From Cunning and Guile: Erica Wagner interviews Marina Warner and Hanan al-Shaykh: What can The One Thousand and One Nights teach the modern world?:
The stories of The One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade’s crafty tales spun so as to postpone death, have long tantalized imaginations in the West. While the tales have informed writers from Borges to Flaubert, they’ve also given rise to a host commercial interpretations of folkloric figures, sanitized variations that contain little of their original lust or guile. 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.There is much, much more to read--this is only the preface to the conversation, so do click through and read it all.
“Most of the stories are about how to humanize the dictators,” says novelist Hanan al-Shayhk, author of a recent translation (One Thousand and One Nights: A Sparkling Retelling of the Beloved Classic, see image above for UK edition) of the tales. This tangled cornucopia of stories has diverse origins, having been gathered over centuries throughout ancient Persia, India, and Mesopotamia, among other places. But in spite of their complex origins, the tales are framed around a central conceit: the triumph of wit over tyranny. King Shahryar, angered by his wife’s infidelity, has concluded that women are not to be trusted and so—after executing her—begins to marry a succession of virgins, condemning each to death the day after the wedding night.
Eventually there are no more virgins to be found except for Scheherazade—the daughter of the vizier charged with the task of finding wives for the king. She volunteers, despite her father’s reluctance, and on her wedding night begins to tell Shahryar a story that she doesn’t finish, causing the king to postpone her execution so that he might hear the ending. The next night Scheherazade concludes the story, but then begins a new tale, and in this way she continues to buy another day of life for one-thousand-and-one nights. In the end Scheherazade’s stories teach the tyrant humility and wisdom, and he spares her life.
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.
This past May, al-Shayhk convened with two other women writers at London’s Asia House to discuss these themes and the lessons that the tales offer those of us following or embroiled in the struggles throughout the Arabic-speaking world in the twenty-first century. Marina Warner is a novelist, cultural historian, mythographer, and critic. She is the author of Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Erica Wagner is the literary editor of the Times of London.
In a dialogue spanning continents and centuries, the discussants consider the politics and poetics of the tales, scrutinizing “how in the West the Arabian Nights have been both infantilized and bowdlerized.” In particular, they explore the shifting position of woman as storytellers and story subjects, and the distance between the West’s penchant for vulnerable Sleeping Beauty, as opposed to the intelligent cunning of Scheherazade and the figures of her imagined world. While Western fairy tales are marked by what Marina Warner calls a “collective desire to discipline young girls into inaction,” The One Thousand and One Nights presents a different arc, wherein female and male characters alike seek justice and revenge, and expose the frailty and fleetingness of power.
And really, who doesn't adore Scheherazade?