There have always been storytellers to keep the night at bay.
There have not always been books, and as the oratory tradition of stories is a precarious form of literary remembrance, the oldest stories ran wild in countless incarnations before eventually being recorded in writing. There are some names synonymous with the telling of fairy tales and folk lore – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen – others less well known, such as Charlotte Rose de La Force and Ruth Manning-Sanders. But there is one collection of stories too sprawling, too mercurial, to be contained by a single teller: the Thousand and One Nights.
Its very title is an obfuscation. Some of the earliest versions contained only a few hundred stories, believed to be Indian and Persian in origin, but over the centuries scholars and translators added tales from their own traditions, from medieval Arab to Syrian and Egyptian. The Thousand and One Nights as we know them contain stories from across Asia and North Africa, a magnificent storyteller’s paintbox.
The first European translation was in French, written by Antoine Galland and published in the early 18th century. He included several stories not in the original manuscript, which ironically enough have become some of the most well-known: ‘Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp’, ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, ‘The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor’, all said to have been taken from a Syrian storyteller. Fortuitously, Galland’s translation was released at the same time that fairy tale collections were becoming popular in Europe and it was such a success that by the end of the 18th century the Thousand and One Nights had been translated into English, German, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Russian, Flemish and Yiddish. It’s been a cultural touchstone throughout many parts of the world ever since.
I’m familiar with a handful of the Arabian Nights, children’s book staples and a few that are not, but I’ve never read all the stories. This year, that’s going to change. Every Tuesday I’m going to post my thoughts on another segment of the saga, taking the stories from Malcom C. Lyons’ Penguin Classics collection, The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights. These are very different to the fairy tales I know best – a hella lot bawdier for one thing, and more sequential, looping in and out of each other into labyrinthine sprawls.
I really have no idea what I’m doing. Welcome to the Sharazad Project! I hope we have fun!
Trigger warning: talk of rape, murder and racism
It begins, as so many stories do, with a king and a bad idea.
This particular king’s name is Shahriyar and for ten years he has been a just and popular ruler. One day he invites his brother Shah Zaman, who rules a neighbouring land, to come visit him and Shah Zaman immediately starts making arrangements to go. It’s almost midnight when, about to depart, he remembers something else he wanted to bring and goes back to the palace for it. There he finds his wife in bed with a slave. “If this is what happens before I have even left the city, what will this damned woman do if I spend time away with my brother?” Shah Zaman wails, and murders both his wife and her boyfriend on the spot. He then continues with his plans to visit Shahriyar like nothing’s happened.
He’s fooling no one, though. At first Shahriyar attributes his obvious unhappiness to homesickness and tries to cheer him up with the prospect of a hunt, but Shah Zaman won’t go. While he mopes around the palace alone, he looks down into a courtyard and sees a large group of slaves enter, accompanied by Shahriyar’s wife. Everyone gets naked, she starts kissing one of the male slaves and the whole thing descends into a wine-fuelled orgy. Both queens have chosen black lovers (black slaves, specifically, who therefore cannot give free and full consent) and this is already feeling like a nasty stereotype. Shah Zaman decides all women are evil deceivers and feels loads better.
Shahriyar notices the difference upon his return and asks after the cause. Shah Zaman explains about his wife’s infidelity and his subsequent murderous rage. Shahriyar is A-OK with that, but is puzzled as to his brother’s sudden bounce back and won’t stop pushing until he gets the truth. So Shah Zaman tells him. Appalled, Shahriyar won’t believe his wife’s actions until he too has seen them. He fakes another hunt and when he’s supposed to be outside the city, sneaks up to a window overlooking the Courtyard of Crazy Sex. What he sees convinces him his brother was definitely not exaggerating.
“Come, let us leave at once,” Shahriyar explodes, returning to Shah Zaman. “Until we can find someone else to whom the same kind of thing happens, we have no need of a kingdom, and otherwise we would be better dead.” So they go off on a brotherly bonding roadtrip and the kingdom gets run by…their viziers, I guess?
Anyway, the brothers end up by the sea and stop at a freshwater spring to rest. All of a sudden the waves begin to crash and a huge jinni (perhaps better known a genie or djinn) emerges from the water carrying a chest. The brothers shin up the nearest tree to hide, which is unfortunately where the jinni chooses to sit and open his chest. From it he takes a box, and from the box a beautiful girl. As in, a LIVING GIRL. Apparently ‘her radiance makes suns rise and shine/ While, as for moons, she covers them in shame’. “Mistress of the nobly born,” the jinni says to her, “whom I snatched away on your wedding night, I want to sleep for a while.” Whereupon he puts his head on her knee and naps.
The girl, however, knows she’s being watched – transferring the jinni’s head to the ground, she gestures for the two kings to descend. Once they are on the ground, she demands they have sex with her, or she’ll wake the jinni and have him kill them both. They do as they’re told. It’s all really horrible. Afterwards, she demands they hand over their rings so she can add them to her collection – a string of five hundred and seventy signet rings, each symbolising a lover she’s taken to spite her kidnapper. It’s implied she’s used the same rapist tactics on all of them.
“This jinni snatched me away on my wedding night and put me inside a box, which he placed inside this chest, with its seven heavy locks, and this, in turn, he put at the bottom of the tumultuous sea with its clashing waves,” the girl explains. “What he did not know was that, when a woman wants something, nothing can get the better of her.” She then starts quoting poetry about how untrustworthy women are, and how men are so tragically helpless in the face of love. This is exactly what the two kings have been thinking themselves, so they take it as one hundred percent truth and go home to slaughter Shahriyar’s wife and all her slaves.
Shahriyar is not done yet, either, not by a LONG way. For the next three years he takes a new wife every night, ‘deflowers’ her and murders her in the morning. His people rightly decide he’s gone stark raving mad, take their daughters and flee. One day the vizier is ordered to find a new victim and there’s no girls left in the city; none, that is, save his own. The younger is Dunyazad. The elder is Shahrazad, an avid intellectual who has amassed a huge collection of poetry and histories. Seeing her father’s distress, she asks him to tell her what’s wrong and he reveals the whole miserable mess.
“Father,” Sharazad says firmly, “marry me to this man. Either I shall live or else I shall be a ransom for the children of the Muslims and save them from him.” By which I take it to mean, she’ll die as a martyr to misogyny. Her father understandably considers this to be a terrible idea. “I’m afraid you may experience what happened to the donkey and the bull with the merchant,” he tells her.
The very first segue!
So, once upon a time, there was a wealthy merchant who also understood the languages of beasts and birds. He kept a bull and a donkey, and one day the bull came into the donkey’s quarters to find them beautifully cleaned, with a full feed trough and the donkey just lounging around with nothing to do. The bull, who has to plough the fields every day, is grumpy about the disparity and wants to know how the donkey manages his life of leisure; the donkey obligingly advises him to fake illness. Unfortunately, their master overhears the plotting and when the bull won’t get up or eat the next day he has the donkey strapped to the plough instead.
The donkey is of course furious and comes up with another plan. “I heard our master say that, if you don’t get up, you are are to be given to the butcher to be slaughtered,” he tells the bull, who immediately starts eating in preparation for the next day’s work. Once again the merchant is listening. When he shows himself the bull takes to his heels, making the merchant laugh. His wife wants to know why, only there is apparently some rule that if he shares his secret he’ll die, so he refuses to tell her. She decides he was laughing at her and will give him no peace until he’s honest. He gathers all his relatives to explain his quandary, but his wife will not believe him, and he prepares to settle his affairs so she can have the truth.
Then he overhears his rooster gossiping with the dog. The rooster thinks the merchant need only lock his wife in a room and beat her until either she stops asking inconvenient questions or DIES. Liking this idea, because he’s an awful human being, the merchant tricks his wife into being alone with him then beats her until she passes out. When she comes to, she’s more than willing to let him keep his stupid secret.
The vizier’s rather long-winded point being, ask the wrong question and some guy in authority will make your life a misery – or that’s what I’m taking as his point – but Shahrazad is determined, so she dresses up fancy and her father leads her to the king. This is not a sacrifice, though. She’s given instructions to her little sister to come that night and ask for a story. In a really twisted twist, Dunyazad is forced to sit to one side and watch while the king has sex with her sister. Afterwards, the king gets restless, not knowing quite how to occupy the time between sex and murder, so when Dunyazad suggests a story he’s quick to give his permission.
Thus begins the first night.