Do you think you are creative? Do you think you are a good story teller? You probably are, but there is a whole other level that we need to get on… I am talking about the creative Shahrazad from The Thousand and One Nights. Before I go on, here’s a little background information about The Thousand and One Nights from the Norton Anthology (cited below) just in case you haven’t heard of it. According to the Anthology, The Thousand and One Nights has many unnamed authors and it was scattered around the Middle East over the course of centuries (p 597); it is one of those stories that could go on infinitely because it has stories within stories within stories.. Kind of like the song that never ends, but just much less obnoxious. This story is so influential that it has been told all over the world, has been adapted (whitewashed), and we now have a Disney movie over one of the tales: Aladdin.
So the basis of The Thousand and One Nights is this King named Shahryar learned that his wife was kinda sleeping around and cheating on him, so because he is mad (rightly so) he murders her and her lovers (misters instead of mistresses..? and it is a little insane in the membrane, but hey it is not my life). So this king hates women and believes that they are all the same because logic is not his strong suit, but he still wants a wife. So what do you do when you want a wife, but hate women? You marry a new woman every night and kill her the following day and move on to the next victi- er, I mean wife, naturally. Eventually we run out of eligible bachelorettes until Shahrazad volunteers as tribute. Our girl, who was born at night, but not last night, has a plan to save herself and other women; we love women supporting women here. Soooo the king is obviously planning on murdering Shahrazad, but our girl has another plan, she tells him a story (often times there are stories within stories like a Russian nesting doll) but she leaves it unfinished to pique his curiosity and have him come back the following night to hear the ending. She is such a great story teller that the king postpones her not so inevitable execution because he is entertained by her stories that he eventually allows her to live permanently and stops executing women. Beauty and brains, we love a total package, she is sly and cunning.
Shahrazad’s stories are often portrayed in a way to teach the king of the world and different lessons. Women in these stories are often portrayed as cunning and sly, thinking outside of the box. Shahrazad is obviously an intelligent and creative woman because these stories seem to never end, always coming up with something to keep the king on his toes. Often times, the women in the stories she tells, while not all of them have great moral compasses, are also portrayed as cunning and sly. If we take a look at Andrice Arp’s adaptation of “The Fisherman and the Genie”, one of the tales that is told by Shahrazad, we can see an example of a sly and cunning woman. “The Fisherman and the Genie” has a tale within a tale within a tale, once again, comparable to a nesting doll, but when the fisherman is telling the story of a king who is telling a tale of a woman who tricked and cheated on her husband, much like how king Shahryar was cheated on. In this tale, the husband got a parrot to spy on his wife and report her infidelity, but once the wife found out about this avian spy, “she had her maids bang pots and pans, flash bright lights, and throw water on the cage all night long” in order to trick the bird into thinking there was a storm so as to discredit the bird’s reports causing the husband to believe the bird was lying thus killing him (p 221). This single part shows how the wife was clever and was able to trick her husband and get the bird out of the way, despite the husband learning that the bird was accurate from his neighbors. The woman in this tale came up with a plan to trick her husband, showing that she is cunning and sly, despite not getting away with it entirely, her plan worked at first. It is clear she is not stupid, just unfaithful. It can be argued that she just outsmarted a parrot, but she used the parrot as a pawn, so she is calculating and manipulative. Not the most ideal light to portray women in, but it is certainly not a stupid one, and Shahrazad took this moment to relate the story to the king’s experience, further keeping his interest and inevitably saving her own life as well as others.
Side note here: it seems almost as if women in these stories are given the same characteristics as a snake: sly, cunning, and untrustworthy. It reminds me of the serpent and Eve from the Old Testament. I find this interesting because women have been seen as inferior to men, but in these stories they seem to be formidable with their plans, although some of the husbands are just dolts. Like in Vicki Nerino’s adaptation of “The Woman with Two Coyntes”. The husband was ignorant and the wife took advantage of that so she could get him to approve of her lover. She banked on his lack of proper sex ed. and was able to convince her, quite frankly, idiotic husband that she had inherited her mother’s coynte.. This one again shows she is sly and calculating to get her way, and she tricked her husband, so she is not portrayed as a stupid woman. Just kind of a snake… maybe she has a great poisonality.
It is known that The Thousand and One Nights has a multitude of authors from diverse backgrounds, so perhaps there was some inspiration from Eve and the serpent, because in these stories, the women are portrayed serpent like in their behavior and trickery. I find it interesting because this is not how I would expect women to be described as and it seems almost as if their roles were ahead of their time. While these women were seen as property because they were their husbands, they were not portrayed as stupid, which I believe is ahead of its time.
Puchner, Martin, Akbari, Suzanne, Denecke, Wiebke, Fuchs, Barbara, Levine Caroline, Lewis, Pericles, Wilson, Emily, editors. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume B, Fourth Edition. W.W. Norton & Company 2018. (p. 597-631).
Arp, Andrice • “The Fisherman and the Genie” from the Arabian Nights
Nerino, Vicki • “The Woman with Two Coyntes” from the Arabian Nights