A monster sits upon the throne of India and Indochina; jilted and hateful he marries a new bride each night, only to execute them the next day. His rage goes unchecked. Silent anger grows across his kingdom, prayers for intervention from bereaving families, but no one comes forward to challenge him.
Until, young Shahrazad, daughter of the King’s executioner steps forward offering to marry the King with a bold plan to halt his fury and end the bloodshed.
The story of Shahrazad and the King is the framing story of One Thousand and One Nights, or Alf Laylah wa-laylah, the Middle Eastern collection of folk tales that have existed since at least the 9th Century.
Now, in this post-truth world, it’s a good time to look to Shahrazad and the power she yields about truth, justice and redemption within the stories she tells to the King to save her life and the life of future women.
Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh who published a retelling of 19 of her favourite stories in 2013 speaks of her lifelong journey with the collection in the introduction to the book.
I do remember listening to a radio dramatisation and being utterly smitten: the clamour, the hustle and bustle of the bazaars and souks, the horses’ hooves, the creaking of a dungeon door, how the radio seemed to vibrate and shake at the footsteps of a demon, and the famous crow of the lonely rooster at the start of each episode. (al-Shaykh, foreword)
Her childhood obsession with the works faded, however, and she sought to escape the world the ‘Nights’ evoked, but Shahrazad never gave up on her. Much later, dipping back into the exotic world of the collection she started to see the stories through a different lens; with a new perspective of Shahrazad and the power, she had to use storytelling to build a better world.
Shahrazad’s perseverance in remaining the King’s prisoner in order to reveal to him the truth of her mind. I came to see that her weapon was art at its best, her endless invention of all of those magnificent stories.
The tales that al-Shaykh presents in her book offer a range of themes as far-reaching as the lands that they traverse. Before selecting and retelling the stories, she read three different editions in Arabic and spent a year and a half in her choosing.
In an interview with the Atlantic, she sums up the core of theme for her,
The theme of all the Arabian Nights is the oppressor and the oppressed. We see this tension play out through powerful Djinns locked in bottles, kings and their servants, parents and children — but mostly through women’s battle for survival in a world ruled by men.
When reading al-Shaykh’s collection, another swathe of themes emerged for me; with questions that feel so essential to today’s world. Most importantly, how can we writers, creators or citizens evoke the power of Shahrazad to change our world, even a small part of it through storytelling?
Below are the key ideas for powerful storytelling that came from my reading of One Thousand And One Nights.
A Dialectic Approach In Storytelling
Plato, some time back, enjoyed a dialectic approach to problem-solving, which involved arguing out an idea or belief between conflicting parties to get closer to the truth.
In One Thousand and One Nights, the characters often turn to storytelling in their attempt to convince or portray their ideas more effectively.
When Shahrazad demands her father takes her to marry the King, he begs, and he pleads, but she refuses to change her mind.
His final ploy is a story of a bird trying to convince a bunch of apes that a passing firefly isn’t an ember.
Listen, bird; you cannot endeavour to bring into line something which has been forever wayward, or to enlighten those who cannot see, so listen to what I am telling you. (al-Shaykh, p9)
With this meta-story, Shahrazad’s challenge is set. Can she respond and rise to the challenge to argue her case and defend the power of storytelling as a weapon for good?
Likewise, in one of the early stories in al-Shaykh’s collection, the theme of gender politics is brought up when a lucky porter finds himself invited into the house of three beautiful sisters who take care of themselves.
In The Porter and The Three Ladies, he asks,
Don’t you believe that the happiness and good fortune of women cannot be attained without the company of men? (ibid, p9)
He asks, astonished.
This question is put to the test when one of the house guests turns out to be the almighty Caliph, Haroun al-Rashid, Commander of the Faithful, and the stakes for the freedom of the women rise. Can they convince the Caliph to accept their independence and not insist they marry?
Overly literal or didactic themes can feel laboured, but the dialectical approach in storytelling gives us writers another option to create meaningful stories without being too on the nose.
The Value of Truth
The importance of truth in stories might seem like an insignificant point in our post-truth world of fake news prophets and UK politicians.
There’s a noble quality in the characters in their constant search for truth at all costs.
In the quirky tale of The Hunchback, each of the characters believes that they are responsible for a death, but when somebody else is accused, they bring themselves forward to give their truth to the King of China.
In the house of the three ladies, all guests are admitted strictly on a promise.
‘Speak not of what concerns you, lest you hear what does not please.’
But the strange and violent events of the night call for breaking the promise. The need for the truth of the situation is greater than the word they have given to the hostess.
Truth also has a life and death quality. The Caliph, Haroun al-Rashid demands his vizier find the murderer of the body of a woman he fishes out of the water. Driven to understand what is happening in his city, he threatens death by hanging if the vizier does not deliver.
Justice and Redemption.
Within the worlds of the stories that Shahrazad brings us the importance of justice is as strong as the need for truth, and no-one is above it.
The Fisherman and the Jinni, the opening story in the al-Shaykh collection plays with the idea of justice and vengeance.
A jinni (genie in popular Western culture), sentenced to life imprisoned in a bottle spends centuries planning what to do with the first person he sees. At first, he swears he will grant eternal wishes to the man who sets him free, but over the years, his frustration and fury grow. Hundreds of years on, when a humble fisherman accidentally hauls his bottle in his net and unwittingly releases him the Jinni’s hope has turned to hate.
The Jinni and the fisherman battle out their respective cases for redemption by exchanging stories — we can see the anguish of the jinni and understand his thirst for revenge; however, the poor fisherman is an innocent man and naturally has our sympathy.
In contemporary storytelling, sometimes, forgiveness means weakness and in modern narratives such as Breaking Bad or The Ozarks redemption is in small supply. It’s a refreshing change in One Thousand and One Nights where the willingness to allow for redemption conveys strength and power, rather than weakness.
It is a brave opening story for al-Shaykh’s Shahrazad; the situation of the powerful Jinni, holding the poor fisherman to ransom for events that happened in his past being resonant with the King’s own behaviour.
In the house of the three sisters; accountability is not merely for one section of society. Even the Caliph himself must confront his wrongdoings. Slaves, peasants and jesters enjoy justice and must hold themselves accountable for their actions.
In this world, everyone, from a humble fisherman to an all-powerful leader holds power to forgive, grant redemption and gift justice. In this way, the fisherman’s strengths match the Jinni’s and bind all people, no matter their class or culture in humanity.
Storytelling For Survival
From Shahrazad’s weaponising of storytelling in the framing tale, this theme continues throughout the collection; a reminder of the power of story to charm, enchant and enable survival.
In the Porter and The Three Ladies, executioners stand poised to cut off the heads of the guests for disobeying the rules of the house.
With a sword to the head, each guest must spin a yarn that touches the heart of the hostess.
I want each of you to tell your story, explain to us what brought you to our home and if I am convinced by your tale, and feel sympathy, then I shall forgive and free you, (ibid, 42)
In The Hunchback, when the King discovers the death of his favourite entertainer and finds four accused persons in his courtroom, he declares that their only saviour is to entertain him with storytelling and not any old story, a good one.
Nothing in this story took my breath away, and you cannot even compare it with the hunchback’s, so I must hang all four of you. Your only hope is the last story, from you tailor. (ibid, 119)
The symbolic use of storytelling as a survival speaks to our fundamental need as humans to use storytelling as a means to understand and connect. Not jewels, not money, not even a kingdom wields the same power as an enchanting tale.
The Ultimate Storytelling Power
Across one night in the house of the three sisters, across one thousand and one nights in the King’s Chambers with our master storyteller, the ultimate storytelling power is the ability to give hope to its audience.
The events of this evening resemble life itself: filled with harmony, the sublime, and with great contradictions — hate and love, tyranny and freedom, bliss and torment, loyalty and betrayal. (ibid, 183)
These stories show the ability of individuals to be the entertainer, the liberator, the redeemer all through the stories they have about their lives; whether all-powerful King or humble slave.
The Thousand And One Nights offer us, writers and readers, the ultimate power; to learn, grow, forgive and change our mind as we move through our lives. The capacity to be a better person and learn to empathise through storytelling shines bright in al-Shaykh’s collection.
If ever there was a collection of stories, for now, this is it.
Thanks for reading.