“The Thousand and One Nights”: Scheherazade’s Role

“The Thousand and One Nights” is a collection of Arabic folk stories that originated from ancient Arabic and Indian folklore and literature. All the stories are framed in a single tale performed by the king’s wife, Scheherazade. The stories are incorporated by the initial story that tells about the fate of Scheherazade and the way she became the wife of Shahryar. Throughout the whole story, there observe the theme of fate and destiny and, therefore, Scheherazade’s fate is placed in the center of the story. Moreover, Scheherazade represents the fate of all the Arabic women of that time. On the one hand, the story discloses the point that everything is subjected to destiny. Therefore, Scheherazade believes that to become a wife of the king and to save other women from death is her fate. Hence, it is necessary to decide Scheherazade’s role in the story and Arabic outlook of women during that time. In addition, another task is to pursue different interpretations of the stories as far as women are concerned.

Scheherazade’s stories about Aladdin, Ali Baba and Forty Thieves and Sinbad the Sailor are quite familiar to the readers and even to screen viewers owing to their Hollywood filming as well as numerous adaptations in many countries. However, the screen versions of the “Arabian Nights” are distorted since they depict Arabic women as harem beauties enslaved by their masters (Lynn, M. & Zott, M, 3). However, in most cases films failed to present the tales as the product of Scheherazade’s intelligence and wisdom. In fact, this woman, the honorable wife of Shahryar, was more than a sum of all the beauties and charming images of harem girls, she is the embodiment of courage and fidelity who faced the king betrayed by the his first wife. Scheherazade’s mission is to save the virgins from being beheaded after spending one night with Shahryar (Gauch, 1). By telling different stories every night she encourages the king to wait till the next evening to listen to the end of the narration. In the course of telling the tales she managed to divert her husband’s attention and to prolong not only her life but the lives of endless number of other women. Thus, Scheherazade is depicted as a skillful narrator and strategist. However, some authors fail to insert the tone and the manner of Scheherazade’s narrations. Instead, they are inclined to stick to the stories and to their plot (Gauch 2) not taking into consideration the heroine’s characterization. The problem is that “The Arabian Nights” is collection of cross-culture stories, and it is a product of the collective mind narrated by one person, the main heroine, at the same time. That is why Scheherazade is the character who experiences many lives of her own.

The story itself also undergoes European influence owing to presenting stories interpreted by different writers all over the world. Thus, French writer Galland (Sallis 47) accomplished the most famous translation of the “Nights”. The stories were rendered by this writer were quite accurate but still he did not succeed in closing the frame of the narration. The writer, on the other hand, paid a diligent attention to Scheherazade’s wittiness and braveness and her excellent command of medicine, history, and philosophy. Moreover, Galland’s mentioning the heroine’s physical beauty and virtues are crucial since it renders the atmosphere of the initial tale and the feelings of the Scheherazade. Yet the original Arabic variant represents only her mental abilities and intelligence and, therefore, her virtues are implicitly assumed. As for her beauty, there was not a single word about that. In general, the original narration is more specific and focused while European version is rather diffused.

Consequently, this character was the most sustainable in the European vision. In further translations, there was no mention about the appearance of Scheherazade but still, the image of Eastern beauty arose to the European reader due to the existing stereotypes about Arabic women. Therefore, Galland’s version was quite popular among the audience since it is more magical and deprived of dark and sophisticated episodes (Sallis 49). Another translator who tried to render the story was Edward Lane (Sallis 50). His variant is distinguished by the accurate and formal style that makes his narration more elegant in comparison with other earthy styles of interpretation. By this, he intended to make the story more serious in order to appeal to a wide target audience. Analyzing the translations in general, most variants were aimed at describing the stories within the stories rather than rendering the atmosphere of the epoch.

The European interpretation of the Arabic stories and novels was predetermined by the formed stereotypes of Arab women. According to these, Arab women were perceived as entertainment for their sultans. They were always reminded of their inborn inferiority and their impossibility to handle their fate. On the other hand, they are related as to wise, strong and patient and to those who are devoted to their king (United States Nations Development Program, 149).

Some Western readers view Scheherazade as a mere entertainer and even regard her as a bad model for modern women. The readers are also inpatient and are more likely to follow the tales narrated by the main heroine rather than to consider her as a victim of the sultan. Consequently, western readers exclusively view the Arab women as harem slavers that must entertain their sultans and be always silent. Thus, the tales helped to forms a certain image of the Arabic women and their attitude to them. “The Thousand and One Night” breaks some stereotypes as far as Arab women are concerned. In this respect, the original story tells about the Eastern woman who saved the kingdom from the tyrannical ruler and helped the sultan to realize the evil he did and to restore his faith in humanity. Consequently, Scheherazade’s portray contradicts the western outlook on Arab women. Moreover, she is the one who managed o fight the women’s rights and freedoms.

In conclusion, it should be mentioned that “The Thousand and One Night” is still attracting many readers all over the world since the story is the reflection of Arab culture and tradition and the lives of Arab women in particular. The heroine of Scheherazade is an outright example of the strong Arab woman and the embodiment of all the cardinal virtues that should be attached to them (Enderwitz, Susanne p. 187). In addition, the image of Scheherazade could serve as the example to follow for Western women since it is also the incarnation of the human features such as wisdom, fidelity, and intelligence that can be applied universally to all women as well.

Works Cited

Enderwitz, Susanne. Shahrazad is one of us: Practical Narrative, Theoretical Discussion, and Feminist Discourse. Literature Resource Center, 2004.

Gauch,Suzanne. Liberating Shahrazad: Feminism, Posteolonialism, and Islam. US: U of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Lynn, M. & Zott, M. Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Vol. 62. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

Sallis, Eva. Sheherazade Through the Looking Glass: The Metamorphosis of The Thousand and One Nights. Curzon Press, London, 1999.

United States Nations Development Program. Scheherazade’s legacy: Arab and Arab American women on writing‎ US: Stanford University Press, 2006.

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