Authors: Hanan al-Shaykh
In the story Aziz has failed completely to conceal his love or to be patient, but he can nonetheless woo the other woman; he is also saved from death by reciting the lines, “Loyalty is good. Treachery is bad.” At the same time, the fiancée is speaking to her rival through the words and, in the initial sequence, congratulating her on her victory. Ironically, it is Aziza, who
restrained her love and shown infinite patience, who will die. The story (and there is more to it than I have described) is essentially a fight between sacred and profane love; it is bloody and no one can really win. It doesn’t make sense that reciting these lines should save Aziz, none of it makes “sense”—and yet in a deeply satisfying way it does, for the ritual nature of the incantatory words stands as a dramatic counter to the raw power of sexuality and emotion,
and expresses the protective quality of propriety, discretion and order.
These stories of intense opposites are rich and flashing in combination, a skein of words that glimmers like a net of fast-darting fish which are also jewels. They make unity of chaos and take joy from suffering. Before he meets the demon’s mistress, the brother of the cuckold Shahrayar, King Shahzaman (a cuckold too!), sulks about their wives doing it with slaves and kitchen boys, lamenting, “What treacherous world is this which fails to distinguish between a sovereign king and a nobody?” (
). It’s a question that asserts propriety, discretion and social hierarchy and, over the course of
One Thousand and One Nights
, Shahrazad, with her loving plenitude and subtlety, replies by revealing the entire world, with all its chaos and abiding order. He asks, “What kind of a world is this?” And she answers, “Why, king, a very wonderful world indeed.” Finally, he believes; so do we.
I don’t recall exactly whether I was eight or ten years old when I first heard the words
Alf layla wa layla
, one thousand and one nights, but I do remember listening to a radio dramatisation and being utterly smitten: the clamour, hustle and bustle of the bazaars and souks, the horses’ hooves, the creaking of a dungeon door, how the radio seemed to vibrate and shake at the footsteps of a demon, and the famous crow of the lonely rooster at the start of each episode, which would be answered by all the roosters in our neighbourhood.
I heard that a girl in my class had
Alf layla wa layla
, and I hurried with her to peer at a few volumes in a glass cabinet, next to a carved tusk of an elephant. The volumes were leather-bound, their title engraved in gold. I asked my friend if I might touch one, but she said that her father always locked the cabinet and kept the key in his pocket, because he said he feared that if anyone finished the stories they would drop dead. Of course I didn’t know then, and neither did my friend, that the reason her father didn’t want any of the women of the house to read
Alf layla wa layla
was because of its explicit sexuality.
As the years passed, my obsession with
Alf layla wa layla
I wanted desperately to escape the world it evoked. But Shahrazad found her way to me. I decided I must discover why, while most Arabs considered the framing story of Shahrazad to be a mere cliché, academics regarded it as a work of genius and a cornerstone of Arabic literature.
I read page after page, marvelling at Shahrazad’s perseverance in remaining the king’s prisoner in order to reveal to him the truth of her mind. I came to see that her weapon was art at its best, her endless invention of all of those magnificent stories. The more I read, the more I came to admire the flat, simple style I had so criticised in the past. The simplicity of the language touched me, for it was the language of those who didn’t reach for a dictionary but expressed their true, crude, raw and intense feelings, whether they praised, elegised or defamed. In these voices lay the foundation of magic realism, the flashback, and the use of the surreal to explain the ordinary—all the things I had mistakenly thought
Alf layla wa layla
Alf layla wa layla
this time was personal: I felt as if I had opened the door of a carriage which took me back into the heart of my Arab heritage, and to the classical Arab language, after a great absence. I was astonished at how our forebears had shaped our societies, showing us how to live our daily lives, through these tales which were filled with insights and moral and social rules and laws, without the influence of religion, but derived from first-hand experience and deepest natural feelings towards every living thing. The effect of
Alf layla wa layla
was so strong and real that Arab societies shaped themselves around it; the names of its characters were embedded in our language, becoming proverbs, adjectives and even modes of speech. I was in awe of the complex society the stories evoked, which allowed relationships between humans and jinnis and beasts, real and imaginary, and I smiled at
the codes of conduct and the carefully laid-out etiquette. But as a female Arab writer my real enchantment was the discovery that women in those forgotten ancient societies were far from passive and fearful; they showed their strong will and intelligence and wit, all the time recognising that their behaviour was the second nature of the weak and the oppressed.
When I finished adapting these nineteen stories for the stage and for this book, I thanked Shahrazad for leading me into a myriad of worlds. And, when I stepped back into our century, it dawned on me that in a sense my friend’s father was right when he had said that anyone who finished
Alf layla wa layla
would die: the reader might find herself detached and lifeless when forced to withdraw from the sublime vividness of the numerous worlds of the One Thousand and One Nights. I hope you revel in the journey as much as I did.
long, long time ago lived two Kings who were brothers. The elder, King Shahrayar, ruled India and Indochina.
The younger, Shahzaman, ruled Samarkand. Shahrayar was so powerful and strong that even savage animals feared him; but at the same time, he was fair, caring and kind to his people—just as the eyelid protects the eye. And they, in turn, were loyal, obeyed him blindly, and adored him.
Shahrayar woke one morning and experienced a pang of longing for his younger brother. He realised, to his amazement, that he hadn’t seen Shahzaman in ten years. So he summoned his Vizier, the father of the two girls Shahrazad and Dunyazad, and asked him to go immediately to Samarkand and fetch his brother. The Vizier travelled for days and nights, until he reached Samarkand and met King Shahzaman, who welcomed him and slaughtered beasts in his honour, and he gave him the good news. “King Shahrayar is sound and well; he needs only to see your face and so he has sent me to ask that you visit him.”
Happy Shahzaman embraced the Vizier, replying that he too had missed his brother, and that he would prepare to leave at once.
In no time everything was ready: troops, horses and camels, and sheep to be slaughtered for food. Shahzaman was filled with happiness and excitement, for he was going to see his brother, so he set out at once, not wanting to delay one minute longer as he heard the beat of the tambourine and the blowing of the trumpets. He rushed to his wife’s quarters to bid her goodbye, but to his horror he found her lying in the arms of one of the kitchen boys. The world blackened and spun, as though he was caught in a hurricane.
“I am the sovereign King of Samarkand and yet my wife has betrayed me, but with whom? With another king? A general in the army? No—with a kitchen boy!”
In his fury, he drew his sword and killed his wife and the kitchen boy, then dragged them by the heels and threw their bodies from the very top of the palace into the trench below. Then he left his kingdom with his brother’s Vizier and entourage, his heart bleeding with sorrow and grief.
As they travelled, the change of scenery and the beauty and solitude of the ravines and mountains failed to provide distraction, but only heightened Shahzaman’s sense of loss and misfortune. He reached India and embraced his brother King Shahrayar, who placed his guest palace at his disposal.
As the days passed, Shahzaman grew ever paler and lost his appetite. King Shahrayar noticed his brother’s decline and assumed that he must be missing home and kingdom.
Finally, one morning King Shahrayar asked Shahzaman: “Dear brother, would you like to hunt with me? We shall track the roaming deer for ten days and return when you are due to set out for your kingdom.”
But Shahzaman said, “I am unable to accompany you this time. I am too depressed and preoccupied. I have a wound on my soul.”
King Shahrayar persisted. “Maybe the excitement and action of the hunt will revive you, my brother, and heal your wound.”
King Shahzaman refused, saying, “No, you must leave me here, and go with God’s blessing and protection.”
Not wishing to pressure his brother, King Shahrayar embraced Shahzaman and with his entourage went out to hunt. Shahzaman remained alone in his quarters, moving from one chair to another as if wishing to escape himself, deeply depressed. He heard a bird cry and opened his shutters to look out, wishing this creature would lift him away into the sky, where he might forget the sorrow that had befallen him on Earth. He heard a commotion below him and to his bewilderment saw a private gate from his brother’s palace opening, from which his brother’s wife emerged, swaying like a dark, kohl-eyed deer. She was followed by a train of twenty slave girls, ten as white as the jasmine flower, and ten as dark as ebony, their bodies built to conquer, their lips luscious, as though stung by a hundred bees. As he observed unseen, they chatted, sang and laughed around the fountain below his window. Gradually they began to undress in a leisurely fashion, with a complete lack of inhibition, and Shahzaman nearly cried out in surprise when he realised the ten black slave girls were in fact men, who stood with their penises erect like bayonets, their firm buttocks jutting out as though a cup and saucer might balance on them. Shahzaman looked to see how his brother’s wife would react; but she nonchalantly laughed and laughed, stopping only to call out lustily, “Mas’ud … Mas’ud!” Another black slave jumped over a wall and fell on her, like a coconut fruit falling to the ground. Again Shahzaman tried not to cry out in mortification as she spread her legs for the slave, lifting them until the soles of her feet faced the sky. At this, the ten white slave girls and the black slave men paired off and began to make love as though they had
each been waiting for a signal from their Queen, while Mas’ud made love to her in the centre, and the sounds of their ecstasy and pleasure rose up to where Shahzaman stood hidden.
Shahzaman threw his hands up to his face and rushed from the window, but he couldn’t stay away. He peeked again and again, watching as the couples disported themselves over and over, until midday, when everyone washed at the fountain, splashing each other with water, before putting on their clothes. The ten black men became ten black slave girls and disappeared behind the gate. Mas’ud jumped over the garden wall and disappeared.
Seeing the grounds empty, as if nothing had happened, Shahzaman cried out, “Oh brother of mine, you are the ruler of the entire world, length and width, the towering knight, the implacable, the pious; and yet your wife seems to find delight only with the slave Mas’ud between her thighs. And to add insult to injury, they were at it in your own home. If only it was just your wife, but all your concubines and slaves too … as if to them your status is little more than an onion skin.
What treacherous world is this, which fails to distinguish between a sovereign king and a nobody?”
When Shahrayar came back from his hunting trip, Shahzaman greeted him with great joy and vigour. Shahrayar noticed that his brother had regained colour in his cheeks and life in his eyes. The brothers sat down to eat, and Shahrayar saw how Shahzaman fell upon his food with great alacrity and relish and sighed with relief. “How delighted I am to come back and find you brimming with energy, cheerful and happy. So tell me what had made you so miserable when you arrived … and what has brought about this speedy recovery?”
“I had a great wound to my soul and my heart was set on fire, for I caught my wife in the arms of one of the kitchen boys in her quarters before I set out to come to you. My anger took control and
I avenged myself by slaying both of them and hurling their bodies in a trench, like two dead cockroaches,” Shahzaman answered.
At this Shahrayar exclaimed, “Shame, shame, I am filled with horror at this revelation of the deceit and wickedness of women. But how fortunate you were, my beloved brother, in killing your wife for betraying you; she who was the cause of your misery and malaise. She was a snake hiding in the grass, waiting to strike the hand which fed her. And how fortunate, too, that you killed this kitchen boy who dared to disrespect a king. Never have I heard of such a thing! Had I been in your place I should have lost my mind, gone insane and slaughtered with my own sword hundreds, thousands of women. Let us celebrate and praise God for saving you from this turmoil. But now you must explain to me how you have managed to rise above your calamity and sorrow.”