Shahrazad was like my mother

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

Hanan al-Shaykh (right) performs with Nidal al-Ashkar at the Hay Festival. Photo courtesy The Daily Star

May 10, 2013

BEIRUT: Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh has had a long and complicated relationship with “One Thousand and One Nights.” As a child, she recalls, she was “utterly smitten” by a radio dramatization of the tales. As time passed, she distanced herself from the epic fable of the storytelling Shahrazad, her murderous King Shahrayar, and all it evoked.

“When I was young I wanted to be so Westernized,” the London-based author admits. “I was brought up in a district in Beirut, Ras al-Nabaa, which was very traditional. … I think because of books and films I felt that I wanted to be somewhere else completely.

“I started changing my mind a little bit,” she continues, “because in the West whenever I published a book they’d say ‘The New Shahrazad!’ and I’d say ‘What is this cliché?’ Then I read a few stories and I thought ‘Hmm, not bad.’ … I was intrigued because it reminded me of the women in my family. I thought ‘Yes, I can see that – this is why they were cunning and crafty, especially my mother, because it is the weapon of the weak in such a society.’”

It wasn’t until she was contacted by British director Tim Supple that she once again fell in love with the stories. Supple commissioned Shaykh to write a version for a stage performance in Arabic, English and French.

“I read 6,000 pages – three editions in Arabic – and it was the first time I really read the complete ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’” Shaykh says. “I was fascinated – I was converted. I thought that Shahrazad was amazing.

“It was very appropriate to do a play,” she continues, “and I was so grateful to [Supple], because nowadays there are lots of Islamists … coming to overpower the … cosmopolitan views and way of living of Arab people. … I wish they would all read it to see how we were open and really cared for justice, and people would rise up against dictatorship, all in that book, which was written hundreds of years ago.”

Shaykh and Supple went through the painstaking process of selecting just 18 tales from the hundreds in “One Thousand and One Nights.”

“At the beginning we were overwhelmed,” she recalls. “They were like jewels … then we saw that we have to have a plot, a theme.

“We reached a section about the wiles of women … about how women were crafty, mischievous, and we said ‘Of course – these women are like that because of what the men did to them.’ We thought that it should be in one night, and [show] how the caliph reacted and how the women stood against what he wanted to decree to them.”

Shaykh draws parallels between the clever, determined Shahrazad and her own mother who, at the age of 14, was pushed into marriage with her widowed brother-in-law, 18 years her elder.

“My mother also used the tricks of Shahrazad,” she explains. “She was very witty but at the same time she was forced to marry when she was 14-years-old, to an old man … who I loved. But then she wanted to have the right to choose her own fate, her own future, so she rebelled.

“She had a love affair,” she continues, “very serious, and then she decided to have her own choice and she left my father and left us. So in a way it is the rebellious in Shahrazad. Shahrazad is a doer. She wanted to humanize the king and she wanted to defend all the women.

“My mother felt that it was unfair what was done to her and to other girls, and she thought ‘To hell with society. To hell with my neighborhood. … I want to do what I want,’ and she rebelled. I think Shahrazad was a rebel too.”

Shaykh has always written in Arabic, but wrote “One Thousand and One Nights” in English. Supple wanted Shaykh’s voice, untempered by translation. Now, however, the author has returned to Arabic in a new book, which she hopes to finish in the next two months.

“I’m working on a novella about two Lebanese women,” she confides, “who became very successful in the West. They meet every summer somewhere, and they were tormented in childhood. The Muslim girl was tormented by religion and the Christian was tormented by gender issues – her mother preferred boys to girls. I follow their trip into themselves and how they got out of it.”

Under the aegis of the Hay Festival in Beirut, Shaykh gave a reading of the opening tales from her “reimagining” of the “One Thousand and One Nights” Wednesday evening, along with actress and Masrah al-Madina founder Nidal al-Ashkar. Accompanied by three musicians, the women gave a warm and intimate performance, punctuated by laughter at some of the book’s more raunchy passages.

Shaykh’s version of the ancient tales accentuates the female characters’ strength and wit, while highlighting the irreverent humor and the stories’ openness to sex and the body.

In “The Porter and the Three Ladies,” for example, the characters make a game of guessing the name of each others’ genitalia, resulting in a list of increasingly lewd (and ludicrous) names for the male and female anatomy that had performers, and audience members, in fits of laughter.

“It has all the elements of ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’” Shaykh says of her book. “It’s about justice, [and] injustice – that everyone has the right, whether a caliph or a king or a Bedouin or a poor man, to be alive and to defend himself and to have hopes.”

Most central to this collection, of course, is Shahrazad herself, who uses the power of words to tame her angry and distrustful husband.

“He became her prisoner,” she says. “All Arab women say, ‘Oh, Shahrazad! She is so tame, telling stories to the king.’ No – he became obsessed by her stories. He became her prisoner and she was the queen of them all.”


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