One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling
By Hanan al-Shaykh
Pantheon Books, New York, 2013
Those only familiar with the Orientalized version of the “One Thousand and One Nights” as a tale of harems, sultans, and veiled houris may be surprised to know that Arab women, especially those who are writers, continue to be enchanted by the stories of Shahrazad as Arabs know it as a tale featuring a heroine who uses her wits and knowledge to save the women of her kingdom from a murderous monarch. Hanan al-Shaykh, in her introduction to this highly accessible retelling of the tales, states, “I came to see [Shahrazad’s] weapon was art at its best, her endless invention of all of those magnificent stories.”
Shahrazad embodies strength, not just her own, but that of the women of her kingdom, her country, and her era. Al-Shaykh says, “As a female Arab writer my real enchantment was the discovery that women in those forgotten ancient societies were far from passive and fearful; they showed their strong will and intelligence and wit, all the time recognizing that their behavior was the second nature of the weak and the oppressed.”
Here, in these tales, the reader not only meets women who are true victims, such as the many who meet their deaths by being (wrongly or rightly) accused of infidelity (the wives of both Shahrayar and Shahzaman, the lover of the second dervish, and the wife of the third dervish), but also women who script their own fates and seize chance by the throat to make things happen. One of the most entertaining stories concerns Dalila the Wily, who upends an entire town and humiliates some of its most prominent citizens in order to receive what she deserves. In another tale, “The Woman and Her Five Lovers,” a beautiful, resourceful woman bewitches the entire aristocracy of her city, including the king, in order to free her wrongly imprisoned lover.
In these tales, women shift their fates and change their lives more magically and mysteriously than anything made possible by genies and demons, who act merely as secondary characters. Who needs spirits, after all, when the human characters are so dynamic? The five sisters, principal actors in the main story, move between passion and isolation; two of them are doomed by a vengeful genie to spend many years as dogs, while the other three determine to never marry, for, in their experience, husbands only bring misery and cruelty. One sister insists to the Caliph himself (for Haroun al-Rashid and his friend Abu Nuwas appear as characters in the tales), “My happiness does not lie with a man.”
Anything is possible in the “One Thousand and One Nights”: Zumurrud, a slave girl in one of the tales, ascends to the throne as a town’s most generous and benevolent king, all as a ruse to gain time while she searches for her long-lost lover. Another king is tricked by a beautiful woman and locked in a wall cabinet with four other men, who end up urinating on his royal head. These rapid changes – from high status to low, from esteemed to shamed – signify the instability of life and hilarity of the twists of fate. As Shahzaman complains, “What treacherous world is this, which fails to distinguish between a sovereign king and a nobody?”
In al-Shaykh’s gorgeous prose, the frame narrative, that of Shahrazad, who tells a story every night to the king and her little sister, eventually melts away, yielding to the beauty of the interwoven tales. However, al-Shaykh leaves the book without a clear conclusion. In the end, Shahrazad’s story folds into the narrative itself as one of the stories told by the sister referred to as “the shopper,” and is left unfinished. The shopper loves the Caliph – and he loves her as well – but she distrusts his fickle nature and his capacity for cruelty; he has, in the past, betrayed her. Thus the tale of Shahrazad is entrusted to a woman whose story parallels that of our narrator; after all, we wonder if Shahrazad will be able to trust the murderous Shahrayar. Gone is the familiar ending, in which Shahrayar understands, after many years, that he has been wrong and that he loves his young wife, who is now the mother of his children. Al-Shaykh leaves us with a sense of uncertainty, and the hope that the story will continue, as one woman voices the fears, frustrations, and passion of another.
This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 66, 2012-'13.
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