The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- A woman proves to a ruler that reason is greater than violence

I have always been fascinated by Scheherazade. Going by the evidence, this is a fascination shared by many others over the centuries. The story is irresistible. There is a man who rules, as so many have done and as so many do. And like many powerful men, this man, Sultan Shahriyar, is vulnerable, and his vulnerability makes him madly cruel. Shahriyar has decided that the only way to cope with the fear of betrayal ' in his case, by his wife ' is to bed a woman, then kill her before she can be unfaithful to him. The sultan's fear is specific, and so is his strategy to contain it.

But the situation that results asks a universal question. What do you do when a ruler, or an official, or someone in a position of power and responsibility, uses force to extract obedience' When he sheds blood to keep his authority from being challenged' It's the response offered to this question that makes the story so perfect. In this battle with violently oppressive power ' the worst kind of power ' the weapons are made of words.

The lone soldier on the battlefield is a young woman. Scheherazade undertook the most unique mission ever undertaken by either a subject or a storyteller ' saving her life, and that of her fellow-citizens, through her body of stories. At the heart of the Scheherazade story, a story that has travelled in so many different forms to different parts of the world, is this oddity that needs to be explained in some way or the other.

In this story of a subject bringing a ruler to his senses, a story of a storyteller reconciling her audience to the difficulties of continuing with normal life despite fear of betrayal, it is not a man, the sultan's venerable wazir for instance, who performs the difficult task. It's a woman.

Though Shahriyar's tactics are somewhat extreme, his situation ' the man of power who has become a despotic enemy of the people ' is not really unfamiliar to us. It's Scheherazade's position that is trickier to describe, though her story as a speaking fighter, an activist who talks the tyrant into putting reason before force, has had such a strong resonance for people through the ages. We too share Scheherazade's situation ' but only in the 'real life' of dreams, of imagination, of possibility. I say 'real life,' because without a belief in the possibility of reason containing violence, what business do we have to continue living' It would be impossible to live with the prospect of being ruled, of being subjected by this or that oppressive authority, if we could not see the possibility of a rescue mission.

To me, the most interesting fact of the Scheherazade story is not just that it is a storyteller who undertakes such a rescue mission, but a woman storyteller. My suspicion is that this explains much of the fascination with the figure of Scheherazade ' and much of the need to explain her, tame her, and in reaction to this domestication, re-appropriate her into a feminist icon.

Whether you are reading Borges or a bowdlerized children's book, or seeing the 'exotic' harem-world of Scheherazade in famous European paintings or a B-grade Hollywood film on the Arabian Nights, you come face to face with a reconstruction of Scheherazade. And the way in which she is reconstructed ' how she looks, what her weapons are, says a great deal about whoever is doing the imaginative remembering.

Fatema Mernissi, the sociologist who has written remarkable books for a larger readership, has written with insight and humour about the way Scheherazade has been viewed in different parts of the world. In a book called Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems, Mernissi describes some of the ways in which Scheherazade becomes a type ' an imaginary, exotic type ' in the ballets, paintings or literature far from home.

There is, for example, a recent (1985) edition of Scheherazade's tales illustrated by a German artist. 'The book,' Mernissi says, 'had a gaudy blue cover on which sprawled a huge nude woman endowed with massive buttocks and Medusa-like black hair that swirled around her distended bosom.' (Not surprisingly, the subtitle of the book refers to 'sexual desire and voluptuousness' in the Arabian Nights.) Mernissi is puzzled by the way this Scheherazade looks. Where she grew up, 'to be plump is a sign that a woman is in control of her fate.' With a violent husband, Scheherazade was in constant fear of her life; she must, therefore, have been strained and thin.

(When I wrote my novel When Dreams Travel, I decided to make Scheherazade strong, but heavier than the beauties of Hollywood harems. It seemed to me that Scheherazade would have to be in top physical condition to go to battle.)

Whether Scheherazade was thin or fat becomes a minor bone of contention when Mernissi sees a rendition of the popular Scheherazade ballet, originally choreographed by Sergey Diaghilev. In the original tales, Scheherazade's body is hardly mentioned, though her learning is repeatedly stressed. In the German ballet, however, Scheherazade is all body and voluptuousness. But if the original Scheherazade had nothing more than this to offer, what would have happened to her' Mernissi is very sure 'she would have been killed if she had disrobed like a Hollywood vamp or Matisse's odalisque and stretched out passively on the king's bed. This man is not looking for sex, he is looking for a psychotherapist.' What Scheherazade had to do was disarm a killer with dialogue, not seduce ' something any of the women who went before her could have done.

So the next time we encounter Scheherazade in a story or a painting or a film, it may be useful to remember Mernissi's summing up of the strategy Scheherazade had to use to be a civilizing agent ' convincing the king that reason is more effective than violence. 'Scheherazade had to master three strategic skills: control over a vast store of information, the ability to clearly grasp the criminal's mind, and the determination to act in cold blood.' The first skill is intellectual ' Scheherazade had to know reams of poetry, the sayings of the wise, and improvise a great deal in terms of content as well as narrative device. But knowledge alone could not have helped her. She had also to draw on some more 'psychological talents' that would change the criminal's mind by using words alone, something like the highly trained specialist who speaks to the anti-social person holding a hostage.

Scheherazade had to be a strategist, and guess accurately what would be the unbalanced criminal's reaction or next move, even as she talked into the night. Finally, she had to sustain nerves of steel that would help her control her fear ' that any moment she would lose her listener's interest and he would revert to his blood-spilling practices. In short, in this nightly interaction between her and the king in their harem-prison, she had to lead though she was the prisoner, the subject and the woman. Being led would only mean that her neck ' and the necks of other women ' would be that many inches closer to the sword.

Email This Page