Hanan al-Shaykh's Feminist Spin Illuminates the Classic 'One Thousand and One Nights'

by David Maine

5 September 2013

This collection is little more than a taste of the renowned epic, but it's a mighty spicy taste, nonetheless.
cover art

One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling

Hanan al-Shaykh

US: 11 Jun 2013

There are countless renditions of the Thousand and One Nights out there, everything from picture books to footnote-laden scholarly tomes, from popular translations like Penguin’s classic edition to comprehensive tomes Sir Richard F. Burton’s 5500-page doorstop. So the question that comes to mind, when considering yet another installment in this apparently endless parade, is: “Why bother?”

Maybe that’s not the right question, though. It’s like asking “Why bother?” about one more production of Hamlet or one more concert by Buddy Guy. Considering the many layers of theme and symbolism in Shahrazad’s tales — not to mention that they’re just cracking good yarns, with buckets of intrigue, suspense, mystery, humor and surprise — maybe a better question would be, “Why the hell not?”

Because, make no mistake, these are great stories, and Hanan Al-Shaykh tells them splendidly. She’s exceedingly selective in her choices here — fewer than 20 stories altogether, not 1,001, although some are nestled one inside the next so that it’s easy to get bewildered by the stories-within-the-story that crop up. It bears repeating that these tales are marvelously engaging — my pet theory about the Thousand and One Nights is that this is one of those classic books that everybody has heard about but few of us have ever actually read. (This conclusion is based on an unscientific, anecdotal information-collecting method, so feel free to reject it out of hand.)

al-Shaykh is one of Egypts’s most highly-regarded novelists, and her decision to present new translations of (some of) Shahrazad’s tales most likely raised a few eyebrows. We are fortunate, though, to have an author of her caliber to take on this project. Language in her hands is always supple and controlled, and the tales bounce merrily along with plenty of momentum and linguistic verve that never obscures the rhythms of what are, essentially, oral tales handed down for centuries.

The framing story is familiar to us all. King Shahrayar learns of his wife’s infidelity and goes into a spasm of fury and grief. To assuage his anger, he demands a new virgin to be brought to him each evening; he marries the girl, beds her throughout the night, and has her executed in the morning. This goes on for some time, as the kingdom cowers and the King’s rage diminishes not at all.

Only the bold Shahrazad, daughter of the Vizier, dares to hatch a plan to stop this woeful turn of events. She marries the King as per usual but then, after the consummation of their union, she begins talking. She tells him a story throughout the night — but then breaks off come morning. The King, unable to bear not knowing how the story ends, lets her live another day, so she can finish her recitation the next.

Of course, the next night, the same thing happens, and the next. And the next. All told, the Caliph lets her live a 1,001 nights, and then gives up on revenge. He has fallen in love, and Shahrazad has saved the day, along with an untold number of the kingdom’s daughters.

One popular way to read the subtext is as a celebration of the strength and cleverness of women, who — when faced with insurmountable odds and life-threatening danger — find a way to outsmart their oppressors. Al-Shaykh certainly seems to subscribe to this position, as many of the tales she chooses to focus on have as their subtext (or even their main storyline) some sort of gender battle, or at least power differential. There are other stories too, for example “The Fisherman and the Jinni” which opens the book and which is a simple jinni-in-a-magic-lamp tale, but it’s these others that seem to hold the most interest for the author.

Throughout, al-Shaykh’s language is bold and clear. “…the porter saw a woman reclining on the couch, as beautiful as if she was a shining sun. If she hadn’t spoken and then stood up, the porter might have mistaken what he beheld for a painting.” There is much sex in these tales as well, both explicit and implied, as when a one narrator relates his first night with a new wife: “She kept on moaning and writhing until I could wait no longer. I thrust into her and we reached our climax together, screaming with joy and ecstasy until our voices reached the street”.

Make no mistake, these stories are not intended for children — unless you’re a mighty liberal parent. One of the tragedies of Thousand and One Nights is that in the West, its relegated to fairy-tale status in the mind of the public at large, a status reinforced by Hollywood movies about Sinbad and Ali Baba that are aimed at children.

Mary Renault reminds us, in her concise introduction, that Ali Baba does not appear in Shahrazad’s tales; he is the invention of a European translator, Antoine Galland. Similarly, we would all do well to remember that this remarkably diverse collection of adventure stories, bawdy tales, shaggy-dog stories and cautionary parables is anything but a bunch of kids’ stuff. Similar to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there’s an abundance of earthiness within. Or as one character puts it, “Why am I drenched in foul mule urine?”

Readers who haven’t thought of the Thousand and One Nights for some time should feel encouraged to do so now. This collection is little more than a taste of the renowned epic, but it’s a mighty spicy taste, nonetheless. There’s a reason why these stories have survived so long; they’re fun and unpredictable, occasionally moving and, most of all, populated by an array of characters we still recognize on a daily basis. Al-Shaykh is to be thanked for reminding us of what’s been here, available to us, all along.

One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling


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