Saturday, February 1, 2014

One Thousand And One Nights - Hanan Al-Shaykh

There must have been a point in my adult life when I actively started seeking out fairy tales again but I can't remember when it might have been, perhaps because it's impossible to remember a time when these stories in some form or another have been unfamiliar. Some years ago I bought a Richard Francis Burton version of 'One Thousand And One Nights' it's basically a doorstop and I think I had some idea of reading it in those days between Christmas and New Year when there's generally an excess of dates and Turkish delight around the place and really immersing myself in the whole thing. It didn't happen but sometime later I bought Marina Warner's 'Stranger Magic' (only partly because it has a very pretty cover) with the intention of reading about the Arabian Nights. I haven't read that yet either.

In the end my way into 'One Thousand And One Nights' has been through Hanan Al-Shaykh who re tells 20 of it's stories here. I knew nothing about her when I got the book which is slightly shameful, and only enough now to know that it's slightly shameful. I should also admit, by way of an excuse, that I started reading this book before Christmas but got distracted by work and other books before picking it up again this week so I'm now a little vague about the first half, and consequently about how the whole thing hangs together.

The big thing for me here was the structure - although I know that the framework for 1001 nights is that Shahrazad tells a story each night so enthralling that the King wants to hear more the next night and so doesn't put her to death. Because I've only ever read isolated stories from the collection, and because I almost always read novels which are plot driven, the way these stories lead on from one another and nest into each other was a bit of a revelation, it's possibly the first time I've ever really understood how seductive Shahrazad's story telling is. It was also really frustrating trying to read this book in bursts, like the king I always wanted to know what happened next.

Beyond that Hanan Al-Shaykh brings these stories alive in a dozen different ways. They are full of sex and contempt; men and women can't resist each other but seldom deal well together. The men are too often selfish, venal, violent - contemptible creatures unworthy of their power or of respect, the women in turn are cruel and unfaithful. They also feel like stories told by and amongst women (even when the protagonists are men), the sort that undermine men and authority along with those other women who are no better than they should be. Women who would giggle over a beautiful young man whilst dissecting the performance of others, irreverent women who find ways to survive in a mans world, in short real women. It's an enticing read, and one that has finally started me off on a particularly bookish journey which I'm sure will last much longer than one thousand and one days or nights.

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