'The Arabian Nights': much more than just a fairy tale

July 07, 2004 12:00 AM

Mention the collection of Arab medieval fairy tales "One Thousand and One Nights" - or "The Arabian Nights" as the English-speaking world knows it - to most people and they will know of it. But as is usually the case with very famous books, few of those who know "The Arabian Nights" have actually read it.

The story of the book is usually summed up as that of a crazy king and his wise slave girl who skillfully stops him from massacring the women in his kingdom. This story, however, involves much more than this general summary recalled by many. And it deals with masculinity, femininity, authority and resistance. The tale is as follows.

An old Persian monarch dies, leaving his kingdom to be divided between his two sons - the older Shahriar and the younger Shahzaman. One day Shahzaman returns home from hunting to find his wife copulating with a slave. He kills them, and then promptly falls ill, refusing to eat or drink. The kingdom is on the verge of ruin. His ministers send him to his older brother Shahriar, who takes charge of both kingdoms until his brother recovers.

Shahriar cannot understand what has happened to his now completely numb brother. One day Shahriar goes hunting, leaving Shahzaman in a palace with his harem. Sitting next to a high window overlooking the gardens, he gazed at the large marble fountain in the middle of the garden. Soon Shahriar's wife and 100 of her servants (all Shahriar's concubines) came out to the garden. Then a piece of marble moved from under the fountain and 100 male slaves emerged from a tunnel and a massive orgy ensued.

At first Shahzaman was shocked, but soon, his shock turned into a surreal fit of laughter. He said: "I thought I was the only one to be cursed with such a catastrophe, to be a king whose wife prefers a slave. What is the kingdom for, what is power for, if one could not protect his honor, and his manhood in the eyes of his beloved? But lo and behold, here is my brother, 10 times as great a king as I am, and betrayed 100 times more."

When Shahriar returned, Shahzaman told him what had happened, and the next day the unbelieving king pretended he was going to hunt, instead staying behind to see it with his own eyes. He ordered the 200 slaves beheaded and thrown to the vultures. But his shock was worse than his brother. He told Shahzaman: "Dear brother, I cannot think of a worse curse that can befall men that this which has befallen us. Let's leave these fake gowns of power, and walk the earth as beggars, if we find anyone who has been cursed by such a curse as ours, we shall return to our thrones, but if we find out that we were singled out, then reigning over our kingdoms would only bring them to doom."

Shahzaman agreed, and they wandered the plains of Asia, until they reached the seashore. A great hurricane approached, so they hid in a large tree by the shore. From their hiding place they saw the hurricane was actually a huge genie, holding a large box over his head and walking toward the shore. When the genie reached land, he put down the box, and opened it. There was another box inside, and another and another. There were seven boxes in all, one inside the other - all sealed with melted lead. In the seventh box, there was a woman.

The genie asked her to step out, saying: "Oh, my virgin beauty whom I kidnapped from her husband the day of their marriage, and kept in seven prisons under the seven seas, I am tired, so let me sleep."

The genie shrank to human size and slept with his head in the woman's lap. The two kings on the tree were terrified and shivering. The woman looked up and saw them. She asked them to come down, otherwise she would wake up the genie and ask him to eat them. Shahriar and Shahzaman came down, and, under the threat of being eaten by the genie, the woman forced them to sleep with her.

After it was done, the woman took the brothers' rings and placed them in a little box with 98 rings inside. 100 times she had betrayed the genie that put her in seven prisons under the seven seas. The kings hid again. The genie woke up, and with the same ceremony he put  the woman back in her prison and descended into the sea.

"At least we are human," The kings laughed, and they went back to their kingdoms.

At this point, Shahriar becomes the central figure in the story that everyone knows. The king knew he was not alone to be betrayed by a woman, but he now thought it was epidemic. How can a king save his honor? How can one make sure of a woman's faithfulness? His answer was simple: Marry her a virgin, and kill her in the morning. This way you are sure no one came near her before you, and no one will ever come near her after you.

Eventually Shahriar's kingdom ran out of women, except for the two daughters of his vizier, who was the one supervising the executions. Shahriar ordered the vizier to send him his 18-year-old virgin daughter, Shahrazad, for the next night. The vizier told his daughter to escape. The wise girl insisted on staying, saying that God would save her, the kingdom, and the king. The rest of the story is known. Shahrazad told Shahriar an incomplete story every night, the suspense of which would keep her alive for another day. But Shahrazad's personality saved her also. For while the fairy tales are full of stories of infidelity, Shahrazad herself directly contrasts with most of the other female figures. Her wisdom, patience and fidelity and piety, is what saves the women of the kingdom.

While "The Arabian Nights" is cited by a lot of Orientalists, whether native or foreign, as an extraordinary, liberal text of complied popular fairy tales, separate from the mainstream Arab Islamic culture, it is actually a conservative mainstream text. It has a firm moral stance  - like all great works of art, its complexity and richness does not deprive it from a clear position on matters of existence.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2004/Jul-07/93064-the-arabian-nights-much-more-than-just-a-fairy-tale.ashx#ixzz2wG3ndlYB 
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb