The stories of The One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade’s crafty tales spun so as to postpone death, have long tantalized imaginations in the West. While the tales have informed writers from Borges to Flaubert, they’ve also given rise to a host commercial interpretations of folkloric figures, sanitized variations that contain little of their original lust or guile. Reading the full tales, composed of fable, aphorism, poetry, and riddle, people are often surprised to meet with the running theme of how the powerless employ their cunning to undermine the powerful.

“Most of the stories are about how to humanize the dictators,” says novelist Hanan al-Shayhk, author of a recent translation of the tales. This tangled cornucopia of stories has diverse origins, having been gathered over centuries throughout ancient Persia, India, and Mesopotamia, among other places. But in spite of their complex origins, the tales are framed around a central conceit: the triumph of wit over tyranny. King Shahryar, angered by his wife’s infidelity, has concluded that women are not to be trusted and so—after executing her—begins to marry a succession of virgins, condemning each to death the day after the wedding night.

Eventually there are no more virgins to be found except for Scheherazade—the daughter of the vizier charged with the task of finding wives for the king. She volunteers, despite her father’s reluctance, and on her wedding night begins to tell Shahryar a story that she doesn’t finish, causing the king to postpone her execution so that he might hear the ending. The next night Scheherazade concludes the story, but then begins a new tale, and in this way she continues to buy another day of life for one-thousand-and-one nights. In the end Scheherazade’s stories teach the tyrant humility and wisdom, and he spares her life.

The One Thousand and One Nights has the potential to not only challenge the way in which an oppressor views the world, but also to demonstrate how humor, courage, and bold explicitness can be used to effectively speak truth to power.

This past May, al-Shayhk convened with two other women writers at London’s Asia House to discuss these themes and the lessons that the tales offer those of us following or embroiled in the struggles throughout the Arabic-speaking world in the twenty-first century. Marina Warner is a novelist, cultural historian, mythographer, and critic. She is the author of Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Erica Wagner is the literary editor of the Times of London.

In a dialogue spanning continents and centuries, the discussants consider the politics and poetics of the tales, scrutinizing “how in the West the Arabian Nights have been both infantilized and bowdlerized.” In particular, they explore the shifting position of woman as storytellers and story subjects, and the distance between the West’s penchant for vulnerable Sleeping Beauty, as opposed to the intelligent cunning of Scheherazade and the figures of her imagined world. While Western fairy tales are marked by what Marina Warner calls a “collective desire to discipline young girls into inaction,” The One Thousand and One Nights presents a different arc, wherein female and male characters alike seek justice and revenge, and expose the frailty and fleetingness of power.

–Conversation published courtesy of Asia House London.

Erica Wagner: One of the things that strikes me reading the Arabian Nights and reading Hanan’s translation is that these are stories that we continually make our own as we hear or tell them. How did you each come to them? How did these stories come into your lives?

Hanan al-Shaykh: I never liked One Thousand and One Nights when I was young, except some stories. I didn’t like the framework about Scheherazade. Later in life I started reading one story, two stories, but I never read everything—except when I came to the West to live in London and my work was translated into English and other languages. Wherever my books are, there are articles and reviews of them that use the moniker “new Scheherazade.” It used to annoy me, but then I thought it doesn’t matter… they are writing about an article… it’s fine.

Even in black-and-white, I was mesmerized by the images, and even though I didn’t read it until much later, I was already absorbed by this world of enchantment.

Then I wrote a lecture called “The New Scheherazade” about so many women I knew—especially women from my childhood—and I thought there was a great resemblance between the craftiness of the women in One Thousand and One Nights and my mother and some of her friends. I began to think of this craftiness and wiliness as the weapons of the weak and the oppressed. Tim Supple read this lecture when he was thinking of doing a play about the Arabian Nights. He said that he wanted to give back the integrity of the stories, that in the West they only have Aladdin or other children’s stories. He wanted the juicier stories to be exposed and to have an Arab author, adapter, and cast.

So he thought of me to adapt the stories. I am so grateful, because if it wasn’t for Tim, I would never have read all two thousand pages. Actually, I read six thousand pages; I read three editions in Arabic. So this is how I came to adapt the One Thousand and One Nights. I thought I would adapt some of the stories in Arabic, because he said the play was going to be in Arabic; but when I gave him the first story, he said, “Hanan, I cannot read Arabic. You have to write in English.” I said, “But usually I don’t write in English, I have a translator,” and he said, “No I want your voice.”

So I started adapting in both Arabic and in English and this is how I came across One Thousand and One Nights.

Marina Warner: Well, I had a copy when I was a child, in my father’s library, which had been given by his great-grandfather to his great-grandmother. I think it’s still the oldest book that I have in my library, it’s the one with six hundred black-and-white images by William Harvey. Even in black-and-white, I was mesmerized by the images, and even though I didn’t read it until much later, I was already absorbed by this world of enchantment. Then I realized, after working on French fairy tales and English fairy tales that they were actually in dialogue with Eastern fairy tales and I had missed it. In my book From the Beast to the Blonde I didn’t notice it.

When you think about it, the story of Bluebeard is the story of Scheherazade. She’s the last wife and she turns the tables on him. Also, he’s almost always represented with a turban and a scimitar. Though it’s not mentioned in the story that he’s Oriental, he’s always represented as such and the imagery is Oriental.

So, I thought, well, I’ve missed something. This thought coincided with the war in Kuwait. I heard Tony Harrison read a poem, which was about the road to Basra. It was a searing, magnificent poem, in which he described a dead soldier in a tank who had been carbonized, and his wallet and photograph burned on the desert floor, and there was so much footage of the carnage on the road to Basra; the same road to Basra where most of the Arabian Nights take place. I thought there must be a different story somewhere in this about Western and Eastern relationships. We had contact experiences and relations with each other before this ghastly carnage started in these conflicts.

Both of us, Hanan and I, were friends with Edward Saïd. You all know his very important polemical book that sort of shot like a canon from 1978 when he wrote it, Orientalism; about the ways the Orient had been observed.

I kind of modify Saïd’s argument, but not in a spirit of criticism. I wish to take forward the conversation between these cultures, and the idea of how Islam was not seen—it was seen in a very different way through things like the Arabian Nights, and I thought that perhaps we could build on that, and have a different approach, a different understanding.

Erica Wagner: It seems to me that one way in which that new kind of understanding is needed is how in the West the Arabian Nights have been both infantilized and bowdlerized. You said they’re seen as things for children, but when you read them, they’re certainly not.

With the Syrian situation, it just resonates so strongly. It’s extraordinary. The appeal to the First Lady was like, “Why didn’t you become a Scheherazade, why didn’t you refuse this role?”

Hanan al-Shaykh: I thought they were only for children, yes, because this is what I read as a child in Lebanon. Then later in life I was really amazed when I read the stories that tried to educate as if they were a code of living, that taught ways of thinking outside of religion—I don’t think religion infiltrated these stories at all, and maybe that’s why they weren’t very popular in the Arab world, and used to be banned and censored. It wasn’t a sacred book.

The people just didn’t regard it as heritage. Take me for example: I thought Scheherazade was a cliché and that the book was folktales, nothing to do with literature. I was so mistaken. When I reread it, I thought I had been so mistaken and I remember thanking Scheherazade, because I had thought Scheherazade became a prisoner. She wasn’t a prisoner at all—she knew exactly what she was doing.

Erica Wagner: Many of the stories are about the way the powerless have to find their power. It seems to me that that resonates very strongly with what we currently see going on in the Arab world.

Marina Warner: With the Syrian situation, it just resonates so strongly. It’s extraordinary. The appeal to the First Lady was like, “Why didn’t you become a Scheherazade, why didn’t you refuse this role?”

Erica Wagner: Yet she’s silent. Isn’t she? She’s the opposite.

Hanan al-Shaykh: The opposite of Scheherazade–she’s silent, in the background.

Most of the stories are about how to humanize the dictators, like Shahryar, how to make him a human being, away from tyranny. He was a tyrant and unfortunately, most of our kings and presidents are dictators. They should learn from the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, because there is a lot of humility and a lot of heart in them.

Marina Warner: There are also very exciting acts of revenge and that’s also an element. If you crush people too much, they will rise up and other things will occur. I mean it’s not all gentle—take the story of Duban and the Greek King, who does him wrong. Duban is a sage who cures a king of leprosy and then the vizier is jealous. You tell the story…

Hanan al-Shaykh: No, no. Go ahead.

Marina Warner: Well, the vizier is jealous because great honors are being given to the sage for curing the king, and so he poisons his mind against him, sows the seeds of suspicion, and eventually…

Hanan al-Shaykh: Because he cured him without medicines…

I like that it’s through the text, it’s the poisoned pages that actually wreak the revenge.

Marina Warner: He says, “He will be able to kill you, to harm you just as easily as he cured you.” He works on him and works on him, which is also a very interesting parable for our times about the mass media. Eventually he decides he’s going to execute him.

The sage says, “Please let me do just one thing. Let me put my house in order and there’s a particular book I would like to give you before I die.” So he goes to his house—he’s allowed to do that—goes to his house, puts his affairs in order, he brings the book back, gives the king very precise instructions and says, “This book is a wonderful book. It contains extraordinary, secret knowledge. For example, when my head is cut off, I will be able to speak to you. So I will be able to give you news of the other side.” You know this is always a great desire—to know what goes on after death.

So the king is very excited and he cuts off Duban’s head, puts it in the basin and begins interrogating the head, and the head says, “Turn the pages. You’ll be able to see the secrets.” And after turning the pages, you know, he goes thirty pages, he licks his finger every now and then as he turns the pages because they’re stuck together and eventually he starts foaming at the mouth and his eyes rolling in his head. He falls down crying, “I’ve been poisoned.”

That is a very good story of the revenge of the downtrodden—and it’s through a book, I like that. I like that it’s through the text, it’s the poisoned pages that actually wreak the revenge. So it’s the obverse of the book we’re reading, which is about doing good but it’s also the threat that underlies that which we know is always the case with books. You can have very bad books, too.

Audience Member: Did the book come from the storytelling institution or vice versa?

Hanan al-Shaykh: The oral tradition was very strong in the Arab world, and everywhere before printing and the printed word.

So this is how it started, traders would travel and tell each other stories and when writers started to write it down, and put it on paper, that’s why the language was very weak. It is the way people spoke; they didn’t borrow any big or interesting words. It is how they saw the world. They would write it as they thought about it, as if they were still telling the stories orally.

Erica Wagner: Can you talk more about these wonderful female tricksters in the East that are not in the West?

Marina Warner: Well, there are lots of trickster heroines in the Western tradition, but they were not selected when fairy tales became considered literature for children. So if you look at the collection by Giambattista Basile from 1636, one of the first big wonderful collections for children, which has the first Cinderella and that sort of thing. He’s writing this very rich collection of stories in Naples—a port—so it’s full of Oriental influences. His Cinderella kills the stepmother by dropping the lid of a trunk on her head. Polite society was not going to accept this.

Erica Wagner: These sorts of things were edited out for the Western audience…

Marina Warner: Basically, it’s about the selection, the Western selection that always tends to the Sleeping Beauty in her bed and Snow White in her coffin. I mean there seems to be this collective desire to discipline young girls into inaction.

Angela Carter had a famous phrase when she said that fairy tales were there to house-train the id. She meant the female id, not the male id. The men can go off into forests and do all kinds of things and kiss girls when they’re asleep—but what about the tricksters, are they appreciated?

There is also the slave who talked about everything, who knew about astronomy, religion, and geography; I must say that maybe that’s part of why men were scared of women, because of the book One Thousand and One Nights.

Hanan al-Shaykh: It is, as I said, the weapon of the oppressed, because they really had to use craftiness and guile to get what they wanted. I was really astonished when I was reading all these stories because the women were so strong. I never knew that. I never knew they were that strong in the One Thousand and One Nights, because you only heard about the framework, which is about Scheherazade and her sister, but they were strong, cunning, and very intelligent. Even the concubines and the slaves were very choosy. A slave would say something like, “No I don’t want to marry you, you’re very old, your hair is like white cotton. I don’t want white cotton in my mouth.”

There is also the slave who talked about everything, who knew about astronomy, religion, and geography; I must say that maybe that’s part of why men were scared of women, because of the book One Thousand and One Nights. They thought oh these women are very explicit, they love to satisfy themselves like men, and so we better ban this book or restrict it.

Marina Warner: I think it’s impossible for us to establish how the book was received and disseminated, but that’s because there is generally a separation of male and females in houses and in the street and so forth. The only record we have of the Arabian Nights is them being told in public. We have records of them being told in the bazaar and told in the streets.

Hanan al-Shaykh: Only by men…by men for men.

Marina Warner: Yes, there you have a different idea. You have the idea of men laughing at these wily, crafty women, laughing nervously perhaps. It’s a situation where they learned these stories when they were still in the women’s quarters, when they were children. In the women’s quarters the way these stories were being told and what they’re passing between generations of women, which is the same situation as Scheherazade and her sister Dunyazade—sharing their knowledge—that’s a very different setting to the men in the bazaar. There, the reception and understanding of it is very different.

One of the things that is definitely happening in the stories is that they’ve been censored, but they’ve been censored because of a reaching for knowledge within them. So the censorship is trying to contain that energy of the search for knowledge. One of the stories that shows this—one that Hanan dramatized quite brilliantly—is The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad

Hanan al-Shaykh: This is the tale of three ladies from Baghdad and a porter who came to help. He came in, and he put on the basket—they had him carry everything—and when he discovers that the three ladies are living on their own, he says, “Please, I want to stay with you, to spend some time with you.”

They drink, all of them, and the women became quite explicit and so open. They swim and ask him to name some parts of their very private things, and…

Marina Warner: But in a sense it’s a very amusing and entertaining scene. It’s actually about knowing certain things that are not often known, and having words for them, having language for them. So the porter is in the position of the child, whose mother is showing him what the world is…

Hanan al-Shaykh: Yes, they were educating him, they were telling him… but it occurred to me when I was reading and adapting this story, why didn’t Dunyazade ask Scheherazade, “How come you know all of this?”

Marina Warner: Well one of the great things about the Arabian Nights is that they do contain a lot of insights into ordinary life. I mean this scene with the porter—you did pay a man to carry your goods, because you didn’t have shopping trolleys, so you have someone carry them. That was a profession in the market and you were paid something by the shoppers. So you do see there’s a lot of that kind of detail of ordinary life, which makes it quite fascinating.

Something that is surprising and counter-intuitive is how extraordinarily literate women are in the stories, and that’s not been something in evidence as we know it in the Middle East. The stories are full of reading and writing and Scheherazade was someone who is set up in the beginning as having a library. At the end you know the stories are going to be put in a library, they’re going to be written down and put in a library. She has a library of a thousand books we’re told, and knew them all and remembered them all.

Hanan al-Shaykh: Even the illiterate women in the stories recite poetry…

Marina Warner: Wonderful poetry, and Hasan of Basra, which is one of my favorite stories. Hasan is raised by his mother on her own, and one of the reasons he’s given such a good education, and is a much admired and beautiful boy and everyone loves him is because he’s so good at calligraphy and literature and understands things.

Yet his mother is illiterate, we’re told, but she nevertheless knows a great deal of poetry by heart. That’s probably true, and it’s probably how a great deal of these stories were transmitted.

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