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Authors: Hanan al-Shaykh

One Thousand and One Nights

BOOK: One Thousand and One Nights
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2011 by Hanan al-Shaykh
Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Holly Macdonald
Introduction copyright © 2013 by Mary Gaitskill

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published, in slightly different form, in the United Kingdom by Bloomsbury Publishing, London, in 2011.

Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Shaykh, Hanan.
One thousand and one nights : a sparkling retelling of the beloved classic / Hanan al-Shaykh; with an introduction by Mary Gaitskill.
pages    cm
eISBN: 978-0-307-95887-7
I. Arabian nights. II. Title.
398054    2013      823′.92—dc23      2012039272

Jacket design by Gray318


For Shahrazad and her daughters


One Thousand and One Nights
is about worlds underground, where jewels are embedded in darkness and a beautiful woman may love a devil; it’s about powerful slaves and foolish demons, secret spirits hidden in jars; it’s about truth living in the treacherous heart like an abiding and holy law waiting to be revealed in the words of a story told by a porter, a tailor, a concubine or lady—all through the lips of the lady Shahrazad to an enraged, cuckolded king on a revenge mission against woman-kind. If she stops telling stories, he will kill her like every other woman he sleeps with.

Shahrazad isn’t a character in the usual sense, as her voice disappears in the stories that seem to exist without a narrator; she appears only at the very beginning and very end of
One Thousand and One Nights
. Yet she is an icon of feminine force, both submissive and powerful, invisible and generative. Traditionally
One Thousand and One Nights
ends when Shahrazad presents the king with three children and, because she has proven herself, he decides to marry her rather than kill her. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Hanan al-Shaykh’s delightful retelling is that it does not end with Shahrazad’s transformation from storyteller
to wife and mom; instead, al-Shaykh chooses to keep her in the realm of invisibility and magic.

Shahrazad’s stories are on every theme and subject, from con-artistry to justice to love; they are surreal and grimy-real, and they express powerful oppositions: male/female, union/disunion, love/hate, nature/society. The theme of betrayal and/or trickery runs through many of them: A brokenhearted woman helps her gullible fiancé to win the love of a murderous beauty while protecting him with talismanic poems which will save his life—even as he destroys hers. A woman traps five amorous fools inside a cabinet (which she’s tricked one of them into building) where they eventually, to avoid bursting their bladders, pee on each others’ heads. An impoverished elderly widow disguised as a holy woman and concerned mother goes on a rampage of fraud and theft, tricking one of her victims into yanking out another’s teeth—and is rewarded for her crimes with a government position. A husband chops his beloved wife to pieces because, at market, a slave who in truth has never met her brags that he’s the wife’s lover, as he flaunts a rare fruit the husband gave her. Two sisters who betray another sister because they are jealous that she has found love are turned into dogs, and must be savagely beaten every day by the sister they wronged for the rest of their lives—even though she has long ago forgiven them and sobs as she strikes them.

The action of the stories in
One Thousand and One Nights
is dark and full of cruelty—especially toward women, who are constantly being accused of adultery and then murdered or beat up. But the animating spirit here is light and full of play,
on the part of the female characters, who are consistently resourceful and witty. The supposedly enslaved mistress of a demon taunts and commands two cuckolded kings to “make love” to her; they obey and then dance and cheer, “How great is the cunning of women!” Both
cunning queens are murdered, but the demon’s mistress lives on to triumphantly declare: “I have slept with one hundred men under the very horns of this filthy demon as he snored happily, assuming that I am his alone … he is a fool, for he does not know that no one can prevent a woman from fulfilling her desires, even if she is hidden under the roaring sea, jealously guarded by a demon” (
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This apparent fear of and admiration for triumphant female lust keeps popping out against the theme of vengeance against said lust, and it is
al-Shaykh’s invention; it is intrinsic to the complex soul of the original. But how to refer to the “original”? The stories in
One Thousand and One Nights
were told orally for centuries, coming out of India and Persia in the sixth century, and carried by traders and travelers all over the world; they were first written in Arabic in 1450. Through subsequent translations, disparate versions became folded into each other, as minor characters become major players and events are transformed, revealing the original themes differently, yet faithfully. For if the characters telling the stories within the stories are, like Shahrazad, pleading for their lives, they are also pleading for an aspect of truth to be revealed, and this desire for revelation is profoundly heartfelt. Shahrazad is not just out to save her skin, she wants to heal; she is asking for forgiveness, not only for women’s sexual infidelity but for men’s violent possessiveness, for human boobishness in general. She also acknowledges that certain things cannot be tolerated. In her stories, foolishness, lust, greed, jealousy, lying, cruelty, cowardice and vanity are exposed and readily forgiven; rape and cold-blooded murder are
forgiven. The moral codes are honored sincerely—but then there is that lewd demon’s mistress, a consistent narrative mischief, a respect for pure, life-force passion that runs through the tales, which reminds me of what William
Blake said about
Paradise Lost
: that Milton, being a poet, was of the Devil’s camp whether he knew it or not.

has special beauty in that it emphasizes this mischievous aspect alongside the expansive, revelatory and forgiving nature of the tales. With so many versions of the
it’s hard to compare, but many of the older versions I’ve seen have a tight, convoluted quality which, while dreamishly, brilliantly inventive, can have the random feel of Grimm’s least interesting fairy tales, a sort of then-this-happened-and-then-this-happened action-based narrative style. In contrast, al-Shaykh’s style foregrounds structure and character. She pays little attention to the famous voyages of Sindbad, and Ali Baba (who was apparently invented by the first Western translator, Antoine Galland) doesn’t even get a mention. Instead the narrative pivots around a grand party at the sumptuous home of three beautiful and independent sisters who are hosting several men—dervishes, merchants and a porter, all of whom are unexpected guests. They eat, drink and sing, but mostly they talk and tell stories that take them around the world and beyond it. The classic
features these ladies and their guests in passing, but al-Shaykh returns to them again and again, rooting her stories in the mysterious underground of male-female relations.

Many of the classic stories have long, literally underground, sequences where major action takes place: one story starts with a prince agreeing to entomb his cousin and his cousin’s beautiful sister in a fabulous crypt where they will consummate their love and be burnt to cinders doing so. Another prince follows a beautiful young man down into the gorgeous underground chamber, in which the boy’s father has hidden him and discovers his fate—that he must kill the boy—while doing everything possible to avoid it.

Al-Shaykh features some of these stories, but she stresses the
secret underworld we experience every day, in which emotional truth is expressed in strange actions that have somehow become normal. The story of the two sisters turned into bitches, who are compulsorily whipped by their unwilling sister in the middle of a civil gathering, is a story of cruelty that is secret and mechanical even as it happens in plain sight. It is a physical metaphor for the invisible violence that goes on between people everywhere (especially in families), while civil words are being spoken and daily life goes forward.

When we first see the dogs being beaten, we don’t know who they really are or why this is happening. The sisters demand that their guests ask no questions, and when one of them breaks the rule, the truths underlying the beautiful party are revealed. The very slave who caused an innocent woman to be hacked to death with his trivial marketplace bragging is exposed and pardoned by a suddenly revealed king; much later the slave reveals himself as a powerful healer with magic strong enough to lift the curse and return the dogs to their human form. Whipped dogs are also dignified women, a stupid slave is also a wise healer; the truth of this night is ugly, then beautiful then finally mysterious because of the way these qualities are linked.

such truth is revealed is as important as
is revealed: delicacy and attention to propriety is present in the stories, even if sometimes comically so. The first guest of the three glamorous ladies, the besotted porter, is allowed to stay, feast and bathe with them because he shows himself discreet by quoting poetry: “Guard your secrets closely / When they’re told they fly / If unable to keep treasures in our own heart / Who then can forbid another, yours to impart?” (
this page
). As the night goes on, they each cuddle up in his lap and ask him what they’ve got between the legs—by which they mean, he’s got to guess the exact name
they’ve given it or else be pummeled—and each lady has a different private name. In “The First Dervish” the woman (Aziza) helps her cousin and fiancé (Aziz) to woo another woman who also happens to be a killer. Aziza instructs Aziz on exactly what verses to say to the lady every night, and asks how the lady replies:

     He:   Lovers, in the name of God
Tell me how can one relieve this endless desperation?

    She:   He should conceal his love and hide
Showing only his patience and humility.

     He:   He tried to show fair patience but could only find
A heart that was filled with unease.

    She:   If he cannot counsel his patience to conceal his secrets
Nothing will serve him better than death.

     He:   I have heard, obeyed and now must I die Salutations to she who tore us apart. (
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BOOK: One Thousand and One Nights
11.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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