“How does one learn to tell stories which please kings?”
In her account of a harem girlhood in
Scheherazade, the young bride of a savage tyrant who has killed her many predecessors, must spin a captivating tale every night to make the king postpone his plan to have her beheaded at dawn. Her husband, King Schariar, is possessed by the spirit of revenge. He discovered his first wife in bed with another man – a slave – and killing her was not enough to dissipate his raging hatred and distrust of women. He ordered his vizier to fetch, one by one, every virgin girl in the kingdom. He spent one night with each, then killed her. Now there are only two virgins left: the vizier’s own daughter, Scheherazade, and her little sister. Though her father wants her to escape, Scheherazade is willing to do her duty. She has a plan that will change everything.
As Fatima Mernissi tells it: “She would cure the troubled
King’s soul simply by talking to him about things that had happened to others.
She would take him to faraway lands to observe foreign ways, so he could get closer
to the strangeness within himself. She would help him to see his prison, his
obsessive hatred of women. Scheherazade was sure that if she could bring the
King to see himself, he would want to change and to love more.”
keeps the King spellbound through a thousand one nights, and at the end he is
changed. He gives up his habit of murdering women.
Fatima first heard
of Scheherazade from her mother, in the closed world of a harem in Fez. The
word “harem” here does not mean a stable of concubines and slave girls, but a
closed male-dominated world in which women of all ages are kept under lock and
key, forced at every turning to think about the hudud, the boundary enforced by religion, law and custom. When
little Fatima learns about Scheherazade,
her first and eager question to her mother is: “How does one learn to tell
stories which please kings?”
This, of course, is the question we all need to answer, to heal our relationships – with ourselves as well as others – and our world.
Mernissi notes: “I was amazed to realize that for many
Westerners, Scheherazade was considered a lovely but simple-minded entertainer,
someone who relates innocuous tales and dresses fabulously. In our part of the
world, Scheherazade is perceived as a courageous heroine and is one of our rare
female mythological figures. Scheherazade is a strategist and a powerful
thinker, who uses her psychological knowledge of human beings to get them to
walk faster and leap higher. Like Saladin and Sindbad, she makes us bolder and
more sure of ourselves and of our capacity to transform the world and its
Quotations from Fatima Mernissi, Dreams
of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison Wesley, 1995)
Pictures: Sani ol Molk. "Scheherazade and the Sultan"(top); illustration for a Persian edition of the Thousand and One Nights (bottom).