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Women on Top

by CHARLES R. LARSON

It’s no surprise that the Lebanese novelist, Hanan al-Shaykh, decided to retell the classic Arabic epic, One Thousand and One Nights (Alf layla wa layla).  Much of al-Shaykh’s writing has centered on the difficult lives of women in the Middle East, beginning with her first novel translated into English, The Story of Zahra (1986).  Feminists embraced Women of Sand and Myrrh (1988) because of its portrayal of four women living in the Gulf and the misogyny that surrounds them and controls their lives.  Other novels followed, but with The Locust and the Bird (2009)—an “autobiography” of her illiterate mother (told in the first person)—al-Shaykh won glowing praise from readers around the world and continued academic praise.  She has written about taboo subjects in almost all of her works, including abortion, promiscuity, lesbianism, illegitimacy, and divorce.  No surprise that her books (mostly written in Arabic) have been banned in Middle Eastern countries.  Of late, al-Shaykh has been written in English, including this imaginative retelling of One Thousand and One Nights.

Isn’t it a given that a man (Shahrayar), a King in fact, who believes that women—namely virgins—are so treacherous, so disposable, that they can deflowered each night and then killed the following morning, suffers from a slight sense of insecurity?  All this, in order to protect himself from “the cunning and deceit of women, for there is not a single chaste woman on the face of the earth.”  No surprise that one of the
hanahthousandMiddle East’s major writers would be interested in a female character who uses her imaginative resources to end such a dire predicament, for Shahrazad decides to captivate the king by telling him endless stories each night—not only to save her own life but to end the bloody scourge that has taken the lives of so many other women before her.  There’s a sisterhood implicit in Shahrazad’s personal decision to become a relentless story-teller.  She’s thinking about someone besides herself.

We all know that Shahrazad is so successful that the King marries her after 1001 nights of story-telling. Thus, the murders of other women conclude.  That does not mean, however, that they are absent from One Thousand and One Nights.  But men, in this version, also have their own difficulties.  One even has his penis cut off.  The problem is that men and women fall instantly in love with one another and appear incapable of controlling themselves in each other’s presence.  But, women generally end up on top—at least in story-telling because Shahrazad assumes the voices of many of her characters, more often
women than men.  As one story segues into the next, effortlessly, patterns emerge that depict a Muslim world far different from the conservatism, the fundamentalism, that has hijacked so much of the contemporary Islamic world.

What do I mean by that?  It’s not just rampant sexuality (with fairly graphic terminology) but drinking and frequent inebriation.  Hardly a story is told without references to men and women drinking wine—and plenty of it.  And there are numerous references to successful women merchants, some who have learned that it would be best if they had nothing to do with men.  Conversely, there’s a rollicking tale of “The Woman and Her Five Lovers,” where a woman is able to trick five men who lust after her to lose all reason in order that she can be reunited with her husband (whom she truly loves). She uses her wits to fend off other men who would destroy her fidelity. Like other women in the narrative, she is quick-witted, verbally sharp and able to talk her way out of situations for which the men in the narrative demonstrate little verbal talent.  Other stories are filled with magic, mysteries, dervishes, strange monsters—even a jinni who pops out of a bottle.  In short, a cornucopia of interconnected stories—some realistic, others fantastic.

Hanan al-Shaykh’s retelling of One Thousand and One Nights is a delightful romp, filled with “heeps” of stories to use a description from the narrative itself.  The events of the story-telling (according to one character) “resemble life itself: filled with harmony, the sublime, and with great contradictions—hate and love, tyranny and freedom, bless and torment, loyalty and betrayal.  Can you imagine the contradictions of fingers which play the oud and others which clutch the whip?  Nights of music and melodies and others filled with sobbing and wailing?”  To which another character adds, “Not to forget nights of drinking wine and nights of drinking water….”

Hanan al-Shaykh: One Thousand and One Nights (A Retelling)

Pantheon, 320 pp., $26.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: cflarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

 

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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