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Scheherazade: From Storytelling 'Slave' To 'First Feminist'

The stories of One Thousand and One Nights are among the world's most famous works of literature. They start with a king who discovers that his wife is having an affair. In a fit of rage, he has her executed. Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh explains what happens next:

"From that night, he decreed a law that he will marry a virgin every single day and deflower her at night, and then kill her at dawn," al-Shaykh tells NPR's Rachel Martin.

The killing continues until Scheherazade, the daughter of the king's vizier, offers herself as the king's bride.

"She had a plan," al-Shaykh says, "a very eloquent and very civilized plan to use her art to humanize him and stop this bloodbath."

Every night, Scheherazade starts telling the king a story, then stops at a crucial moment, just as dawn breaks. The king spares her life so he can hear the rest of the story the next night.

Scheherazade and her stories have become a touchstone of Arab culture, passed down orally for centuries, put to paper in countless editions and even serialized for the radio. That's where al-Shaykh first heard them as a child.

"I was smitten," she says, "but at the same time I was exasperated because I really wanted her to poison him and finish with that."

Al-Shaykh has just published a modern retelling of One Thousand and One Nights, a project that began when British director Tim Supple asked her to adapt those stories for the stage.

Interview Highlights

On how she became interested in One Thousand and One Nights after initially seeing it as outdated

"I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, and all the characters around, especially the women, were very crafty and very intelligent, and they had a way to deal with life. And I thought they [were] more or less like Scheherazade. ... I wanted to become an existentialist like Simone de Beauvoir or Françoise Sagan, and I wanted to be somewhere [other] than my neighborhood. I thought I was more modern than everyone around me. ...

"When I started publishing, [in] every single review, they would call me the new Scheherazade, the new Scheherazade. And I used to think, 'Oh, it is a cliché. Why would they do that? I don't like Scheherazade.' ... And then ... director Tim Supple in England, he asked me if I [was] willing to adapt stories from One Thousand and One Nights for the theater. And, of course, this is when I sat and read ... three editions in Arabic."

On how she saw Scheherazade differently after reading the stories

"I fell in love with her because I thought she was the first feminist. Second, because she was a philosopher, an artist, a writer, and she was trying through literature to humanize the king and men around her."

On how she chose which stories to include in her retelling

"It was so difficult because every time I read a story, I said, 'That's it. I'm in love with this story.' And then I felt that I was plunging in[to] a sea of jewels and I couldn't really choose very easily. And then [Tim Supple] and I thought that we should find a theme [and] a plot. And, of course, for all the stories the theme was women were wily and men were oppressive, in a way. So we thought it should be a war between the two sexes. And I chose stories where women depended completely on being crafty and manipulative in order to survive."

Hanan al-Shaykh's other books include <em>The Story of Zahra</em>, <em>Women of Sand and Myrrh</em> and <em>The Locust and the Bird.</em>
Mick Lindberg / Courtesy of Pantheon
Courtesy of Pantheon
Hanan al-Shaykh's other books include The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh and The Locust and the Bird.

On whether Scheherazade was always viewed as a heroine

"No, not at all. All of us, especially educated Arab women, would say, 'No, do you think I am Scheherazade? A slave sitting and telling you stories so you won't kill me?' This is how we thought about Scheherazade at the beginning. One Thousand and One Nights ... wasn't looked at as ... Arabic literary heritage. People thought it was vulgar; they thought it was very bad literature — it's not literature, it's folk tales and nothing else. But then everything changed."

On why sexuality is so essential to One Thousand and One Nights

"People at that time didn't think, 'Oh, this is forbidden. We shouldn't be talking about sexuality.' We should be talking about all aspects of life, and one aspect of life is sexuality. ...

"I'd like every single Arab to read One Thousand and One Nights. They [would] learn a lot from them, especially [because] these stories were written away from the influence of religion. It's interesting to see how we were open, how we had a dialogue with each other, how we wanted to understand, how we respected each other. There was a great dignity, and I'd like this to be restored again."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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