The Humanist Message Hidden Amid the Violence of One Thousand and One Nights

Hanan al-Shaykh, author of The Story of Zahra and Beirut Blues, puts new emphasis on the lessons about compassion in Shahrazad's—or Scheherazade's—famous stories.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

Though the Persian story collection One Thousand and One Nights has been famous for centuries, today, few people dare to actually read it. Its unwieldy length (several thousand pages), expansive narrative structure, and uneven quality make cover-to-cover completion a foreboding prospect--plus, no definitive version exists. Also known as The Arabian Nights, the set of folktales was passed down orally until the 9th century and then compiled into an array of differing written versions and translations. Storytellers and scribes added, subtracted, and altered individual stories for ages, so even if you wanted to read the "whole thing," the question remains: Which one?

One thing all versions share, however, is a sophisticated narrative device: the famous frame story of Shahrazad, a brilliant woman forced to marry a bloodthirsty king who kills his wife each night and marries a new one in the morning. Shahrazad outsmarts the king by telling him a story each night before he goes to sleep; she ends each tale on a cliffhanger in order to maintain suspense within an episodic structure--and, of course, to keep her husband hooked and herself alive. The inventive framing tends to eclipse the rest of the individual stories, though, in cultural consciousness. We tend to remember Shahrazad--or, more popularly, Scheherazade--but very few of the stories she tells.

This is why Hanan al-Shaykh's new edition (with an introduction by Mary Gaitskill, an American master of writing about sexual violence) is such a gift. To prepare it, al-Shaykh read three Arabic editions in full--including the "authoritative" edition, prepared by scholar Muhsin Mahdi, from a 14th-century Syrian source (as well as its English translation). Her goal in trucking through nearly 8,000 pages: to distill the very best into a single, approachable volume. "It took me nearly a year and a half to choose," she told me, "because all the stories are like jewels. It took me a long time to think and to wander."

Ultimately, she chose 19 of her favorite stories to weave together for two editions--one in English and one in Arabic. Though the book is similar in structure to Mahdi's source text, al-Shaykh changes story order and plot details to bring out new thematic resonances. She also brings the modern fiction writer's gift for psychological complexity to the rich-but-streamlined quality of the originals. "The original [tales] are very repetitive," she told me. "They're very imaginative, but they use flat and direct language. I wanted to go deeper into the characters, move beyond the bare details, and give everything more depth. And I just wanted the writing to shine." Though al-Shaykh refers to her version as a "retelling," not a translation, you can read through knowing you're getting the very best of The Arabian Nights.

Hanan al-Shaykh, award-winning journalist and author of the novels The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh, and Beirut Blues, spoke to me by phone from the south of France. She told me why she loves these stories--and how they dramatize the power literature has to make us feel more deeply, think more clearly, and become better people.

Hanan al-Shaykh: I first encountered the One Thousand and One Nights when I was very young, a child growing up in Beirut. They were dramatized on the radio for about one year, I remember, and I loved to hear about the merchants, the traders in the markets, jealous men, and demons, and the wickedness of women like "Delilah the Wily"--I adored her.

thousanddays cover 650.jpgNaturally, I wanted to read the stories, but I couldn't get to them. Some men kept the book in their houses, but they locked them up in cupboards. Men didn't want women or children to read One Thousand and One Nights. A friend to me her father kept his edition locked up because if anyone finished all the stories, that person would drop dead. We didn't know then, and I know now, that the book was kept hidden because of the stories' explicit sexuality.

So, though I knew some of the stories, I did not truly read the One Thousand and One Nights until much later. In fact, not many Arabs really know the stories. It's a long book--2,000 pages--and it's not available everywhere. It's seen by some as vulgar, and many are turned away by the archaic language. Like most Arabs, I assumed the text was dated, psychologically simple, and hard to read. But later I discovered the beauty of it: I felt right away it is one of the most important and complex historical origins of literature.

The theme of all the Arabian Nights is the oppressor and the oppressed. We see this tension play out through powerful Djinns locked in bottles, kings and their servants, parents and children--but mostly through women's battle for survival in a world ruled by men. This is why the women of the stories are so wily: because cunning and trickery are the first recourse of the weak. These female characters become cunning to overcome the men who oppress them. They fight to make their own choices and live according to their beliefs about freedom, sexuality, and love.

I recognized these qualities in my mother, who, in her own way, reminded me of the characters I used to hear about on the radio. She was forced to marry my father when she was 14 years old. Later, she had a lover. And she conspired to see her lover all the time, although the family suspected and knew about her affair. She defended it and was so crafty that they would never be caught together. Like Shahrazad, my mother found her own way through craftiness, tricks, wiles, by being very intelligent and also a magician, in a way.

And the women in these stories in fact do find their own way--again and again, we watch as the powerless become powerful, and the strong become weak. We see this contradiction at work inside Shahrayar, the all-powerful king. He rules absolutely but his enormous love for one woman, his wife, is his vulnerability. When he discovers that she's been unfaithful, it drives him to the point of madness, his love becomes hate, and his strength becomes weakness. And he makes a bloodthirsty pronouncement:

"I, Shahrayar, shall each night marry a virgin, kissed only by her mother. I shall kill her the following morning and thereby protect myself from the cunning and deceit of women, for there is not a single chaste woman on this earth!"

This statement of total dominance--Shahrayar's vow to bend a whole kingdom to his mad will--is, ironically, a testament to his wife's enduring emotional power over him. And slowly, he succumbs to another usurpation in the form of Shahrazad's beguiling stories. She was supposed to be his prisoner, another of his wives to be used sexually and murdered in the morning. But I believe that he becomes her prisoner--because he was addicted to his stories, to her voice, to sitting up with her through the night.

Shahrazad's power over the king does not stop with her ability to keep herself alive by entertaining him. Ultimately, she exerts far more power over him than that. Though the Arabian Nights features countless characters and voices, we must read each one as partially channeled by Shahrazad, her plea for reason and mercy. Through all these stories, she is working on him. Educating him. Maybe she is brainwashing him. These stories, in fact, slowly teach him to give up his lust for blood and his blanket condemnation of women.

Look closely: She chooses stories that mirror her predicament. All the characters are pleading for life, in a way. She does this intelligently, of course, camouflaging with little stories here and there on different topics. But the main line is you cease to be a human being if you steep yourself in brutality and killing. That adultery--like many human failings--happens for reasons we can sympathize with. And so one cannot be a tyrant. One must listen carefully to others, and be just. Every story is her asking for her life, asking for the killer to stop.

With time, the stories introduce a new character, a ruler to rival and subvert Shahrayar: Haroun al-Rashid, based on the historical ruler, who loved art and poetry and music, and believed people should be treated equally. He sometimes disguised himself at night as a poor man and walked about and around to bazaars and streets to see if the people were happy. He is a mirror image, of a sort, of Shahrayar, and he issues a mirror-image statement when he learns of a wrongful death:

"Is it possible that our subjects are slain in Baghdad and thrown into the river beneath our very eyes? I want you to find her killer. I want to avenge this girl. How else can I stand before my God and Creator on judgment day?"

Here, Shahrayar's bloodthirsty proclamation is met with its polar opposite. Instead of a mandate to destroy and humiliate all women, we are presented with a vow to protect and avenge every innocent victim.

We don't know much about their relationship--if she was attracted to him, if she was happy with him in bed, if she was merely a victim of his violence. But you can feel in the stories a gradual change. At the beginning they are very brutal and dark, but they show us that adultery usually happens for a reason and that jealousy and violence typically bring misery to all concerned. With time, though, they become more about social values, adventures, they were less dark than when she started, and concern higher questions. Who are we human beings? What do we do in life? What is our aim of living? How do we become better citizens? And the answer, so often, comes through telling important stories and listening closely to what others have learned.

The One Thousand and One Nights show, in a way, a role for literature. Stories guide you through life, and have the power to make you more human. I don't believe in polemics--what I'm speaking about happens on a human, not a political level. I wrote my third novel, which made my name, about the war in Lebanon. It tells a story different from what we hear in films, documentaries, and newsreels on television--when you hear that a bomb fell on that region, and killed all the occupants in a building. But when you read a novel--how the eye came out, and the ribs were nowhere to be found--you wonder about the characters. How can he or she continue to live their lives witnessing so much terror? You live with the protagonist and you feel, profoundly, the depths of atrocity.

When I was young, I thought--well, you write what you want. You can write about a butterfly, or whatever. But I was faced with the question of life and death in Beirut, and I became wiser. I thought, I want to write books that will educate people and will inform people about brutality and violence, and about peace, at the same time.

The One Thousand and One Nights accomplishes this. It talks us down from our worst instincts, shows us an enlightened alternative to brutality. I cherished this experience; I felt the words were hypnotizing me as I read them. I became wiser than I was before. There are stories that entertain you, fine, and there are many like that here. But some stories can humanize you and make you better.