Arabian Nights: a lesson for modern Palestinians

Arabian Nights: a lesson for modern Palestinians
Blog: The deeds of Scheherazade in Arabian Nights shows Palestinians that a cause must have a narrative, otherwise it is futile, says Amjad Nasser.
4 min read
21 Apr, 2015
The princess' narrative was a form of resistance [AFP]

Within The Arabian Nights, that classic of Middle Eastern literature, lies a lesson for the modern world.

No one had asked Scheherazade, the book's heroine and narrator, to undertake her perilous mission. She decided to confront king Shahryar, who had taken it upon himself to kill a woman every night to avenge his wife's betrayal.

His wife had become all women, and it was imperative for him that all of womenhood were punished for her transgression. What tyranny and what unquenchable thirst for revenge.

We can count the number of virgin girls that entered Shahryar's chamber as brides only to leave in blood soaked shrouds. For those who want to count, multiply 360 women with three years, because Shahryar's sword remained active in his chamber for three years until people escaped his kingdom with their daughters.

The day came when Shahryar's vizier, who was charged with the depressing task of bringing the king a virgin every night, could not find ant girls for the king.

The vizier returned home burdened and heavyhearted, and was asked by his eldest daughter Scheherazade about what troubled him, to which he responded by telling her the whole story.

We do not know whether Scheherazade had previously known about the fate of the girls, because she expresses surprise, and then she decides to be the girl for that night.

In her mind, Scheherazade had a clear reason for volunteering: to save her father's neck and more importantly to save her gender, or as she describes it "the daughters of Muslims".

Surprisingly, it was not Scheherazade but her father, the vizier who starts the sequence of stories, as if setting the general framework for the upcoming thousand nights.

Further, the story of the father who accepted his daughter's deadly mission contains a moral, as do most of Scheherazade's early stories, before transforming into stories that branch off of each other as the nights go on, making it impossible for the listener to lose interest in the outcome of the manifold and interconnected stories that do not lose their suspense and connectedness.

     In her mind, Scheherazade had a clear reason for volunteering: to save her father's neck and her gender.

Were it not for the suspense, the bored and vengeful king would have drawn his sword that does not leave his grip, and without the connectedness of the stories, they would soon be exposed as a ruse to buy time, which would not last long.

Thus, Scheherazade had to continue her "struggle" for her own sake and the sake of all women, like an acrobat walking a tightrope.

Among all the segments of the king's society, no one was able to confront the king's blood thirst, not the king's ministers, advisor, poets or thinkers. Only one person was able to rise to this burdensome challenge: Scheherazade.

She used the presence of her sister Dunyazade as a morale boost and an assistant to her storytelling, as Dunyazade requests that her sister tells her a story on the first night, the most dangerous night faced by Scheherazade.

There are only two weapons in the chamber of the king: the sword and speech. These have been the weapons of humanity since their existence.

In our current situation, no one can stop the sword, while speech can be stopped by a simple gesture by the king. Therefore, speech - the narrative - the weaker weapon needs to excel over the sword every night.

Through speech, through the narrative and through the correct use of the only weapon she possesses, Scheherazade overcomes her first night with the story of the merchant and the demon that does not end even with dawn.

What is Scheherazade to do? Does she continue to tell the story while the king prepares to go to his court to administer the affairs of his kingdom, or does she stop? She of course stops to continue later, which is the strategy she relies upon.

It is obvious that the story of the merchant and the demon that transformed into other interconnected stories, intrigued the king and occupied his mind.

Thus, there was no problem with having another night to listen to the end of the tale. However, the tale does not end, as Scheherazade weaves it with another, and another until the stories become a magic carpet.

Narrative is a form of resistance. Scheherazade succeeds in "buying" her life, the life of her father and the lives of women with captivating tales.

What do we learn from Scheherazade's example? We learn that a cause without a narrative is a lost cause, especially if that cause does not possess a sword.

This is an edited translation of the original Arabic.