In tellings of ‘Arabian Nights,’ professor examines cultural differences

Professor Suzanne Gauch earned a university award for her “Arabian Nights” research.

Suzanne Gauch’s most recent book, “Maghrebs in Motion: North African Cinema in Nine Movements,” looks into how North African filmmakers have mobilized their audiences. Gauch won a university award for her research on the ancient folktale “Arabian Nights.” | ELIZABETH SIEGEL / THE TEMPLE NEWS

While growing up in Quebec in the 1970s and ’80s as a first-generation immigrant, it was difficult for Suzanne Gauch to fit into a language-divisive society.

Gauch’s parents are from Switzerland. At the time, there was a lot of animosity toward immigrants in the province and people who spoke languages other than French, Quebec’s first language, because residents wanted to preserve their heritage.

“As a kid, I never really understood this [but] with 4- or 5-year-olds, they’ll be like, ‘I’m not hanging out with you, you speak English, I’m not hanging out with you, you speak French,’ and my view was always, ‘Just let me learn your language, what’s the problem?’” said Gauch, whose first language is Swiss German.

As she grew older, she discovered that most of her immigrant friends, whether they spoke English or French, were from different parts of the Middle East and Africa. This experience influenced her current research on Middle Eastern and North African cinema.

“So that whole dynamic of even little kids taking on ideas of origins of what is someone’s culture and what isn’t someone’s culture has always been fascinating to me,” she said.

Gauch, an English professor, recently received the Temple University Presidential Humanities and Arts Research Program Award for her work, “Animated Nights: The Arabian Nights in Early European and American Fantasy Film.”

“The Thousand and One Nights,” also known as “Arabian Nights”, is a collection of Middle Eastern stories and folktales, written and compiled in Arabic in the Islamic Golden age. The stories have ancient Arabic, Jewish, Indian, Persian and Turkish origins.

Gauch researched how the stories of “Arabian Nights” are portrayed in modern European and American cinema and how they shape cultural images, ideals and societal representations.

Through her research, she learned how present “Arabian Nights” was in feature films. She became aware of how much film shapes people’s perception of what “Arabian Nights” is about.

Suzanne Gauch, an English professor, received an award from the university for her research on films’ portrayal of “Arabian Nights.” | MAGGIE LOESCH / THE TEMPLE NEWS

She found this in popular American movies like “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and “The Thief of Bagdad,” as well as Disney’s famous animated movie, “Aladdin.” She also researched German titles and how “Arabian Nights” were included in their narratives.

“My first premise was, how are they using the Nights to advance technique and film form?” she said. “I see how they really can’t deal with the Nights as a complex text [because] it’s too difficult to adapt, so they’re flattening out the Nights they’re simplifying it, they’re imposing a certain kind of European model and narrative structure and also limitations of what film can do.”

Gauch first explored “Arabian Nights” in her 2006 book, “Liberating Shahrazad: Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Islam,” in which she discussed how North African women filmmakers reshaped Shahrazad, a fictional storyteller in “Arabian Nights.”

In American and European adaptations, like Georges Méliès’ 1905 silent film, the character is often represented as a “silent exotic beauty,” according to her book’s summary. Gauch said the presentation of Shahrazad in recent films highlights the strength and resilience of Muslim women by overturning stereotypes of submissiveness.

After she thought she was finished with her research on the folktale, Gauch was invited to speak about the subject at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, in 2013. While preparing for her talk, she made some findings that propelled her to do more research into “Arabian Nights.”

She learned that the only exposure had to the story of “Arabian Nights” was through “Aladdin.”

“That intrigued me because ‘Aladdin’ isn’t in the story that was originally in the Nights, that’s something that was put there by the first European translator,” Gauch said.

Gauch, in addition to her work in Middle Eastern cinema, has also explored the portrayal of North African post-colonial cinematic work. She discussed this in her most recent book, “Maghrebs in Motion: North African Cinema in Nine Movements,” in which she explored how North African filmmakers tried to mobilize audiences who were disappointed by post-independence governments.

Sandra Suárez, senior associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and a political science professor, said she finds Gauch’s research important because she explores how ancient narratives impact society’s understanding of Asiatic and African culture.

“I don’t study that region so for me it’s an education,” Suárez said. “I’m someone who likes film, and I know how film can be powerful, so she’s studying very similar things to what I study except that she’s looking at those themes through the lenses of an output that I don’t look at.”

Gauch is using her award to travel to film archives and conferences. She said she hopes her research inspires people to discover more African film and literature.

“Africa is a huge continent, dynamic, and extremely diverse, but U.S. media representations of Africa and Africans remain simplistic and flattening,” Gauch said. “We like to think of ourselves as global citizens, but can we really claim that if we don’t know anything about cultural production from other parts of the world, especially from a continent as significant as Africa?”

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