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Stories from Thousand and One Nights
A huge collection of stories from Arabia, India, Persia, and even China have been compiled to form the novel ‘Tales from Thousand and One Nights’. There are a number of editions of this book and not all of them are similar. These stories reflect the highly civilized Islamic world of 9th to 13th century that had a vast span to include the modern day Spain, North Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, and beyond. As such, they are a valuable source of information to us on the prevailing socio-cultural, religious and economic issues at the time. This essay focuses on the Islamic attitude towards gender, race and minority during those days as depicted in these stories. In analyzing these stories every care has been made to remain objective, while refraining from hasty generalizations. Nonetheless, a pattern on attitude towards women, slaves and minorities can be easily discerned. We have tried to arrive at those patterns based examples directly from the book. There is also the issue of translation. The translation by Burton is more racist in character than other translations. Moreover, the authors of these stories are unknown nor do we have any idea on what kind of research these authors did (if any) before writing.
The One Thousand and One Night opens with a story that leads to the next and the next and so on like the Pandora’s Box till the unresolved issue in the opening story resolves.
The story begins with the powerful king Shahariyar who marries everyday and kills the bride before repeating the same ritual next day his revenge towards women because his wife whom he loved the most had betrayed him. This cruelty and oppression towards women continue day after day for three years until a courageous and intelligent woman, Sheherazade, the Vizier’s daughter decides to cure the king of his cruel aberration.
In this story we see two aspects of women. One, women are depicted as treacherous and disloyal towards men. Two, they have an enormous sexual appetite. And finally, they are intelligent and wise. Let us see some instantiations in the story.
“When King Shahryar saw this infamy of his wife and concubines he became as one distraught and he cried out, ‘Only in utter solitude can man be safe from the doings of this vile world! By Allah, life is naught but one great wrong’.” This utterance relates to the instance when the king saw his wife and concubines indulge in sex with slaves in his absence. (Sir Richard Burton, 12). Earlier, he came to know of his younger brother’s disloyal wife because of whom his younger brother had lost the will to live. He saw one more instance of the voracious sexual appetite of a woman who insisted on sexual intercourse with him. These instances robbed the peace of his mind and he concluded no woman in the world is chaste and faithful. Filled with revenge, “He also sware himself by a binding oath that whatever wife he married he would abate her maidenhead at night and slay her next morning to make sure of his honour; ‘For’ said he, ‘there never was nor is there one chaste woman upon the face of the earth.” (Sir Richard Burton, 16).
However, the wit, intelligence and wisdom of women in most of the stories form the central theme to fight out injustice and oppression. For instance in the same story, Sheherazade, the Vizier’s daughter has been described in exceedingly glowing metaphors. She marries Shahryar in order to save the king and unmarried women in the kingdom and accomplishes her task successfully.
In the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the entire story revolves around the wit and intelligence of a slave girl, Marjaneh. Her extraordinary presence of mind saves Ali Baba from a sure death at the hands of the ‘Forty Thieves’. Ultimately through the foresight, intelligence and wisdom of Marjaneh all the thieves are killed and their wealth devolves to Alibaba. Marjaneh gets married to Alibaba’s son and is no longer a slave. “There he knocked at the door, which was opened by Marjaneh, a clever slave girl, who was fruitful in inventions to meet the most difficult circumstances.” (Stories from Thousand and One Nights, Harvard Classics, Ali Baba and Forty Thieves, 22nd paragraph)
Women and slave girls were not just sex-symbols. They had an independent identity and personality even in the medieval Islamic society. They could rise in social hierarchy through their merit, wit and intelligence. “Then Ali Baba, seeing that Marjaneh had saved his life a second time, embraced her. ‘O Marjaneh’ said he, ‘I gave you your liberty, and then promised you that my gratitude should not stop there, but that I would soon give you higher proofs of its sincerity; which I now do by making you my daughter-in-law’.” (68th paragraph).
Medieval Islamic times did not just have dictators. The men in position and power could be both good as well as evil depending on personal traits and circumstances. Often, they visited their kingdom in disguise of ordinary men. For instance, Caliph Harun Al-Rashid represented compassionate justice. He entered the home of three ladies under the disguise of a merchant and observed their strange rituals and heard the extra-ordinary tales of three kalandars. Medieval Society of these stories appear considerably advanced in trade and commerce. There are merchants and traders in most of them. There are long trade voyages as in the story of ‘Sindbad, the Sailor’. These voyages and trade caravans end up in fortunes and misfortunes. The society at this time had a number of professionals as doctors and moneylenders. There appear stereotypes of race or ethnicity and professions. A Christian is usually a doctor and a Jew is usually a doctor. A negro is usually a slave. The upper aristocracy is invariably Muslim, religious in attitude and usually conducting well in society.
Shahryar, who was originally generous and good, turns into a cruel and heartless monarch and finally transforms. Wayward monarchs often invited curse and outcry from citizens. “On this wise he continued for the space of three years; marrying a maiden every night and killing her the next morning, till folk raised an outcry against him and cursed him, praying Allah utterly to destroy him and his rule; and women made an uproar and mothers wept and parents fled with their daughters till there remained not in the city a young person fit for carnal copulation.” (Burton, 16)
In most of these stories, women have a role to play even as the common theme on women running through these stories is their subservience to men, who make love with men, who cater to men’s fascination for feminine beauty and charm. They are often kept as slaves and concubines. One of their great importances was in being able to produce a male heir for their master. Otherwise, the master felt disappointed with existence. “There was, in olden time, and in an ancient age and period, in the land of the Persians, a king named Shah-Zeman, and the place of his residence was Khurasan. He had a hundred concubines; but he had not been blest, during his whole life, with a male child by any of them, nor a female; and he reflected on this, one day, and lamented that the greater portion of his life had passed, and he had not been blessed with a male child to inherit the kingdom after him as he had inherited it from his father and forefathers. So the utmost grief, and violent vexation, befell him on this account.” (Harvard Classics, The Story of Jullanar of the Sea, 1st paragraph)
Among the many characteristics of women highlighted in these stories, their beauty has often been described in intricate details, including their make-up and ornaments and with lavish metaphorical details. “She was wrapped in an izar of silk embroidered with gold, and the merchant uncovered her face, whereupon the place was illuminated by her beauty, and there hung down from her forehead seven locks of hair reaching to her anklets, like the tails of horses. She had eyes bordered with kohl, and heavy lips, and slender waist: she was such as would cure the malady of the sick, and extinguish the fire of the thirsty, and was as the poet hath said in these verses:
I am enamoured of her: she is perfect in beauty, and perfect also in gravity and dignity. She is neither tall nor short; but her lips are such that the izar is too narrow for them.
Her stature is a mean between the small and the large: so there is neither tallness nor shortness to find fault with.
Her hair reacheth to her anklets, (and is black as night,) but her face is ever like the day.
The king, therefore wondered at the sight of her, and at her beauty and loveliness, and her stature and justness of form…” (The Story of Jullanar of the Sea, 2nd paragraph)
In another story, ‘The Porter and the Ladies of Baghdad…’ we find a lavish description of the beauty of a young damsel. “…and the porter, looking to see who opened it, found it to be a damsel of tall stature, high bosomed, fair and beautiful, and of elegant form, with the forehead like the bright new moon, eyes like those of gazelles, eyebrows like the new moon of Ramadan, cheeks resembling anemones, and a mouth like the seal of Suleyman: her countenance was like the full moon in splendour, and the forms of her bosom resembled two pomegranates of equal size. When the porter beheld her, she captivated his reason…” (The Porter and the Ladies of Baghdad…, 4th paragraph)
These descriptions also go on to convey us on the standards of beauty in those age and times. It may perhaps be noticed that among the characteristics of beauty, fair color occupies a pre-eminent position. This leads us to believe that color consciousness was very much an inherent aspect in those days and society. Slave males are almost invariably black in color. Princes and princesses are fair. The color was believed to add charms to the beauty that was an amalgamation of a number of other features.
While on the one hand we find women in One Thousand and One Nights with the status of wife, consort, slave or concubine or beautiful princesses leading their life in misery or luxury, always playing a second fiddle to men, there are also instances of women with bold characterizations, who go beyond their expression of beauty and sex to establish their unique personality as we have already seen in the instances of Shaharzade, and Marjaneh. There are a number of other stories where the kings are worried for their daughters, the beautiful and highly accomplished princesses, fearing they would not be able to find equally accomplished, intelligent, wise and handsome princes. The question is do we find these qualities in the personalities of common women or are these the preserve of only aristocratic ladies? We have several instances of upward mobility among men and women of the lower strata by virtue of their wit, intelligence and merit. We have also the instances of women who lived just with other women, as against being perpetually in subservience to the males. But these were exceptions rather than rule. It appears men and women were made for each other to have fun and to enjoy. For instance, in ‘The Story of the Porter and the Ladies of Baghdad’ thee is a remark that porter makes to the ladies, “…but my heart and mind were occupied with reflections upon you and your state, ye being alone, with no man among you, not one to amuse you with his company, for ye know that the menareh standeth not firmly but on four walls: now ye have not a fourth, and pleasure of women is not complete without men: ye are three only, and have need of a fourth, who should be a man, a person of sense, discreet, acute, and a concealer of secrets.”
In most of these stories with the role of women as the central theme, we find women who are good as well as evil. The evil ones can be extremely bitchy and jealous of someone. They undertake mischievous acts purely out of their evil nature for which they are punished. While all stories have good and bad characters, the women in these stories are extremely bad when they are bad by the standards of medieval morality and the punishments or curse inflicted upon them is also severe. For instance, in the story of The Merchant and the Jinny, we find three stories unfolding within the major story. In all the three stories we find a woman has been cursed by magical enchantment to turn into a beast because of some misdeed or the other.