The Sharazad Project: Week 4

Trigger warning: talk of racism

Night eight opens with everything going very wrong for the young king of the Black Islands. He has failed to behead his wife’s lover, instead only gashing his throat – and he doesn’t even wake up. Nor does the queen, sleeping beside him. The young king decides his rival will die of the injury and leaves without finishing the job.

The next morning, his wife comes to him with her hair shorn off in mourning. Her excuse is ridiculously over the top – according to her, every member of her family has just died, with causes ranging from ‘fighting the infidels’ to a fatal sting. She wants to swim around in her grief, and the young king makes no opposition to her building a tomb beside the palace and calling it the House of Sorrows. Her lover is not dead yet, but can no longer speak or eat anything other than broth. The queen spends most of her time in the tomb tending him.

For three years she laments in the most totally non-subtle of ways. One day, whilst she hangs around outside the tomb reciting tragic love poetry, her husband comes upon her and loses his temper. He sends up her poetry with a sarcastic extra verse, uses some horribly sexist and racist insults, and draws his sword to cut off her head. Realising it was he who ruined her lover’s life, the queen gives a villainous laugh and transforms the king into his current state: human from the waist up, stone from the waist down.

That’s not nearly enough vengeance to satisfy her, however. The four Black Islands are transformed into mountains, the king’s city becomes a pool, and she even colour co-ordinates the different religions and ethnic groups as fish. Having set up her husband in this chamber, she visits him every day to deliver a hundred whiplashes. Over the top of the raw wounds, she lays a hair shirt, and over that his splendid robe, as a mockery of what he once was.

Upon hearing this story, the older king is outraged. The next morning at dawn, he strips naked and sneaks into the House of Sorrows. Killing the slave with one sword blow, he dresses in his clothes and throws the corpse down a well. Murderous and terrifyingly unsanitary, what multi-tasking! Lying in the tomb with a sword at his side, he waits for the queen. She’s busy being a domestic abuser at first, but once done with the morning flogging she carries wine and broth into the tomb. The king fakes ‘the accent of the blacks’ (Sharazad WHY) to pretend her lover has miraculously recovered. Presumably she can’t see him very well, because she’s fooled. He also acts like he hates her, but then her lover did that too, so it’s hardly a giveaway. At his admonishments she repeals her spell on her husband, kicks him out of the palace and goes back to her ‘lover’.

Who is no happier to see her. The misery of everyone else she’s cursed is apparently what made him sick, not the sword blow to his vocal cords at all! Delighted at her chance to make things right, the queen rushes to remove her spell.

We now move into night nine, in which the people of the Black Isles are restored to humanity, except presumably the ones who got fried. That’s a rubbish covenant, incidentally. The queen hurries back to the tomb and the king draws his sword, running her through then cutting her in half. As he emerges from the House of Sorrows, his hand is seized and kissed by the young king, who wants to know what he’ll do next. The breaking of the curse changed physical boundaries; king no.1’s palace is now a whole year’s travel away. The young king does not want to be without his new friend, so the king spontaneously adopts him. Leaving the people of the city to take care of themselves – which they can probably do much better now the infighting of the royal family is over – the two kings set out on the long journey.

The vizier has been taking care of things in the first king’s lands. Being a really great second in command, he has not settled in too comfortably and is genuinely happy to see his boss back. After getting an update on how his kingdom’s doing, the older king gets his priorities straight: handing out presents, then sending for the fisherman. He asks whether he has any kids; on learning the fisherman has two daughters, the king marries one and has his royal bestie marry the other. The fisherman also has a son, who is made treasurer. The vizier, being so formidably competent, is sent off to manage the Black Islands.

The night is not yet over! Having concluded the tale of the fisherman, Sharazad continues with the story of the porter. It begins next Tuesday, when a shopping trip turns kinky and everyone gets drunk.

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5 thoughts on “The Sharazad Project: Week 4

  1. Pingback: Read-Along: The Sharazad Project (Part 3) | Alex Hurst

  2. This story was one of those rare instances of the Wazir actually doing his job without greed, huh? I’m still on the fence as to whether I actually liked this story or not, though.

    • I like bits of these stories, not necessarily the way they all fit together. The prevalence of overt racism and sexism makes it difficult to invest in a lot of the supposedly sympathetic characters, who keep doing such awful things, but this vizier seems a pretty good person. If the citizens of the Black Islands have not given up on monarchs altogether and established a republic by the time he arrives there, I think he’ll do a great job.

      • I admit it’s a bit hard to overlook what was commonplace at that time, but I guess having read so much classical East Asian literature already sort of primed me for it.

        The women in these stories, despite the sexism, DO have a lot more agency than other works I’ve read. In The Tale of Genji, the women are named after flowers and are about as useful. I still love the book, but the women do nothing, really, except something for the man, or fleeing from certain rape (there was an interesting article I read a couple of weeks ago discussing rape as the first step to romance in Heian Japan).

        As far as the racism, I’ve seen a lot worse from European and American stories… It is unfortunate, but at least the Nights also have white slaves. Most of the wives that arent cousins have been POWs turned slave wives, and the Wazir of this story’s entorage was made up entirely of white soldier slaves… But yes, he’s a good guy. 😛

      • That’s a significant difference between our translations then, because almost every time a slave is mentioned in the Lyons version, that character is definitively described as black. I cannot recall encountering a single white slave (not to say I haven’t, but if so it must have been incredibly fleeting and perhaps not clear enough a description to register with me). Also, the black slaves tend to get treated as villains, while the slaves who are not given a specific description of skin colour are treated in a way that’s more neutral or even positive.

        As to sexism, most European fairy tales I’ve read tend to have more stylised storylines and are therefore often more subtle about their prejudices (for instance prince + princess = happy ever after is a rigid equation, even when you know logically they won’t be happy together). The Thousand and One Nights, on the other hand, feels no such obligation to play nice. I suspect because it has always been meant for adults, who can be as cynical and bigoted as they like without pretending otherwise.

        I also think more men were involved in shaping the original stories – which is, I’ll acknowledge, a wild and unfounded guess, but so many of the point of view protagonists thus far have been men, it does feel like we’re seeing it all through the male gaze. These are my rather messy impressions at this stage in the project, anyway. Turns out I have a lot of them!

        There is an amazing girl coming up, though. She features too briefly, and is better than everyone.

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