Archive for November 22nd, 2011

November 22, 2011

Hanan Al-Shaykh, One Thousand and One Nights

So pretty!As I understand it, Hanan Al-Shaykh’s new translation of the Alf layla wa layla (and alarmingly, I cannot say that title without hearing the old Doordarshan “Alif Laila” theme song in my head) has its roots in a stage adaptation, on which Al-Shaykh worked with Tim Supple. This book re-imagines nineteen of the stories. It also has one of the prettiest covers I’ve seen in a long time.


I don’t have a particularly deep childhood association with the Thousand and One Nights – like most people, I’m familiar with the framing device and with the more famous stories. As I’m sure anyone reading this knows, the base for the narrative is the story of King Shahrayar and his wife Shahrazad. Shahrayar has grown disillusioned with the fickleness of women after his first wife was unfaithful to him. He kills her, and vows from then on to marry a virgin each night and have her killed the next day. Eventually he marries his Vizier’s daughter, Shahrazad, who is a skilled storyteller and so entrances the king with her stories, left tantalisingly unfinished each night, that he keeps postponing her death so that he can learn what happens next. A thousand and one nights later he realises he doesn’t want to kill her anymore and they presumably live happily ever after. It is the stories that Shahrazad tells that make up the bulk of the Alf layla wa layla.


Like many people I have in the past made the mistake of thinking the framing device was the thing most worthy of interest here. Because though we all ought to be used to the idea by now, the concept of stories within stories is still fascinating. Al-Shaykh shows telling stories to be part of our natural language even before Shahrazad has started, when the Vizier, angered by his daughter’s stubbornness, explains to her an extended metaphor (not being an Arabic speaker myself I don’t know if the language when spoken is this rich in metaphor). Telling stories is a part of the culture of the people whose lives Shahrazad tells – groups of strangers, brought together by unusual circumstances, sit down and share their stories and the stories they have heard. The resulting Russian doll effect is spectacular. The book takes advantage of the constant shifts in the level of narrative by introducing tiny graphic elements around the page numbers; each picture signifies which story (or sub-story, or sub-sub-story) we are on. But Al-Shaykh doesn’t do what the framing narrative traditionally does, which is to wrap things up neatly. She leaves the stories open ended (after all, there are only nineteen stories here), and so we never get to the point when Shahrazad finishes speaking. Were this all, it would merely be an incomplete version of the traditional structure. One Thousand and One Nights does more. Haroun al-Rashid, the Caliph who is a character in Shahrazad’s stories begins to tell a story of his own – that of King Shahrayar, to whom Shahrazad is supposedly telling all of these tales. Later, a character refers to “an ancestor years ago in the faraway lands of India and Indochina at the time of King Shahrayar and the brave and brilliant Shahrazad”.This is no longer nesting-box storytelling; the layers of narrative have been completely interwoven.


Yet One Thousand and One Nights reminds you that the stories themselves are of as much worth as the ways in which they are told. It feels rather predictable to invoke Angela Carter every time traditional tales are rewritten intelligently – but these stories are funny, colloquial, sexy, feminist. Men and women flirt, play, have sex. Men have nicknames for their penises, women refer to their husbands’ “useless sperm like farting soap bubbles”, characters “nearly shat myself”. Al-Shaykh chooses a number of the lesser known stories (Sindbad, for example, only appears in a couple of pages towards the end) and focuses on the tales told in a houseful of sisters who live together without men, and on the specifically gendered debates among them and their guests.


In versions of the stories I’d read before, the Vizier offers his daughter to Shahrayar only when there are no other young women left to offer – she is clever and resourceful, but to save herself from a position she had no choice in. In Al-Shaykh’s version, Shahrazad chooses to be married to Shahrayar (involving her little sister in the plan – and the bedroom – as well) in order to save other women from death. Yet despite the playfulness and the strong female characters the power differences in this world are clear -women are bought and sold, or brutally murdered when they are perceived to have strayed. Even Haroun al-Rashid himself is depicted treating women unfairly or outright badly. And serving maids are “white”, and male servants who have sex with their mistresses are “black”.


What comes across more than anything, for me, is the sheer range of the stories. We know, of course, that there is no single original version of this group of stories; that the folktales themselves come from a number of sources across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. But when we are confronted with stories that move rapidly from Samarkand to India, with Jinni from Persia and silk imported from China, it’s hard to ignore the sheer vastness of this tradition. When, towards the end, a character exults that in the space of one night he has “visited Basra, China, India and Persia – all without a ship!” you know just what he means.