In defense of Sheherazad

August 27th, 2010

—A group of fundamentalist lawyers in Egypt, oddly called Lawyers without Shackles wants to shackle Sheherazad. They’d like to purify the salacious passages in The Thousand and One Nights, that glorious phantasmagoria of narrative that has endured for centuries.

I immediately want to spring vehemently to Sheherazad’s defense. After all, she was one of the inspirations for my own Office Tower Tales about the tricky relations of power between men and women. Every writer draws on the immense roiling cauldron of literature as a source of inspiration. To censor a work is to remove it from a treasury that belongs to the world, not to one small stone-walled cellar.

But then I took a breath. It’s too easy to think of this containment effort uniquely in terms of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism and forget that 19th-century translators also tidied up the Arabian Nights for the tender ears of Victorians. They put Sir Richard Burton’s fuller, frolicking version on high shelves behind glass doors, out of the reach of children. (Not that the average child could have made sense of Burton’s ornately twee diction anyway.)

In fact, oh modern parent, I’d challenge you to read Sheherazad’s story of the porter’s dalliance in the house of three beautiful sisters to your nine-year-old without a bright blush. I’m glad there was a version my mother could read to me without prompting innocent questions about pussy.

The issue of censorship is too big and complex for a blog item. Of course I defend our right to the uncensored versions. But I have this much in common with people who want to control what we read: I agree that stories and art are powerful. They can change how we think. The tales we tell ourselves over and over condition our brains, and sometimes we should be careful what stories we tell.

However, what these poor shackled lawyers don’t quite get is that removing the sex from The Thousand and One Nights actually removes its morality. Oh, perhaps you might eliminate the porter’s dalliance without too much harm—it’s an elaborate anecdote leading to a shaggy-dog pun. But in the rest of the narrative, the sex is central.

King Shahrayar and his brothers witness graphic episodes of infidelity on the part of their wives. They are deeply wounded, hurt almost to the death, and become convinced that women are irretrievably false. The King’s solution is to punish the whole gender—he’ll marry a new bride each day and send her to the chopping block right after the wedding night. He’s not going to be betrayed again.

Sheherazad realizes this embittered monarch has to be stopped. His violence is unhinging society. So she offers herself as a bride; her armament is story. She artfully keeps the king interested—he won’t have her beheaded until he finds out the end of the tale the next night…and the next…and the next.

When I first read the Bowdlerized version of the Arabian Nights, I couldn’t figure out why the king was going around killing wives one after the other. He didn’t seem to deserve any kind of redemption. I felt a sensible woman would have taken a knife into the bedchamber rather than a narrative and helped society as well as herself by finishing him off.

The moral of the complete story is that women are sexual beings, that sexuality can bring harm and destabilization as well as delight, but that female sexuality cannot be controlled by male violence. In one significant episode, part of their process of embitterment, the king and his brother meet a sleeping demon with his head in the lap of a beautiful young woman. The demon keeps her in a locked glass box at the bottom of the sea, but she shows Shayrayar the rings from 98 men who have made love to her when she carefully moved the demon’s sleeping head from her lap. She invites the king and his brother to make that number up to a nice, round, one hundred lovers. In this case, cuckolding the violent demon is almost a commendable act. He is “the enemy of mankind,” says the young woman. This episode really convinces the king that women will get around any locks or controls put on them.

It is Sheherazad—wise, good and merry—who solves the moral conundrum posed by this episode. Through her storytelling, she inhibits the possessive aggressiveness of men (“the enemy of mankind’) and puts the sexuality of male and female into context so that social cohesion can be restored and maintained.

The attempt to clean naughty bits out of the Arabian Nights has an air of faint silliness, like to trying to keep the princess in her glass box.  Sheherazad’s complete narrative, on the other hand, shows us that we need to encounter sexuality, understand its power and keep it in its place. Otherwise, we risk the kind of world where a husband who murders women can somehow become a suitable and accepted hero.

Is that really a story for any child to grow up hearing?

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