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Shahrazad at Large

Then, Now and…Forever?


by Kathleen Fraser
posted August 6, 2012
A paper presented at the 4th IBCC, Toronto, Canada
May 2—5, 2012

This paper is really about ideas—how we play with them, refashion them, how we take old ideas and recreate them anew to suit new circumstances.

In this paper I look at an old idea from the Middle East (and beyond), the story of Shahrazâd and explore some of things she is up to today.

Everyone knows the story of Shahrazâd! Right? We seem to be able to just pick the details out of the air. She was the daughter of the chief minister. To take revenge on all women for his first wife’s unfaithfulness, the king married a virgin every night and had her killed in the morning. With a plan to stop the crimes Shahrazâd convinced her father to let her marry the king. She told the king a story on her wedding night, breaking off at a critical moment in the plot. Desperate to know the ending the king kept her alive for another day — this going on for “A Thousand and One Nights.” In the end the king “forgave” her, stopped the killings, and they lived happily ever after. In some versions her sister Dunyazad is present at these evenings of story telling. Sometimes Dunyazad marries the king’s brother. Sometimes Shahrazâd becomes a mother.

Over the centuries Shahrazâd has demonstrated her stamina. All today acknowledge the immense influence of “Nights” on European literature, theatre, painting, music, film, dance and popular culture. Today Shahrazâd seems to belong to everyone, everywhere, anytime. Everyone seems free to use her as they please.

Shahrazâd first captured me last summer when director Tim Supple brought his One Thousand and One Nights play to Luminato, Toronto’s international annual arts festival (see bibliography). I felt obliged to attend the two evenings and six hours of performance but wondered why a sophisticated modern audience might like what I thought of as a tired orientalist piece. I became impressed with the cast drawn from across the Middle East and intrigued with the idea that the controversial Lebanese author Hanan el-Shaykh had created the play’s text from the original medieval Thousand and One Nights. She says, with heart: “I felt as if I had opened the door of a carriage taking me back to the heart of my Arab heritage.” (Al-Shaykh. 2011, p.21)

In the end I got hooked and set off on my own Shahrazâd travels.

I began to research the literature and discovered there’s a whole one-thousand-and one-nights world out there today. It’s a legitimate field of scholarly study as well as a popular preoccupation … it’s vast, strong and growing.

Antoine GallandThere are two interesting avenues. First, I give you a few key findings by scholars, from both east and west. Second, I give you four modern novelists who have reworked Shahrazâd to advance political and feminist agendas.

Two hundred year’s scholarly attention to the Arabic texts of “Nights” reveals that there is no one book called The Thousand and One Nights, written by a single author, at a single time.

Rather there now remain about 20 early (more or less similar) manuscript collections of stories written in Arabic and produced over the centuries. The earliest Arabic version of “Nights” (now lost) probably dates from 10th century Baghdad—and even that is based on an earlier Persian collection. Later 14th and 15th century Arabic collections added stories with a Cairo location to earlier ones sited in Baghdad, stories with attention to the important emerging middle classes.

Individual “Nights” stories have earlier versions of themselves originally from far and wide—ancient Greece and ancient Egypt, India, China, Persia, Turkey, Byzantium.

earliest copyThe first “Nights” as a printed book appeared in Europe in 1705, with Antoine Galland’s famous translation into French. It became a literary sensation. Many other European translations soon followed, with each translator taking a highly personal approach to wording and censorship of the original Arabic.  In recent years new Arabic compilations by Middle Eastern scholars have appeared, with subsequent translation into English (see bibliography).

Common to all older original Arabic versions of “Nights” was the so-called “frame tale” of Shahrazâd, the king Shahrayar, and Dunyazad the sister who also listened to the nightly stories. The frame tale not only opens and closes the entire collection of stories, but Shahrazâd’s voice also opens and closes each nightly story with the promise of more marvels the next evening. It is this frame tale of Shahrazâd that I explore here. Today she has escaped from the weight of “Nights” to have her own life. Scholar Fedwa Malti-Douglas claims: “the frame story of the 1001 nights is without doubt one of the most powerful narratives in world literature.” (p.11) Scholar Eva Salis says of her: “Many readings [of her story] are possible.” (87) Here I give your four of them.

1st book – Arabian Nights & Days by Naguib Mahfouz

My first contemporary rereading of Shahrazâd comes from Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the Nobel prize for literature and Egyptian by birth. His highly political 1982 novel—Arabian Days and Nights—takes place in a thinly disguised Cairo. (We should probably think of Shahrayar the king as president Hosni Mubarak.) Mahfouz begins with the morning of the 1002nd day. King Shahrayar announces he has “forgiven” Shahrazâd. But later she confides to her father “A crime is a crime. How many virgins has he killed? How many pious and God-fearing people has he wiped out? Only hypocrites are left in the kingdom.” (p.4) From then on the novel concentrates on the true redeeming of the king and Shahrazâd hardly appears.

The novel relates fabulous, and often comic, tales of ordinary citizens of Shahrayar’s city, a series of murders and disappearances for which he must provide justice. His justice becomes more equitable as over time he wanders the city by night to learn truths about his realm. Power and corruption are increasingly addressed. In the end he turns over the kingdom to Shahrazâd as regent for their son, he leaves ordinary common people in positions of responsibility and he becomes a wandering mendicant seeking God’s wisdom.

Besides, in his version, making the king face his crimes truly and actually pay a real price for them, Mahfouz has changed the ancient frame tale significantly in other ways.

First, there is no heterosexual couple living happily ever after. Second, Shahrazâd has done her work before the novel opens, and Mahfouz does not even accord her the wisdom and personal power she had in the original medieval “Nights” — in fact the women in this novel are depicted as mostly helpless and peripheral — mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters.

Mahfouz certainly does not have a feminist agenda even if he can be optimistic about the political future of his country.

2nd book – When Dreams Travel by Ghita Hariharan

How differently the modern Indian novelist Ghita Hariharan uses Shahrazâd in When Dreams Travel (1999). Here women are the central and active agents. The novel begins years after the events of the tale telling. The main heroine is Dunyazad, sister to Shahrazâd, and married off to king Shahrayar’s brother in Samarkand. Shahrazâd has died in mysterious circumstances. Dunyazad arrives in Shahrayar’s kingdom to mourn her sister while Shahrayar builds his late wife a magnificent cenotaph.

This is a complex novel of magic realism. The plot twists, turns, repeats; it tricks its readers and leaves them wondering. What has really happened to Shahrazâd? What did she die of, so suddenly? Where actually is her body? Was she removed because she began to involve herself in the affairs of state? Or did she run away with a young lover? We never learn. As for Dunyazad, we can only suspect that, years earlier, she had arranged for her husband’s disappearance. She does arrange for the overthrow of king Shahrayar in favour of his son but we are not really sure of her motives.

Ultimately the novel questions the role of women in the world. Dunyazad asks of her vanished sister Shahrazâd: “Can life continue static, peopled with little events, commonplace milestones after martyrdom?”

(p.105) “Will you be satisfied with bedtime tales to your children?” (p.133) In the spirit of the “Nights” tales, Dunyazad and the slave girl Dilshad recreate for each other new fantastic stories as patterns for women’s resistance, unruly women breaking the rules of a well-ordered male world—women acting, suffering, struggling. In this novel, as in Mahfouz’s, there are no heterosexual couples, no happy-ever-after endings. The novel concludes with Dunyazad’s vision of a very old and solitary Shahrazâd wistfully asking herself if generations of women are fated to fight the same battles.

3rd book – The Fall Of The Imam by Nawal el Saadawi

For the third novel I chose The Fall of the Imam (1987) by the Egyptian writer and physician Nawal el Saadawi. A controversial person, even jailed for her views, el Saadawi here takes on national politics and gender politics both. While seemingly only loosely tying her work to the Shahrazâd story, el Saadawi does make clear in one central episode that she is reacting to it.This angry, sarcastic novel has a science fiction/fantasy quality.

There are two main characters, Bint Allah (daughter of God) and the Imam. Bint Allah is poor, illegitimate, and illiterate. The Imam rules an imaginary patriarchal modern country. Both main characters die repeatedly in various circumstances, and events replay over and over. At one point the Imam sees himself as king Shahrayar. In this episode Bint Allah is cast as the beautiful virgin bride, but here a helpless child of nature who knows nothing of her culture and literature, far from the original learned and well bred Shahrazâd of the medieval “Nights”. Bint Allah’s helplessness contrasts with the medieval “Nights” casting of Shahrazâd as powerful in her control of unfolding events.

El Saadawi may have hopes for the future but you wouldn’t know it from the painful finale. She believes sexual politics remain the same everywhere, driven by femicide and misogyny.

In the end Bint Allah/Shahrazâd dies yet one more time, but this time executed with her tongue removed so that she cannot voice her opinions. Again, no happy-ever-after heterosexual marriage. Like Mahfouz, el Sadaawi foregrounds the brutal ruler but in this case he is not redeemed.

4th book – Whatever Gets You Through the Night: a Tale of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments by Andrei Codrescu

My fourth choice provides a complete change of pace, published just last year (2011): Whatever Gets You Through the Night: a tale of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments by the Romanian-born American author Andrei Codrescu. It has been called “a wildly inspired exploration of the timeless art of storytelling itself.” (book jacket)

Writing in an irreverent tone Codrescu mocks the entire range of the Thousand and One Nights industry— from modern and 19th century scholarship on “Nights”, to the use of “Nights” themes in modern advertising and western culture. He takes on academics, fiction reviewers, narrative theorists, plagiarists, psychologists, folk tale researchers, mass-media writers, early translators and modern ones.

He has neither political nor feminist agendas, but does have a great deal to say about our present day insatiable need for stories.

Codrescu devotes much space to a charming recreation of Shahrazâd as an adolescent and we learn how she becomes a storyteller. Not really an attentive academic student (unlike the medieval original), his Shahrazâd adores stories and oral performance; she haunts the professionals in the markets and attends to the tales told by the women weavers of the palace. In fact Codrescu has it that the plan against the king originated with these weavers who then enlisted Shahrazâd to carry it out.

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Like the other authors Codrescu discards the happy-ever-after ending and then develops a crazy twist that propels Shahrazâd into the 21st century. Shahrayar neither pardoned his wife, Codrescu tells us, nor learned to love her. Codrescu claims she has never been able to escape the king’s bed and is there, even today, telling stories. The bed now has franchises in all our homes and we end with an e[lectronic]-Shahrazâd. “The new cinematic, telephonic, cellular semiautomatic story-deliverers of our time are all inhabited by Sheherezade herself.” (p.171) She is “weaving from words the world we humans have, to allow it to continue.” (171)

So why am I here talking to you about literature?

Well, happily, my year with all these old and new Shahrazâds, immersing myself in another form of artistic expression, has brought me unexpectedly to some new fresh ways of thinking about the modern world of belly dance.Thumbnail of print 1

My first point: Informed by Codrescu’s work, I have been struck by the ancient, widespread, and continuing human need for stories — stories that break with everyday norms — stories with wonder, fantasy, excitement, suspense, magic. In the West today one sees this manifested, for example, in robots, vampires, reengineered creatures, in alternate worlds, in travel in the past and future. This need for stories, it seems, finds a legitimate place in human affairs and certainly Shahrazâd and her tales served this role for her original audiences. Speaking in praise of western fairy tales as solid instruction for children’s personal development into functioning adults, in his Uses of Enchantment 20th century psychologist Bruno Bettelheim tells us that “the total [adult] personality, in order to be able to cope with the task of living, needs to be backed up by a rich fantasy combined with a firm consciousness and a clear grasp of reality.” (118) He continues: “Without fantasies to give us hope, we do not have the strength to meet the adversities of life.” (121)Thumbnail of print 2

I have come to believe belly dance finds its attraction, for those of us coming from outside its culture of origin, in its ability to evoke this powerful and enriching sense of enchantment—found also in the fantasies of fairy tales. I think we need to understand fully the validity of this aspect of the dance and celebrate how it contributes to personal growth.

thumbnail of print 3My second point: Let’s consider the issue of “who owns Shahrazâd?” A silly question! Shahrazâd’s frame tale is a world masterpiece freely available for re-telling. I have given you four of these possibilities but in truth they are endless and anyone is free to experiment. The results may be excellent or disastrous (depending of course on one’s initial perspective) but all will give us something to think about. Belly dance too seems to have escaped its cultural confines to become an artifact available to all. And this is where I have revised my opinions.

I didn’t want belly dance to change. I used to be stuck on issues of authenticity and historical integrity but I think I’m not now. There are so many possible modern re-readings of belly dance, and there are no reasons why there shouldn’t be. But in any case, there’s no stopping things when they go viral.

thumbnail of print 4Both Shahrazâd and belly dance have done just that! Indeed, my excursions on the Internet for this paper have been an eye opener. Codrescu is right! There’s a living, pulsing world of electronic Shahrazâds out there. And I would say “ditto” for belly dance.

Third and final point: the medieval Shahrazâd fell silent after the telling of her tales, swallowed up into a proper traditional marriage. I have discussed here how, starting with the legitimacy of this culturally acceptable frame tale, four modern authors have created alternative visions of her future. But these re-readings of theirs are not innocent acts. They put on the table for discussion women’s place in politics, modern gender relations, and the status of women’s voices and bodies. So I end with some questions for of those of us who champion belly dance today.

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In our present day re-readings of the dance we love, are we being as truly creative as we might?

What lessons can we take from the art of literature? Are we being as future oriented as Mahfouz, as imaginative as Hariharan, as profound and hard hitting as el Sadaawi, and as playfully insightful as Codrescu?

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SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY                           

Novels discussed:

  • Codrescu, Andrei. Whatever Gets You Through the Night: a Story of Sheherazade and the Arabian Entertainments (Princeton University Press, 2011)
  • Hariharan, Githa. When Dreams Travel (Picador, 1999)
  • Mahfouz, Naguib. Arabian Nights and Days (New York: Anchor Books, 1995) Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
  • El Saadawi, Nawal. The Fall of the Imam (London: Methuen, 1988) Translated by Sherif Hetata

author rides a camelReference works used and other studies:

  • Bettleheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. (Vintage Books, 1989)
  • Irwin, Robert. The Arabian Nights: A Companion (London: Allen Lane. Penguin, 1994)
  • Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Voice: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing (Princeton University Press, 1991)
  • Salis, Eva. Sheherazade: Through the Looking Glass—the Metamorphosis of the Thousand and one Nights  (Curzon Press, 1999)
  • Al-Shaykh, Hanan. “Falling Under the Spell of Shahrazad,” Luminato Program: Festival 2011. pp 17-23.
  • Warner, Marina. Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (Chatto & Windus, 2012)

Suggested Translations of The Thousand and One Nights

  • Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights = Alf laylah wa-laylah. Based on the 14th century Syrian manuscript: edited by Muhsin Mahdi. (New York: Norton, 1990) Note: not a complete “Nights.”
  • Dawood, N.J. Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1973)

Other fiction of interest

  • Phelps, Ethel Johnston. “Sheherazade Retold” in The Maid of the North: Feminist Folk Tales from Around the World (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1981) pp 167-173
  • Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” in Short Stories (Greenwich Unabridged Library Classics, New York: Chatham River Press, 1981) pp. 491-502.
  • Al Shaykh, Hanan. Women of Sand and Myrrh (Anchor, 1992) Translated by Catherine Cobham

Web links of interest

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