Hanan Al-Shaykh’s retelling of One Thousand and One Nights begins with the recounting of man’s glory and honor and woman’s tendencies toward deceit and immorality. It hits you over the head with the idea that men must protect their egos, and women are the root of all their problems and sins. It’s always the woman’s fault, isn’t it? But read past the first chapter and you’ll see that Al-Shaykh selected stories to argue the opposite. Her novel starts off the usual way: a king finds his wife is unfaithful, murders her, then promises to conquer a new virgin every night and kill her at sunrise to punish all women for their deceitful and conniving ways. However Scheherazade, the daughter of the king’s vizier, has a plan to stop the bloodshed. A masterful storyteller, she engrosses the king in her tale but cannot finish the story before the sunrise. She begs for his mercy and another day so she may complete her narrative. She does the same the next night, and the cycle continues.
Al-Shaykh selects very specific tales, which makes for an interesting retelling. She includes stories that highlight the intelligence — yes, sometimes conniving — and cunning that women had to (and perhaps still have to) rely on for survival. They took matters into their own hands. And sometimes it wasn’t pretty. The violence of the original tales is not erased either. The three beautiful sisters still resort to cruelty and seduction, the fisherman tricks the genie into submission, and the man plucks out his own eye as a form of self-inflicted punishment.
The stories are all intertwined but can be read separately, which is enjoyable since sometimes it’s nice to get a quick literary fix. While the tales may not have changed drastically, they nonetheless remain relevant. Al-Shaykh’s storytelling is rich, beautiful, and well worth the read.
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