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1001nightsThere is an interview on the Thousand and One Nights with Hanan Al-Shaykh and Marina Warner at Guernica which I missed, somehow, although I followed the launch and tour for Shaykh’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights closely.

Yes, Scheherazade and Thousand and One Nights provokes eye rolling for most people. Again, once more, forever? When will we break out of this exorcizing frame? But I’ve got beyond that. For one thing, Marina Warner’s books on the cultural depth of folktales are amazing. For another, I liked Naguib Mahfouz’s rewriting of the Thousand and One Nights. And if its not just aimless marketing-driven recycling, it can be worth revising this heritage to tell a compelling story which is not an apolitical ramble through souks and sand dunes.

Which is why the Guernica interview got my attention as it takes a political, “Arab Spring” related tack:

 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.

…in spite of their complex origins, the tales are framed around a central conceit: the triumph of wit over tyranny.

Scheherazade has often been used as a metaphor for the silenced, oppressed Arab or Muslim woman. As in Joumana Haddad’s I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman.  Which I have some problems with, though it is an interesting book. But here Scheherazade’s gender is less relevant. At first at least. Later it spirals into stories by men and the censoring of strong women. And slaves. But at first:

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.

And then of course there is the adaptation of the stories into plays:

Director Tim Supple and his adapter Hanan al-Shaykh have taken 17 of the stories that make up the cycle which originated in the Arab empire of 1,000 years ago. They have split them into two three-hour chunks, performed by a 19-strong company recruited across the Middle East, in Arabic, English and French, accompanied by five live musicians. Ambitious doesn’t begin to describe it.

What does describe it? Well, according to this reviewer: “sexy, irreverent, surprising.” And the theme of clever women tricking men is celebrated. Celebrate Scheherazade.

Shaykh says she used to be irritated at being labelled as “the new Scheherazade.” But she also

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.

locust-birdThe difference between representing the oppressed victim and the crafty new Scheherazade isn’t so vast, its a fine line which Shaykh walked in writing her book about her mother, The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story. That book got a lot of good reviews, but some of them, even from the title, illustrates the politics of representation. See for example this review:

A veiled love: A Lebanese woman’s tale of forced marriage and illicit romance impresses Joan Bakewell

Shaykh herself puts it like this:

“I feel as if [my mother's] life and essence mock Western stereotypes that obscure, much like the actual veil itself, the face of many an Arab woman.”

And she continues to balance her perspectives on her mother as a victim or as a strong heroine as she talks about the story at 5×15:

Hanan Al-Shaykh @ 5×15 from 5×15 on Vimeo.

Back to the interview. Warner mentions both her drawing and her divergence from Edward Said, seeing  the relationship between Islam and the West as being multiple as evidenced in the links between these stories and other stories in the West. Warner sees her own interest in Arabian Nights beginning with seeing the links between Bluebeard and Scheherazade and then puts this moment in context with the Gulf War.

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…

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…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.

The poem mentioned is I think Harrison’s Cold Coming in response to Ken Jarecke’s graphic photo of a charred Iraqi soldier. I saw the charred Iraqi lean like someone made of Plasticine.” 

War and the Basra road and Arabian Nights and the tales from Basra. There are links between the fairytale and the exotic, and reality and the horrific, and these connections between our world now and our interrelated memories as embedded in these tales makes retelling these stories for now important.

One thought on “A Thousand and One Nights Revisted, Again

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