(A review of ‘[Arabian Nights’ – 5*5*)
A Story to Save a Live
The beauty of the stories and the poetry of the thought that most destructive demons can be tamed back with a few stories was fascinating to me even when I first saw the serialized version on tv. What I didn’t realized was that the stories Scheherazade, that great goddess of story tellers and inventor of cliff-hangings, told the king weren’t as random but had an order in themselves.
This book has made Scherzade my favorite superhero – superhero was the word we use for one who risk one’s life for others, don’t we? I mean we like Doctor Who for he won’t use weapons – and yet the enemies he fought weren’t in any way real. What Scherzade had to fight was real, and after centuries of her single victory continues unfortunately to remain real – lack of trust among sexes.
Sheriyar is misogyny humanized. There is another famous collection of stories called ‘Tota Maine ke kise’ from same regions (Iraq, Iran, India etc) which comprise of a parrot and she-parrot who are in love. The frame story is simple. The parrot would say mynah is sure to cheat him and would back that prediction with a story where a woman cheated on her lover. Mynah, in her turn, would say it is parrot who is sure to cheat him and will back that up with a story of how some man cheated on his lover. Then parrot would come back with another story – and this exchange of accusations will go on and on. A similar conversation takes place between Shylock’s daughter and her lover towards the end of ‘Merchant of Venice’.
Sheriyar is the result of this mistrust among sexes. In a short time, he comes across three cases of adulatory committed by three women, including one by his own wife, and generalizes to the whole of the fair sex. Remember how Hamlet concluded ‘Frailty thy…’ after seeing frailty of a single woman (his mother). A person who is suffering because he thinks he is cheated can be quite suggestible (Othello) . And a generalization can be temting.
The parrot and she-parrot were afraid of how vulnerable they are making themselves to other’s injuries. Sheriyar has developed this fear after being cheated his wife. His Black Widower’s wish, to kill his spouse the morning after marriage, is height of this mistrust.
And Sherzade is the beauty who tamed this beast. She did this – she fought away her death – the literal sword of her own father a few hours away from being forced to cut her head; with armor of a pleasant smile on her lips and the weapon of story on her tongue. And she does that. Repeatedly. For a thousand and one nights.
In the play I’ll teach the King
Not the play but through the stories (repetitive Shakespearean references are coincidental). A tyrant can’t be reasoned with directly. Same goes for a prejudiced person – prejudice is by very definition refusal to reconsider the already reached false conclusions. Now imagine prejudiced tyrants. Scherzade knew this well enough. Instead, she used her stories to make king see the truth. The change of heart, which the king admitted to on the thousand and the first night, wasn’t born all of sudden but came out of efforts of last thousand nights – over which she gradually changed the opinion of the king.
And it is the way she changed king’s opinion that I love so much. As good as the stories are in themselves, they carry a trend. One of the very first story, Scherzade told the king – was about a wicked woman, but a woman made wicked by jealousy against his husband’s new wife. May be the king understood her jealousy, maybe he didn’t.
Then you come across the story of a king, suffering from misfortune caused by an adulterous wife – a king not unlike Scheriyar, may be Scheherazade is simply saying what king would love to hear … but look carefully, and you will notice that the villain wife suddenly gets a voice. Even though she was beheaded, the wife in the story did get a say – love of an adultress woman is love still. You see what Scherzade did.
Move a little ahead and roles are reversed. Now we meet a woman who has to suffer on account of meaningless jealousy of her husband – a husband who doesn’t want her to show his face in public. Her husband is made to repent in the end. (There is a similar story towards the end, except there it is husband suffering of his wife’s jealousy.)
So now you see the trend. There is soon a story in which a king Haroon is at fault – making people suffer with his tyrannies … but he is quick to repent upon realizing the mistake – and even makes up for the loss of these people. Did you get you lesson, Sheriyar?
And so it goes on. One story actually involved a prince who has formed a bad opinion regarding all women kind from all the mischief caused by them that he read about in his books. His mother, the queen asked him to think about all the tyrant kings that the world has and what they have done to the women over centuries (I can imagine Scheherazade having her tongue in her cheek when she must have narrated the scene)
Later on, Scheherazade diverts to stories about how married women have fun at the expense of their wanna-be-lovers.
The last story is that of a woman – Ulysses and Penlope combined into one woman, who goes out on a difficult journey while maintaining her loyality to her husband against all the suitors.
Gradually, the stories change to afford a better position for women and while also reminding the king that even King can make mistakes – and how much more troublesome are their mistakes than that of an ordinary person. There are a few stories (e.g. Sindbad) where the issue of friction between sexes is not raised but the general trend is too good to miss. In fact, very first few pages you find a remark by a woman (other than Scherzade) about futility of keeping women under lock. In Aladin’s story, it is the princess who kills the bad guy (and her name is not Jasmine – Sherzade got that wrong, Disney knew better.) In Ali Baba’s story, it is a woman, avery, very clever woman who kills all the forty thieves.
While we are talking about fighting prejudice – a good reason for people to read it to observe how lightly the veil is used by women. Women, who wear vile while being out, are shown at liberty and often chose to show their face to whoever they wish to. (They often do it for the guy, even if he is a stranger, they found handsome who in turn is almost always ‘pierced’ by their beauty.) Not only that, there are a lot of night parties and extra-marital kissing. Yes, there are strict and overprotective fathers but I mean that goes everywhere. Then in at least one place, there is a remark on regarding how the judges are too strict regarding how women should behave. (It is surprising these same judges had nothing to say about drinking wine or when their king had more than four wives.) Moreover, there seems to be no way men can cheat their wives – men are permitted marry multiple times and can have sex with slaves under Islam (like other religions) but women are not – this means men can not cheat on their wives.
Celebrating the art of Storytelliing
There are a number of techniques used by the Scheherazade – cliff hangings, repetitive characters (king Haroon and his wife, Zobeida) story-within-story (at times story-within-story-within-story-within-story) etc. One time Scheherazade forgets a part of narrative and have to retreat to cover that part.
Cliff-hangings though were never that important and never that close to being figurative. Here they are saving lives – the stakes on which Scherzade bargains to get another day of life.
Regarding the story-within-story thing, you may claim that too many of the stories are told by characters trying to save lives. But look at Scheherazade, the original story teller. Isn’t she doing the same? Won’t her psychology affect her stories? And it is the most excellent part – that story-teller and the listener are both part of the story; you get most out of it when you think about how their minds are involved in and are affected by the stories. Just imagine the thoughts that Sheriyar would carry in his mind at the end of each story.
There is a criticism that some of stories are too similar – but you see it is because of the central theme. And I mean how much diversity you can wish for? There are love stories –both comedies and tragedies, stories of adventures, stories of genies, humorous stories (especially the one about tailor), criminal stories, stories of suddenly found treasures. There is one short story about the three brothers who can reason backwards – a little like Sherlock Holmes. Given its time, the stories show remarkable diversity.
In one weird story, a woman disguised as her own husband marries another woman. Latter this second woman marries husband of first. Weird enough? Wait till the two women find a crush for each other’s sons.
Antisemitism, Racism and Body Shaming
From beautiful to ugly … There is a lot of (much more than you can imagine) antisemitism, racism and body shaming specially in first 200 or so pages, especially for a book trying to fight prejudice. All wicked wizards are African, Jew, Worshiper of fire or Hindu. All cheating merchants are Jews. It probably speaks as much about powerful men’s sexual jealousies as about slavery, that a lot of slaves were eunuchs. The filthy tradition of eunuchs was not limited to Arabia though.
Some female slaves do seem to gain independence and are lawfully married – but that is a fairy tale sort of thing. The terrible treatment of a hunch-back in particular made me stop reading it for a month.
I don’t believe in cultural, temporal or spatial relativism; so I won’t defend the book. I just took away six stars from my rating. It was already twenty-nine stars.
Some advice if you chose to live in medieval Persia
2.The most dangerous job is that Vizir – better be a slave than a vizir. Since king may take you along on a expedition (mostly in disguise); find random people or dead bodies and want you to discover the truth behind them within three, thirty or forty days; failing which your head is likely to be beheaded.
3.If a married woman seems to be answering your requests to take you as lover, than she is just kidding and is probably going to get you a lot of trouble.
4. If you suddenly found yourself in room of some person of opposite sex, than it is probably doing of some Jinn and Pari. Soon you will found yourself in love with other person but will forget to ask where the hell you are. Then early morning, you shall be thrown back to your place. And after a lot of suffering shall found your lover again.
5. If you got separated from your family, don’t worry, you shall find them after a few years healthy and happy – bringing a family reunion and happily ever after; unless Scherzade chose to give your story a sequel.
6. Have a story to tell, in case you get in trouble with king or a Jinn.
7.If two darveshes wants admittance to your house than it is probably king and his ministers, specially there are multiple sisters in the house. Admit him and tell him something strange. For, he would then make you rich.
8. You are most likely to be married to the king, if you are youngest of three sisters. Youngest of brothers are lucky too. Also in case of princes, it helps your future prospects greatly if your mother was deserted by king.
9. If you are young, poor and handsome man, than you will soon be wealthy – it just follows. If you are are a beautiful woman, than your veil is liable to flown away by wind in front of some man who will instantly fall in love with you.
11. Password for cave is ‘open Sim-sim’.
12. Sea journeys are especially dangerous if you are single or your spouse is lost.
And above all,
13. If you found an old lamp, to rub it.