If things had gone to schedule, I wouldn’t be writing this post for another four or five years. The Sharazad Project was intended to encompass the entire Thousand and One Nights, after all – a time during which the legendary Queen Sharazad managed to talk herself out of execution, give birth to three children and convince her husband to stop his murder lottery, all while reeling out story after story at night – but as it is, I have stopped at the end of night one hundred and forty five.
I’ve always wanted to know more about the Thousand and One Nights. Blogging my reading seemed a good way to share what I discovered, as I did with Fairy Tale Tuesdays. The most obvious difference between the two projects is structural – while the largely European fairy tales I reviewed were usually self-contained, the Sharazad stories are spun out sagas, often interrupted by segues as characters within the narrative tell each other stories that may or may not relate to the larger plot. As such they tend to have bigger casts, allowing many secondary arcs. Separate story cycles sometimes feature the same characters, for instance the long-suffering vizier Ja’far.
Another significant difference is narrative style. Fairy tales tend to be fairly simple in terms of plot. There’s not much extraneous detail and what there is varies from one telling to another. They frequently contain recurring sequences, such as three brothers each setting out on the same quest or three sisters tested with the same task. It’s a lyrical repetition, almost like the chorus of a song and for the same purpose: ease of remembrance and retelling.
The Sharazad stories – coming from regions across Asia and the Middle East – contain a lot of detail. They are interspersed with ornate poetry, for which I’m certain I missed the cultural context. Characters offer quotes and anecdotes to prove a point. When someone is described as beautiful, you’ll hear precisely why. There is explicit sex and violence, sometimes much too closely associated, but also mundane minutiae about a merchant’s wares, a shopping trip, a wardrobe choice. It’s rather like comparing a formal garden to a labyrinth. They have some of the same elements (e.g. battles to be fought, monsters to be overcome, disaster-prone royalty to rescue) yet are aiming for completely different effects.
As with many European fairy tales, the Sharazad stories have a strong religious element, but the consequences of moral misdemeanors are less clear-cut. While revenge is a common motivator for the heroes and heroines, characters guilty of terrible actions often get away with their crimes – and sometimes they are the ‘heroes’.
Most of the protagonists are male and often behave with a strong sense of entitlement.
While frustrating, this was hardly surprising given the time period these stories likely date from and the social positions of the men involved – wealthy merchants, courtiers and royalty being the most common male leads.
What’s interesting to me is where they diverge from the modern Western expectations of masculinity. As much description is given to the physical beauty of male characters as is given to the women. Men frequently cry and faint without receiving narrative censure. They openly express their emotions, sometimes with extensive poetry, and develop intense friendships with other men. Of the two canonically gay characters I encountered, the woman’s sexual inclinations were referenced as a source of censure while the man’s were treated more ambiguously (as a minor character his personality and desires were not explored at any length) but neither character suffered as a result of their sexuality or dealt with homophobia from in-narrative characters.
Unfortunately, racism is rampant in these stories. Nearly all black characters are slaves, and most of the black men are characterised as villainous. There’s much milder but noticeable anti-Bedouin sentiment as well. Jewish and Christian characters are granted a little more complexity, but the ways in which those characters are treated can still be uncomfortable.
One of my key interests in fairy tales is finding interesting female characters and I found some truly amazing ones here. Sitt al-Husn, for instance, the sorceress who defeated an ifrit in a duel. Princess Abriza, champion wrestler and warrior princess. Dhat al-Dawahi, her formidable grandmother, the battle strategist and consummate politician who ordered around no less than four kings. Nuzhat al-Zaman, who kept getting kicked in the teeth by the narrative but who never stopped being brilliant and brave. There are secret sorceresses, resourceful old ladies, murderous beauties never to be crossed. If I’d read further, I am sure I’d have encountered many more.
I couldn’t read more. Gratuitous violence against women – in particular, sexual violence – is deeply woven into these stories. Of the characters I have just named, only one survives to her happy ending and she has to suffer like hell to get there. While there are plenty of women have personal agency (and wasn’t I delighted to see them), too many are enslaved and unable to give any kind of consent, or are married to men who abuse them. It got to the point where I was bracing myself at the introduction of a new female character, waiting to see what misery she would have to undergo. When Princess Abriza was raped and murdered, I knew this was not a headspace I wanted to experience any more.
I apologise to anyone reading along who wanted me to see the Thousand and One Nights through to the end and I wish you all the best if you want to keep going. I’m glad I began this project, and I’m sure there are fantastic stories ahead that I never gave a chance. But I’m also really glad to stop.