Volume 2 of The Arabian Nights begins with night 295 of tales and goes through night 719. The stories at the beginning of the book are all very short, some only around a page or two long, and it wasn’t until about halfway through the book that the tales grew into longer epics once again, including the seven voyages of Sindbad. There’s a lot of risk of tedium when you binge read these books like I’m doing. The shorter tales all stacked on top of each other begin to blur together and longer tales can grow to such epic lengths as to be too long, and long or short there are repeated kinds of stories, themes, and phrases throughout. But if I had not read these books in the rapid way I’m going, I’m not sure that I would have figured out the genius of Shahrazad.
Shahrazad is Brilliant
At the beginning of The Arabian Nights, readers are introduced to Shahrazad and King Shahriyar. Following a betrayal by his wife, the king has been marrying young women and executing them the morning after consummating the marriage. Shahrazad agrees to marry Shahriyar in order to save other women from a similar fate and preserves her own life by telling tales, stopping each night so that the king will have to keep her alive if he wants to learn the ending. After a few nights, her story fades into the background of the tales, the only reminder that she is the tale-spinner being a single sentence: “Morning now dawned and Shahrazad broke off from what she had been allowed to say, and then when it was the one hundred and fifteenth night, she continued.”
And yet, Shahrazad’s own story is ever present and the reader can see this in the arc of the stories she chooses to tell. Her selection of stories is very methodological and careful, based on her audience and what will mostly keep him interested and her alive.
At the beginning of The Arabian Nights, when her life is at the greatest risk, she has to catch his attention and speak to his sympathies. So, she tells stories involving men betrayed by women and how they get retribution. With the king in an ‘all women are evil, so I have to kill them after marrying them” mentality, these stories are likely to grab his interest and keep it.
As she weaves story after story, she begins to include stories of humor and adventure, entertaining tales and epic sagas of brothers and kings going to war. These tales focus less on the “women are root of evil” theme and more on the daring deeds of men. Some of these stories even feature good women as companions to the heroes. By this point, she would have his interest fully engaged; the king is more wrapped up in the stories than in his need for revenge.
At which point, Shahrazad switched tone again. The tales presented at the beginning of Volume 2 are religious or morality tales. It seems clear to me that now that Shahrazad has King Shahriyar’s trust and complete attention, she feels safe enough to present him with a few life lessons. These tales include:
- death comes to a wealthy, squandering man begs for more time to get his affairs in order, but death gives him none; meanwhile the noble, generous man meets death prepared
- virtuous women who refuse to be seduced by men choose death in order to remain holy in the eyes of God
- good kings who treat their people well and are remembered fondly by their people
Shahrazad seems to be guiding King Shahriyar toward a new perspectives. First, in proper behavior for Kings as with the common man, there are rules for treatment of others. And second, that women can be as noble and virtuous as men, a clear change from the stories she began with.
Following these morality and religious tales, the stories became more mixed with adventure, religion, romance, and so forth. I’m curious to see if the tales in Volume 3 reflect other levels of Shahrazad’s personal story arc.
More Women Being Awesome, Except When Their Not
“Zumurrud got up and dressed herself in the clothes of the soldier…, strapping on his sword round her waist and putting on his turban, until she looked like a man.” I love when the women save themselves through cleverness. After dressing as a soldier, Zumurrud becomes a King and rules with strength and prosperity for a number of years.
In another tale, a slave named Tawaddud is asked to prove her work by discussing the precepts for proper behavior in religion and life, important points of Islamic law, and medical knowledge of the body (mixed with scientific fact and old myths). “God has set the tongue as an interpreter, the eyes as lamps, the nostrils as organs of smell, and the hangs in place of wings,” she says at one point. While reading Tawaddud’s recitations were a bit tedious, she is doubly awesome for being questioned by the wisest men in kingdom, each trying to bet her an prove their intelligence is superior to hers. She trumped every last one of them and sent them off in shame. I cheered.
The worst moment in the book was when the Commander of the Faithful is visited by six women, black, white, and brown, and thick and thin. Each is intelligent, beautiful, and sings and recites poetry. He then has each of them insult their “opposite” with cruel, racist, vicious rants. These passages of a man urging women to attack women or his entertainment is so gross. I loathed this section of the book.
There were several stories in which women fall in love with animals — bears or apes — and engage in beastiality. So strange.
Volume 2 has one of the most awkward sex scenes I’ve ever read, in which the hero “pounced on her like a lion on a sheep, and plunged his rod into her scabbard.” Later in the story there was “the one grinding and moving around and the other snorting and writhing”. Um, yikes.
Gharib’s tale is about a young man on a crusade to convert infidels to Islam. This lengthy saga includes one of my favorite passages.
“What ill-omened thing do you worship?” asked Gharib.
“I worship a date pastry made with butter and honey,” al-Jamraqan told him. “Sometimes I eat it and then I make another.”
Gharib collapsed with laughter.”
As a side note Gharib will apparently forgive anyone. One of his converts Sa’dan (described as a ghul) is a known cannibal. During battles he sometimes still continues to roast and eat human flesh, but, hey, he’s a believer and that flesh belongs to an infidel, so it’s cool.
A number of phrases are repeated through both books, some of which make me wonder about how translation works and others that I just find amusing. Here are a few of them.
“You must know…” or “My story is a strange one…” – both are used at beginnings of stories in the same way Europeans use “Once upon a time…”
“so-and-so” or “such-and-such” – used in cases where the storyteller chooses not to specify a name, place, or time. This is a set of phrases that makes me wonder about the translation, since I doubt it’s literal, even though the gist is probably the same, but I’m not sure.
“To hear is to obey.” – a character’s any time a request or order is given and they intend to follow through
“He/she was like a full moon.” – a description of beauty in a young woman or man
“His/her saliva is like sweet wine.” – another description of beauty, and one I find so strange since in most cases the observer has not kissed and therefore not tasted the saliva yet to know
“Take my soul.” – said in prayer when a virtuous character asks for death from God to save them from their turmoil, usually unjust treatment of a honest, noble, and religious individual
“sprinkled rosewater over his/her face” – an oft used cure for the ongoing epidemic of fainting
“They lives in happiness and joy until they were visited by the destroyer of delights and the parter of companions.” – used at endings of stories in the same way Europeans use “… and they lived happily ever after.”