Select Page

The New Shahrazad

Hanan Al-Shaykh

March 15, 2000 – Sweet Briar College World Writers Series. Sweet Briar VA


Why is Shahrazad the title of this lecture, although I’ve never mentioned her, or even intended to mention her, in my writing?

For Shahrazad appeared only on the mangy pages of old books lying about in dark corners of Arab households or old barber shops in popular neighbourhoods, waiting for customers to borrow her for a few piasters for a night. We never had a copy of The Thousand and One Nights in our house for the simple reason that we never had any books or newspapers at all, apart from the Quran. But nevertheless, Shahrazad visited us every day for a few months, via the radio, and the sexy, sensual voice of the Egyptian actress, Zou Zou Nabil.

She would always start with the sentence, “I heard, oh happy king, that …”, and go on to read a story from the Thousand and One Nights, and she’d stop at the end, at a crucial moment, highly charged with suspense, saying “Oh, King”, just before the music, and the voice of the announcer came on saying, “But morning overtook Shahrazad and she lapsed into silence”.

And she left us excited but delighted, reassured that the King wouldn’t kill her, because he’d be in the same state as we were, full of anticipation, awaiting the completion of the story of Aladdin, or clever Hassan or Sinbad, and telling himself, “By God, I will not have her put to death until I find out what happened to Ali Baba and Murjana”.

Shahrazad’s voice used to pluck me from the heavy, gloomy atmosphere that engulfed our house after my mother left to marry another man. My father never recovered; instead, he indulged in praying more and more frequently, taking refuge in the worship of God.

Shahrazad took me to a fantastical, far-away land where there were genies and demons in bottles, magic lamps, and deliciously festive food and drink, palaces, and imaginary animals and birds.

When I finally read the book of the Thousand and One Nights, I didn’t enjoy it. I was obsessed by its framework: by the character of Shahrazad herself, and by the King, Shahrayar – by the teller of the tales rather than the tales themselves. I kept criticizing Shahrazad for not stabbing the king with a dagger.

How could this beautiful young woman, a government minister’s daughter, possessed of such wit and intelligence, who studied philosophy and history, who applied herself to the arts, who learned everything she could even about places as far away as China, have submitted to King Shahrayar, and become his wife, a prisoner in his bed, the captive of his ears, regaling him with one tale after another – stories full of adventure, love, betrayal, sexual fantasies – designed to tame his mood and manhood, so that she’d be able to live for another day.

It was public knowledge that every day King Shahrayar married a virgin and had her killed the next morning. He was revenging himself against womankind after he found out about his wife’s infidelity, that she’d betrayed him with Masoud, a slave.

The description, ‘the new Shahrazad’, pops up frequently in the reviews of my novels, whether the translation is in English or another language, and it’s been used as the title, more than once, of interviews with me, especially after the publication of my novel Beirut Blues, in which the main character, Asmahan, a hostage in her own country, writes letters that are unlikely to reach their destinations. And as she writes, one story grows out of another.

Whenever I read the word “Shahrazad”, I see Shahrazad herself, sitting opposite the king, wearing wide, silk, harem pants revealing dainty feet and an anklet make of precious stones, and a purple waistcoat with short sleeves, and several bracelets around her wrists, and a huge, blue silk belt and locks of her hair braided with pearls and jewels. I see her bowing to the ground, kissing the king’s feet, and asking him to forgive her, for, after two years and seventy-one days, she’s decided to stop telling him stories.

Until then, I hadn’t taken the connection between Arab women writers and Shahrazad very seriously – knowing that the One Thousand and One Nights had ignited the Western imagination and that, at one time, it was regarded as the epitome of Arab culture, just as I’d regarded Jane Eyre and Elvis Presley as the ultimate examples of Western Culture. To Western readers, Shahrazad was the queen of magic and mystery, the oriental female who saved herself and her kin from the tyranny of the king; in the Arab mind, it’s the other side of the coin: Shahrazad is a cliché – with the exception of some intellectuals who regard the Thousand and One Nights as an accomplished part of our literary heritage. A Kuwaiti writer, Laila al Othman wrote, defending herself after a court convicted her for her explicit writing:

Women are being prosecuted nowadays because they have dared, after so many years of oppression, to hold their heads high and express themselves the way they wanted, regardless of the society that wants us to remain slaves to be ordered around and be, all of us, like Shahrazad, entertaining men with tales ….
As for me, I see Arab women writers now sitting behind their desks, writing as if they were bouncing a ball in this or that direction before choosing where to stop, revealing a real society and real people. Both the very first novel by an Arab woman, Labiba Hashim, written in the nineteenth century, The Heart of Man, and another novel, Gada the Flower, also nineteenth century, by Zainab Fawwaz, discuss the idea that the emancipation of women can never be achieved without men and women acting together, since both suffer from the oppressive structure of the family and society.

Since these two novels, women have written and published a long string of pearls. I’m going to pick out some novels which have left their mark from the 1950s until today. I Live, a first-person narrative by Leila Baalbaki, shows a woman who writes in order to rebel. This novel was a daring cry for freedom, for women to awake, if they wanted to be individuals in their own right, independent of the trap, and the trappings, of family life.

The Open Door is by the Egyptian writer, Latifa Al Zayyat, a woman who’s concerned with the political and the social aspects as well as the personal. To this novelist, a woman’s life is inextricably bound up with the destiny of her country and its attempts to gain independence from the British.

Days with Him was written by a Syrian, Colette Khoury, an Arab woman who dared to fall in love and venture into a sexual relationship with her lover outside of marriage. Amongst the 70s novels by the Palestinian, Sabar Khalifa, The Door of the Square dared to point a finger at the Palestinian resistance and question how they could achieve liberation if they hypocritically continued to oppress women through their traditional, closed society.

Two Women in One, and other novels by Nawal Saadawi question men, society, politics and religion.

The short stories entitled Zinat at the President’s Funeral by the Egyptian, Salwa Bakr, circles around the void, despair and poverty of Egyptians and the collapse of their society as a result of one defeat after another.

Two novels by the Barakat sisters: The Impassioned by Huda, tackles the subject of the Lebanese war and its people in moments of sanity and insanity. Ya Salam by Najwa, exposes a society made tragically inhuman by war, with characters who deliberately infest the city with a plague of rats so that they can build a successful business selling rat poison.

The 1990s witnessed the rise of a new generation of young writers, especially in Egypt, who don’t want to address anything related to social issues, or the war between the sexes, or politics, or even to present fully rounded characters, and who shy away from the literature of the Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz. This new generation accepts the work of female writers, who have themselves written in order to break free of the suffocating images that have been painted by male writers, of women as saints, angels, activists, mistresses, whores, and who have shown women as they are, as individuals, not only as sisters, mothers, relatives, wives, but as people with their own rights and opinions, on war, love, old age, circumcision, revolution, resistance, sex, marriage, divorce, oppression, society, and love – again and again – or they have written in order to scream, “I exist as a human being”, not as the fertile, earth mothers that male writers have portrayed them as being.

But am I saying here that literature has to indicate direction, that is should carry a message?

Not necessarily, but seeds have to grow in some kind of soil, and the seed of the Arabic novel draws its nourishment from its real-life surroundings, from the personal to the universal, and that’s why international schools and universities have come to depend on literature, in order to understand and grasp the reality of a closed society. Through literature, readers may throb at the sounds of battles and war, and its tempo stays in the mind much longer than any of a thousand films seen on the news.

A reader is going to feel mortified by reading how tightly women grip little girls so that the circumcisionist can perform the circumcision, and the echoes of exploding pain and the screams in the text must increase the reader’s heartbeat forever. Or when the Moroccan writer, Mohammad Shukri, talks about his childhood, in the novel By Bread Alone – about witnessing his father killing his brother during the famine which spread through the Moroccan Rif in the 1940s, when thousands of villagers made their way to the city of Tangier. Crime, drugs, paid for by sex – a life in the gutter. Utter poverty – driven sexual frustration, violence, despair.

“My mother”, he writes, “gave birth to another girl, whom she named Zahra, after the one who’d died. A rat bit her hand one night, and she died too. In winter, I used to sleep in the corner of a bakery. I rolled myself up like a hedgehog, putting my back to the wall of the warm oven, only to wake up in order to change my position or to urinate, to find dozens of stray cats sleeping on top of me.”

A New Shahrazad

A second reading of One Thousand and One Nights prompted me to agree with Roland Barthes, who urges us not to read a book just once – because at the first reading we bring all our prejudices to the text – while next time, we read it.

A second reading of One Thousand and One Nights took me by the hand and led me for the first time into numerous worlds. I met the lowest of humankind, from thieves, drug takers, drunkards, criminals, tyrants, to the poor and the devastated. Dervishes, the Caliph; I smelled roast lamb, heard music, saw Al
Saqi pouring red wine; poets, Mameluke Abbasid; sinners and the unfaithful; the revengeful and the pious; gossips, hypocrites; a patriarchal society; powerful women and weak ones, misogynists and those who liked women – all in one melting pot. When I stepped back into this century, I declared my full admiration for Shahrazad. I knew her at last, as I got to know my own mother at last.

My mother, who learned at an early age to be crafty, in order to survive the oppression of a male-dominated society, a society that didn’t allow women to develop, to express their individuality, but instead denied them their rights and restricted them to their role in the family.

My mother found herself, at the age of thirteen, running like a wounded mare to hide in the darkness of cupboards and under beds, running to the fields, to the neighbour; she also fasted, she sobbed, she threatened to take her own life; all of this in order not to be forced into marrying her widowed brother-in-law.

Many people tried to persuade her to accept the marriage. Her own mother urged her to take pity on her three motherless nephews and become a mother to them, even if the eldest boy was just a few years younger than she was. Her brother tried to persuade her by physical force. My mother refused her brother-in-law not just because he was twice her age, but because he believed that life should rotate around religion and work, whilst she was living in the warm, romantic glow of Egyptian films, admiring the beautiful dresses of the actresses, full of curiosity about the vibrant city of Beirut, especially as she came from the tobacco fields of the South.

Eventually my mother became resigned to her fate. She married her brother-in-law, bore him one daughter and then a second daughter – myself – and stayed in the marriage for another five years before she decided to divorce my father. She was encouraged to do so by her friend, Um Hassan, who also wanted a different pattern of life; both these women didn’t want to follow the example of every woman they knew, who were all resigned to their destiny. One day my mother got her divorce and one day, Um Hassan sprinkled gasoline over her flesh and burned herself alive.

In one of many conversations with my mother, she lectured me, saying, “You should always remember, my daughter, that craftiness becomes second nature to the weak and the oppressed; it is the ultimate emancipation for a woman ….” But Um Hassan didn’t believe that. She was so stubborn, “A pity that she was so honest and straight. If she’d listened to my advice, she’d still be alive.”

Indeed, Um Hassan was not like my mother, who acted out so many roles in order to be able to divorce my father. She wailed, she too hurried to the gasoline, to set fire to herself; she even dangled herself from the kitchen window and started screaming. She made everybody believe that she’d thrown herself in front of a car and it was only luck that the car had missed her. She entered into, and she took her family into, a labyrinth of scenes and games until she got what she’d been aiming for, by finally asking my father for a divorce, which he agreed to in spite of the objections of her brother, who continued to be responsible for her even after her marriage, and who went so far as to blame my father for his weakness towards my mother.

My uncle, who lived with us, along with his family, as was the custom for southerners when they first moved to Beirut, was the one who used to observe my mother’s every move. He interrogated her every time she went out, or stood on the balcony, or hummed a song, or laughed loudly. I remember once seeing him beat her because of a beautiful bouquet of flowers that had been left on our doorstep, “Tell me, confess, who sent it?”

Shahrazad persuaded herself not to accept that life started and ended in bed, as the other virgins believed. After re-reading the Thousand and One Nights, I realized that Shahrazad wasn’t telling her tales only to save herself, but to plunge headlong into adventure, to take risks.

As soon as she decided to step into the world of the mighty tyrant and exist on borrowed time, she put one foot on a sharp sword, and left the other free.

Balancing between life and death, in order to postpone the moment when she’d lose her head, she forced her heart to have a go and think, too. She fitted it with two wings and gave it an order, saying, “Now try to fly and help my mind, my five senses, my sixth one too, to travel into the realms of the real and the fantastic, the known and the unknown.” As a result of her tremendous strength, the king turned into a spectator, a voyeur, in front of her.

Shahrazad took the role of the artist, the creator, the story-teller who would test her own ability and rise above common artistry. She would penetrate every insight in order to tell stories that would excite, provoke, thrill, educate, and persuade indirectly, like transparent spiders’ threads continuing without taking breath, without finishing her story, fully aware that if she stopped to take that single breath between stories, she would be offering her neck to the sword, and she would be giving the king a chance to remember his twisted logic and his dark emotion.

For this reason, Shahrazad took the king as if on a fishing trip to the widest of oceans. Every time she threw out her net she pulled in only some of it, revealing only a part of her catch to the king; and then she would throw it again into the wide sea, and lift it again, to show another kind and colour of fish, until she had drawn up many other species that had never been seen before – and thus one story grew out of another, exactly like a mosaic, needing that particular colour, that shape. And with these stories, Shahrazad becomes the king. She postpones the death of this or that character, thus exposing the reality of the power possessed by the king and concealing her own. When she succeeds in camouflaging her own reality, she ceases to be its victim. She becomes a mere creator, touched neither by pain or by injustice.

And that is how my mother lived. She used her imagination and devised strategies, like Shahrazad, in order to live with a family that failed to acknowledge her emotions. My mother became like an acrobat, juggling situations and people so as to do what she desired, and at the same time so as to be able to protect herself from the family who wronged her, especially from her brother, who knew of her tricks and was annoyed by them. Once he said to her, “You’re the queen of guile, you’d be able to make a suit for an insect as tiny as a flea”, after she’d taken advantage of someone who used to visit us regularly from the south, for medical reasons, and who used to choose a corner of our sitting room, and not leave it, except to visit the doctor. She’d spend her days criticizing the indecency of the women because they weren’t wrapped in black from head to toe, as she was. She used to spit every time a friend of my mother walked in wearing make up, or chewing gum which, according to her, attracted attention to the mouth, and was therefore obscene. They’d hide their cigarettes from her, and lower the radio.

Because of the rigidity of this relative, my mother conveniently used her one day as a cover. She took her to a cabaret early one afternoon, after convincing her that they were going to my school performance – but instead of seeing me appear on the stage, the celebrated Egyptian dancer, Tahia Carioca appeared. The woman had the shock of her life; covering her face with her hands, she called on God and her husband, asking for forgiveness, and whispered to my mother that if her husband saw her, he’d kill her first, and then divorce her. She cursed my mother, swore she’d never see her again, while my mother was congratulating herself, and full of joy. If it weren’t for this prudish cousin, she’d never have been able to go to the cabaret.

I remember that one of the reasons I’d disliked Shahrazad in the past, was that I’d imagined her face in the light of the day, looking threatened and humiliated, but after I fell in love with her, I imagined her instead with a detached, sensitive face, observing everything, like a true novelist, even the legs of a mosquito. I knew that her only limit was the horizon, when she rose above the melodies of song and poetry, and stuffed lamb and sweets, and women’s guiles and men’s revenge, and even the merging of reality with the fantastical ceased to entertain her any longer. Such as the mermaids, and the big birds which, when they plucked their feathers, revealed that they were beautiful girls, and lovers who could see three nights – the past, present and future – in one.

She understood and dissected sex and extended the subject far beyond her confinement to the king’s room – the sex that had devastated the king on three occasions: his discovery of his wife’s infidelity, his brother’s story of his own wife’s betrayal, and his encounter with the locked woman and the demon, when both brothers, who fled into the big, wide world, heavy-hearted, deeply humiliated and unable to ask their wives about what had happened, met a woman in the countryside who had been locked by a demon into a steel box. The demon had four keys, which he used open the box, so that he could sleep on the woman’s lap, and when the demon had fallen asleep, the woman persuaded the two kings to sleep with her, threatening that she would wake the demon up if they refused. Afterwards she blackmailed them and took their rings, which she threw into a bag with seven hundred other rings, saying, “These are all the men I’ve slept with. It serves the wicked demon right. He never leaves me alone. He may lock me up in this box and hide me at the bottom of the sea but I’ll always to find a way to escape.”

Shahrazad made the king forget all about this story, by showing him that sex could be fun, an adventure, instead of only betrayal, and the cause of pain. She made up the story of the porter and the three ladies. The porter was hired by one of the women to carry her shopping. He followed her as she went from one market to another making her purchases, and then he entered her beautiful house, where there were two other women and convinced them to let him spend the night with them, saying: “Just as a table needs four legs to stand on, you, being three, likewise need a fourth, for the pleasure of men in not complete without women, and the pleasure of women is not complete without men.”

After they drank and ate, and sang and danced, one woman went into the pool, and washed herself. She splashed water over her two sisters and the porter before she rushed out of the pool, and while she dried herself she pointed to her vagina and asked the porter to guess its name. He tried, saying, “That is your womb, your slit, etc., etc…”. In reply, after she’d slapped him, boxed his ears, and hit him, she said, “No. It’s called Basil of the Bridges.”

The second woman did the same. She plunged into the pool, splashed water at the others and the porter, came out and asked him the same question and when he said that the name of her vagina was Basil of the Bridges, she boxed him, hit him and slapped him until finally the three women burst out laughing. “No,” she said, “it’s called the Husked Sesame.” So when it was the turn of the third woman, and she asked the porter for the name of her vagina, he said, “Is it Basil of the Bridges or the Husked Sesame?” “Bah, boo”, they answered, and when he’d had enough blows and pinches and bites to make his neck swell, he cried, “All right, what is it then?”; the third one replied, “The Inn of Abu Masrur – Father of the Happy One.”

Finally it was the porter’s turn to go into the pool and bathe, and he washed himself, splashing water under his beard and under his arms, and then rushed out of the pool and planted himself on the lap of one of the three women, and pointed to his penis, and asked “Ladies, what is that?” “Your tool, your prick, your …”, they went on. However, contrary to what they’d done to him, he hugged this one and kissed that one, and nibbled at the third until they fell on their backs with laughter, saying, “Tell us, friend, what’s its name?” “Don’t you know”, the porter replied, “It’s the Smashing Mule.” “The Smashing Mule? What’s that?” they asked, and he replied, “It’s the one who grazes on the basil of bridges, eats the husked sesame and gallops into the Inn of Abu Masrur.”

A ‘new Shahrazad’, I walk along an unsteady tight-rope in a high wind. I celebrate the past, Arab history. And although there are some things in the present that reassure me, there is much more that shames me.

There was a whole civilization in the narrow alleys where I used to live. The tumble-down buildings, the half-erased streets and broken walls re-discovered by archeologists were minarets, domes, mosques, churches, open squares and fountains; they speak to me of an ancient civilization that is being unraveled, its beauty unearthed, and of a whole way of life being recovered. That regular tapping sound that I hear comes from craftsmen at work, producing door handles just as they have done for thousands of years.

There are books, so many books, under those layers of dust and rubble. Wise sayings carved in crumbling letters on wood and stone are but the faded texts of centuries-old philosophies. Old manuscripts sleep undisturbed in my city’s cellars. Avi Sinia and Ibn Khaldoun came from this past, as did the alphabet, and the earliest translations of Plato and Socrates.

But I am being besieged. There is very little culture that I can call my own anymore. Mercifully, today, literature still etches its words onto the page, novels and poetry continue to be published, and creativity finds its artistic voice. But Arabic, that lonely mother-tongue of mine, begs for an audience, for a place, however small, away from the mindless chatter of its children – Mickey Mouse decorates the lanterns celebrating the end of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim year. Every restaurant I visit offers me menus printed in English or French, and every time I greet a waiter with “Massa alkheir”, he unleashes his “Bonsoir”. Bakeries, hairdressing salons, fast-food kiosks, display signs written in comical English. I’ve become a wannabe: a French wannabe, an American wannabe, every kind of wannabe. There are culprits and victims in this global village. There are victors and losers.

It’s true that back at home, unimaginable wealth chokes me. But it is poverty, poverty that claims my streets. I dine on the roofs of five-star hotels, then graciously buy chewing gum from the old and the homeless shyly crowding at the exit. My money multiplies in a glass tower with “Bank” written on it, but my small change goes to beggars knocking on my car window. In great mosques and even grander churches, I marvel at the majesty of God. Outside, I meet a mother who no longer remembers the names of her children because she has so many, and when I stand, dazzled by the smile on the face of one of her little girls, the mother says, “Please take her, perhaps with you she’ll have a future.”

When I started to write, it was with a mind uncluttered by the ideology of nationalism, empty of the slogans of feminism, impelled by a frustrated yearning, and a blaming heart. I was sixteen years old and I wrote short essays for the student’s page in the Al Nahar newspaper. I described boredom. How my brother followed me and when he saw me sitting with a friend in a coffee-shop he took me by the hand and pulled me home. I wrote about a life that was mundane, superficial, when all I did was to sprinkle a few drops of perfume behind my ears and between my breasts, and then I finished writing thirty pages, which I called a novel, with the title Slowly Mother, about my first visit to my mother after her divorce from my father.

When I was twenty, I wrote my first novel, Suicide of a Dead Man, upon mentioning the pain of menstruation. However, I realized that the critics would slaughter me alive, especially two women reviewers who were extremely prejudiced against women’s writing; they condemned any work that didn’t fit into certain categories, such as those of politics, or ‘social issues’, and considered all women writers to be frustrated females who wrote to express their lack of fulfillment through love and marriage. They were convinced that as soon as a female writer found these two, she would put her pen aside.

As a result of these prejudices, I found myself changing menstruation pain into a muscular pain, and the female “I” of the first person narrator into a male “I”. However I didn’t experience this self-doubt when I was writing my second novel, The Praying Mantis. I was no longer aware of the critics. Out of the corner of my eye, I could only see the sympathetic characters weaving the narrative. My main character, Sara, was critical of religion which she blamed for snatching her father’s attention away from reality. She tried to free herself from religion and the traditional family.

In my third novel, The Story of Zahra, I gave the male characters a voice, and the right to explain their actions. My main character, Zahra, faces two wars, the civil war in the actual world around her, and the private war against the rule of the archaic. She opened a window into the life of an Arab family which was far removed from that of the idealized portrait – the mother has a lover, the father beats his wife and daughter, the uncle is attracted to his niece, Zahra, and the sniper who makes love to Zahra also kills her.

In my fourth novel, Women of Sand and Myrrh, I present a picture of life in the desert, and the taboos about sex and women, that make the act of buying a sanitary napkin in a pharmacy a big ordeal.

In my fifth novel, Beirut Blues, I have the main character, Asmahan, writing letters in order to seek the meaning of her existence during the war. On discovering that a rat was living in her kitchen, she finds herself singing to it every time she enters, “Come and visit us, my beauty, come.”

I’ve lived in London for seventeen years, but only now, after twelve years, do I feel that I actually live in London, in the West, and that it has an influence on me. In my fiction, places become characters, and now my new character is England, in particular London, which has inspired many short stories of mine, as well as two plays and one novel awaiting publication, called Only in London. Questions of exile and the relationship between the East and the West surround me all the time, everywhere, even when I’m crossing the street. I cross the street as a foreigner, and as an Arab, and as an English person as well. The sounds are different. The food is different. The light differs, and the darkness differs.

But the question arises: can I continue to find inspiration in the years that framed my own experience of growing up in the Arab world. Can I still rely on those provisions, that well of deep water reserved within me, and what about that smell? Is it going to stay in my nostrils? Can a seed of literature grow from a plant that’s uprooted and re-planted in another soil? I wonder whether, if I still delve into the same larder, the provisions are still fresh, or whether they’ve gone stale as a result of the lapse of time, and the heat. Especially since Arab cities and villages are in a constant stage of change. Is it enough to return to the Arab world, to visit and shop for ideas? And if I succeeded in doing so, can I publish what I write, free of the cuts of the censor’s scissors, because what is currently happening in the Arab world is absurd to such a degree that I shall have to call upon Shahrazad to help me here – since, after all, she has proved that even after ten centuries, her story-telling, from her beautiful lips, is still vivid and alive.

Nobody is waiting to trap and censor her. On the contrary, the king is still sitting in front of her, intrigued and full of excitement, as millions and millions of people are, to this day, when they hear her speaking to them from the pages in which, until now, she has not spoken of the second night, following the Thousand and One Nights:

“Oh wise and happy King, who is now my husband, and the father of my three children, just now, while I was strolling happily in the garden, breathing the fresh air of spring, feeding the white peacock, and the coloured ones, I heard a voice which seemed to come from both the earth and space simultaneously.

“It wasn’t the prayers of the clouds, or a volcanic eruption, or the thunder having a dialogue with the lightening. I rushed to the palace tower, to find that this voice had started to form letters and that words and sentences were throwing themselves at the window. My sister, Duniazad, rushed to open the shutters to let in the letters and the words and sentences and they entered and fell onto the carpets, the cushions and the green velvet sofa. They were asking for my help, pleading with me:

‘Protect us, Shahrazad, we’ve come to you from countries nearby. Do you remember? Countries of rugged mountains, and deserts, a place where they invented algebra and science, but alas, now we’re ailing, struck by an unknown disease that had taken away our memory – even our parrots have lost their memories. In a day, we’ve turned into countries without meaning, parasites. We export very little, and import everything, even our palm trees and our incense. Strange countries where the illiterate can spell the word ‘dictatorship’ and not ‘democracy’, countries which still wrap women in black cloth the way Cubans roll their cigars, layer upon layer.’
“O, wise and happy king, the sentences, the words and letters kept throwing themselves through my window, showing me that horses, which I’d imagined flying in one of my tales, have become planes flying faster than the sound of a voice. Magicians have become scientists who can change the heartbeat of foetus, who can clone a sheep and call it Dolly. Instead of the children who, in my tales, are transformed into dogs, now dogs are treated like children.

“I’ve seen how men have started to marry each other, and women are doing the same. Like the birds who plucked their feathers to turn into beautiful houris, women go under the knife, and doctors stretch and pull the skin and sew it with thread, and young women who are the colour of ivory and marble stretch out under the sun to burn themselves the colour of rust, like the fictional birds and rugs that carried people in my stories.

“Monkeys are put into rockets and sent into space, submarines can touch the sea floor where the mermaids live … and yet, oh happy king, I am perplexed beyond all else as to why there is still poverty and injustice and danger. Instead of the sword, they have invented a killing weapon that is the size of a haircomb, and balls like ostrich eggs that can spread fire and disaster, and kills hundreds in one go.

“And how can I not lament when the sentences, the letters and words, confessed that the Arabs can no longer find a trace of themselves. That they burned the books of Avicina, which were even the basis of Western civilization, and that they have abandoned philosophy; oh, how this saddened me – that the Arab, who invented the zero, has become zero.

“I was told that nature rushed to their aid, giving them another chance, pouring oil into the guts of the desert, so that they could follow and try to catch up with the civilization that they’d left far behind, but instead they built one palace after another, with handles of solid gold. Women are still living as we used to, in a harem. A couple of women for one man, as if nothing has changed.

“I heard, too, oh king, that in the most ancient city of the Nile, my One Thousand and One Nights nearly turned into fuel for the hungry flames. If it hadn’t been for the enlightened few and the intellectuals, who put their hands on their hearts and vowed, ‘If you dare to set fire to the Nights of Shahrazad, you will not only be burning our heritage, you’ll also be turning our lives to ashes.’ How could they think of burning the language, traditions and dreams of a country, all because they wanted to burn its expression of eroticism. But wouldn’t life without sex mean the extinction of humankind?

“Luckily, One Thousand and One Nights was returned to the shelves of public libraries, museums, universities and private houses – but I must have lost my bearings, O happy king … tell me, are we going forwards in time or running backwards on sand? I can’t believe what these sentences, these words and letters which are still flooding in, are telling me, that Arab countries are taking writers and singers and poets to court, banning books, even those which now seem dated. That a singer was taken to court because he sang a poem, which includes a sura from the Quran,

When Joseph said to his father, “Father, I saw eleven stars, and the sun and the moon; I saw them bowing down before me.”

 XII Joseph
“The Kuwait poet, Alia Shuaib, was sentenced to two months in prison for writing a poem in which she addressed God as if He were a person, and the Kuwaiti novelist, Leila Al Osman, was given the same sentence for writing sexual scenes that were deemed to be obscene. The court put the Egyptian, Nasri Abu Zeid, on trial and decided that his book was blasphemous; it also declared that, against the couple’s wishes, his marriage had to be annulled because his wife was a Muslim and she could not be allowed to stay married to a blasphemer. And there are more, other writers, novelists who have been killed in Algeria for touching upon the three taboo subjects: religion, sex and politics.

“Now Arab writers of both sexes sit down to write as if there were radars planted inside their skulls, to catch thoughts as they form in their brain cells, and kill them before they can be jotted down on paper … but of course, the thoughts take over, eventually … I must confess, O happy king, that I was lucky to have been able to use language as I wanted to, to explore the sexual connotations of the story, and to have no hesitation in mixing rulers together with degenerate masochists, and to show women arguing against the clergy and men of religion. It seems that I need to say here, without being patronizing, that, in comparison to my tales, the work of some contemporary Arab writers reads like a school composition describing a family outing.”
Lady Shahrazad, I have a question, hundreds of questions, thousands, and yet it is all the same question. Lady Shahrazad, Queen of Wisdom, could you explain to us why, in your day, when the sword was threatening to take your life and that of many others, you dared to talk about sex as if it were a fact of life; you tackled the subject explicitly and with great frankness and inventiveness, combining both the real and the imaginary. Linking it with love, with lust, with religious morality, with the deeds of the wicked and the good, always present in the tragic and the happy moments of life; it is in every situation, in every human and animal life.

And she answered me, saying we were celebrating the fullness of life, and that sex and love were once aspect of the absolute, the spring and source of all things.

“The tyrannical king turned into a humanist, and the best of all men, because of love. He had not known how to love. He’d been shielded in an ivory tower from reality. His world was limited. I still remember, Oh king, how I took you by the hand through my tale, and drew you into the hands of logic, of trust, knowledge and wisdom, because I took you back to the day you were first born, when you had nothing but innocence and generosity, because babies stretch out their hands to anybody, and smile, their inquisitive eyes look inquiringly at everything, even at a speck of dust. And when you realized that women were not only there for bed, and the night, you stared to see me as real, alive, not only flesh and blood, but thoughts and emotions too.

“Finally, before I go to sleep in your arms, I confess I suck Strepsils to keep my melodious voice, while nowadays the writers who are my kin, and yours, use their heartbeats for putting pen to paper …. I tell you, the pages they write are richer than any civilization. On them they can start again, build a new place, start a new era, a new country, one that is civilized, peaceful, democratic. The art of writing stories, my lord is a gift of life to humankind … without that, there’d be almost nothing.”



Source: Gifts of Speech,
Copyright 2000 by Hanan Al-Shaykh. All rights reserved.