The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- An interrogation of the Arabian Nights - II

Scheherazade, whose name meant “city-born” and who was without a doubt a big-city girl, crafty, wisecracking, by turns sentimental and cynical, as contemporary a metropolitan narrator as one could wish to meet — Scheherazade, who snared the prince in her never-ending story. Scheherazade, telling stories to save her life, literally fabulating against death, a Statue of Liberty built not of metal but of words. Scheherazade, who insisted, against her father’s will, on taking her place in the procession into the king’s deadly boudoir. Scheherazade, who set herself the heroic task of saving her sisters by taming the king. Who had faith, who must have had faith, in the man beneath the murderous monster, and in her own ability to restore him, by telling him stories, to his true humanity.

What a woman!

It’s easy to understand how and why King Shahryar fell in love with her. For certainly he did fall, becoming the father of her children, and understanding, as the nights progressed, that his threat of execution had become empty, that he could no longer ask his Vizier, her father, to carry it out. His savagery was blunted by the genius of the woman who, for a thousand nights and one night, risked her life to save the lives of others, who trusted her imagination to stand against brutality and overcome it not by force but, amazingly, by civilizing it.

Lucky King!

But why — this is the greatest unanswered question of the Arabian Nights — why on earth did she fall in love with him'

And, as a footnote: why did Dunyazad, the younger sister who sat at the foot of the marital bed for one thousand nights and one night, watching her sister being fucked by the murderous king, and listening to her stories — Dunyazad, the eternal listener, but also voyeur — why did she agree to marry Shah Zaman, a man even deeper in blood than his story-charmed brother'

How can we understand these women'

In one of his late masterpieces Henri Matisse celebrated the potent phrase with which each night — except the last — comes to an end: Elle vît apparaître le matin; elle se tut discrètement. “She saw the approach of morning, and fell silent, discreetly.” Words are life, but so is discreet and well-timed silence.

And yet there is a silence in the tale that cries out to be spoken of. Beneath the glittering sea of fabulous words lies hidden, like a drowned city, a great psychological novel: the grand, perverse and profound love story, the mystery of Scheherazade and her Shahryar.

How shall we tell this story'

We have exhausted arithmetic. What remains is imagination.

This much we are told: that after the stories were over Shah Zaman and Dunyazad were married, but Scheherazade made one condition: that Shah Zaman leave his kingdom and come to live with his brother, so that the sisters might not be parted. This Shah Zaman gladly did, and Shahryar appointed, to rule over Samarkand in his brother’s stead, that same Vizier who was now also his father-in-law. When the Vizier arrived in Samarkand he was greeted by the townspeople very joyfully and all the local grandees prayed that he might reign over them for a long time. Which he did.

The silences in this ending scream to be given voice.

Was there a conspiracy between the daughter and the father' Is it possible that Scheherazade and the Vizier had hatched a secret plan' For, thanks to Scheherazade’s condition, Shah Zaman was no longer king in Samarkand. Thanks to Scheherazade’s condition, her father was no longer a courtier and unwilling executioner, but a king in his own right, a well-beloved king, what was more, a wise man, a man of peace, succeeding a bloody ogre. And after a time, without explanation, Death came for Shahryar and Shah Zaman. Death, the Destroyer of Delights and the Severer of Societies, the Desolator of Dwelling Places and the Garnerer of Graveyards; and lo, their palaces lay in ruins, and they were replaced by a wise ruler, whose name we are not told.

There is a riddle here. How and why did the Destroyer of Delights arrive' How was it that both brothers died simultaneously, as the text clearly implies, and why did their palaces afterwards lie in ruins' And who was their successor, the Unnamed and Wise'

This is the conclusion the tale refuses to reach. Imagine, once again, the Vizier filling up with fury as he was forced to spill all that innocent blood. Imagine the years of the Vizier’s fear, the one thousand and one nights of fear, while his daughters, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood, were hidden in Shahryar’s bedroom, their fate hanging by a story’s thread.

And where was Scheherazade and Dunyazad’s mother all this time' About this mother, the many volumes of story say not one single word. Had she died or did she live' If she was dead, then her children were all that the bereaved husband had left of his beloved wife, which would have greatly multiplied his terror of their loss, and his rage on their behalf. But if the mother was still alive, then the river of her fear and her fury would have joined her husband’s — and what a mighty, bloody torrent that would have been!

How long will a man wait for his revenge'

Will he wait longer than one thousand nights and one night'

And what of Scheherazade and Dunyazad' Were they a pair of scheming tricksters, deceitfully surrendering their bodies for a time — for a long time in the case of Scheherazade, a briefer period in Dunyazad’s case — in order, finally, to be avenged on the blood-drenched pair' To claim their husband’s corpses in the name of their dead sisters, and of their parents’ grief'

But there are stranger questions still.

Could these women have truly loved their dark and blood-soaked lords' Did such savagery engender, in these perfect girls, a forbidden but erotically enlivening desire' Did Scheherazade, at least, succumb over those intense, sequestered years to the charms of her black monarch upon his royal bed of blood, and did Dunyazad, too, after her arranged marriage begin to have feelings for the no-longer-murderous, and perhaps handsome, perhaps in many ways attractive man whose bride she had consented to become; did love come to seem, for a time, a force more powerful than the memory of the dead' And did they kill them in spite of love, not because of its absence — did they come to conspire at the two kings’ deaths, loving them as they did, because the blood of the dead cried out to them, because the blood of the dead accused and judged them, and proved, in the end, to be a value more potent than even the power of love'

Was the Vizier the wise king who came home to rule the island or peninsula (jazeera) of all India and China in the dead brothers’ stead'

Did the Kings die at their wives’ loving or deceitful hands'

I cannot tell this story. Only Scheherazade could have done so, for it was her last, most secret tale. Yet she chose not to tell it. Love and blood were at war within her, and she could not speak. She saw the approach of morning, and fell silent, discreetly.

The final count of the dead was three thousand, two hundred and sixteen.

Thirteen of the dead were men.

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