Thousand and one nights | Hanan al-shaykh

Do we need another English retelling of Alf Layla Wa Layla? Is there another corpus of stories which has been mauled so often by such a variety of people hoping to impose their agenda on it? Orientalists want to showcase the strange, if attractive, lusts of foreigners. Bowdlerisers want to shield innocent eyes from said lusts. Salvagers want to rescue a tradition under threat from narrow-minded religionists. Feminists regularly want to privilege the framing story of the courageous queen telling stories to stay alive, over the stories themselves. And so on. It’s enough to make a dervish dizzy. Why can’t we Anglophones go away and apply our good intentions to someone else’s literature for a while?

One Thousand and One Nights: Bloomsbury, 288 pages, 699.

The book, a stand-alone text separate from al-Shaykh and Tim Supple’s stage adaptation of the Nights, is a brainy, discomfiting transcreation of 19 stories from the Arabic One Thousand and One Nights. Unlike many literary retellings, it does not focus on the frame story of Shahrazad and Shahrayar, but uses it to set the stage for the other stories. The bizarre cruelty and sexual jealousy of Shahrayar is met with the calm reason of Shahrazad, the vizier’s daughter, who staves off her death by spinning the king a story every night. But instead of circling back to their marriage bed after each tale, al-Shaykh sets us off on a journey through a nested narrative in which each story contains a character who tells a story, in which a character tells another story, and so on.

Al-Shaykh explores Shahrazad’s tales themselves for what they say about relationships between men and women. There is no fairy-tale reclamation of the texts from their horrors. Marriages are abusive, romances unequal, and race, as well as religion, are cruel faultlines. Many women, and some men, find themselves at the receiving end of the worst of human nature.

Spinning a web: Al-Shaykh evokes the flavours of a fabled world in her polished, playful folk tales

The Shahrazad story has generally been seen as a triumph of humanity because it shows us how a victim, by speaking (a sort of) truth to power, becomes powerful herself. But the women in these stories aren’t all princesses spinning tales: They are magicians, weavers, healers, entrepreneurs and fighters too.

Al-Shaykh leaves out the best-known stories from Nights—Sinbad makes one brief appearance—but she chooses many familiar stories and characters. Shahrazad starts with Abdullah the fisherman and his jinn, through to the plight of the Chinese princess Budur, ropes in Haroun al-Rashid as a storyteller as well as a main character along the way, and gives us my favourite, Zumurrud, the chatty slave girl who makes bewitching art, enriches her sweet but unworldly husband, fights off covetous villains, and ends up as a great and just cross-dressing king. Talk about a role model.

Al-Shaykh’s characters tell us, like the feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter, that the stories we consign to children are equally capable of teaching adults more about themselves and their world. Her evocation of the cultural contexts of these stories also attempt to reach out to an adult sense of wonder.

There are a few obvious ways in which you might react to encountering the following sentence in a book. “The lady stopped at a fruit seller’s stall and chose Damascus quinces, Persian pomegranates, apples from Jabal Lubnan, tamr-henna from Egypt, figs from Baalbek, grapes from Hebron, oranges from Jaffa, and she placed everything in the porter’s basket."

You might shut it, put off by this wilfully fantastic “Arab world" which informs everything from political harangues on the coming global caliphate to Mills & Boon romances about the caramel-skinned secret babies of desert princes these days.

Or, as in al-Shaykh’s book, you can just marvel. It is a sentence that The Porter’s Tale’s early listeners, whether they sat in a busy street in cosmopolitan Baghdad or around a remote campfire in a village, might have heard with a sudden sense of how much there was to discover in the world. It is not necessarily a fantasy in which we are invited to participate: As with one of Zumurrud’s fabulous carpets, we might simply revel in the fact of its existence.

In six words

From Abdullah to Zumurrud, spellbinding storytelling