Syrian manuscript version.
I've been wondering about the relationship between the jinn of the Middle East and other humanoid species that live close to the human realm in the imagination of other peoples - like the Rakshasas of India, who Burton thought were the same as jinn. Could such creatures exist outside fantastic tales? Certainly jinn are very much alive in popular Muslim belief, and there is an account of their creation (from fire without smoke) and their operations in the Koran.
I'm entertained by the idea of following a lead from what my dream self had to say in someone else's dream. This is far from a unique experience for me. My favorite example is from a decade ago, when I was working on my book Dreaming True. I was trying to write a crisp five-point summary of the principal reasons why we tend to misinterpret dream information about the future. I had the first point clear: "We mistake a literal event for a symbolic one, or vice versa." But I was not satisfied with my formulation of the remaining four points. While I was working on this, I received an email from a wise woman (wise in scholarship and in life experiences) who had attended one of my retreats at the Esalen Institute. She wanted to thank me for the lecture I had given the previous evening. She congratulated me for the "clarity" with which I had discussed how to read dream messages about the future. Unusually for me, I had written key points on a whiteboard, including five reasons why we tend to misinterpret such information.
But wait a minute - in my waking life, I had given no lecture the previous evening. It seemed that, in her dream, the woman had heard me speak about the precise themes I was working on at that time. Now quite excited, I fired off an email request: "Could you send me your notes from the lecture I gave in your dream?"
The dreamer obliged. She promptly emailed me the five points I had written on the whiteboard. The first was one I had already formulated in my book draft. The others closely reflected my thinking on the subject, but had a clarity and economy of language that I had not yet achieved in the draft. Gratefully, I took the lecture notes from the dreamer who had listened to my dream self and incorporated them, with minimal editing, into the manuscript of Dreaming True. The passage (on page 42) reads as follows:
The five most common reasons why we misinterpret dream messages about the future are:
1. We mistake a literal event for a symbolic one, or vice versa.
2. We misidentify people and places.
3. We fail to figure out how far in the future the dreamed event might be.
4. We see future events from a certain angle, that may not reveal the whole picture.
5. We confuse realities, confounding a dream that relates to external reality with dreams that are real experiences in other orders of reality.
The jury is still out on where the search for "Alatrous" will lead. Of course, the dreamer may have misheard me. I might have said "atrocious", or "albatross" or something else entirely. My friend is a highly gifted dream clairvoyant, and has been a reliable source on many things in the past. Yet when it comes to her renderings of names and foreign words, she is certainly not above suspicion. With a slight change (a learned friend observes) the word becomes the Tatar "Alatour". In fairytales, the alatour is the magical stone (white or golden) that lies at the bottom of the sea in a kind of promised land.
If jinn are involved, there's sure to be trickster element at play, and veils to be lifted. For now, I'm content to enjoy the story, and to awaken again, with Sheherezade, to how the making and telling of stories is what makes us fully human and keeps us alive.