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Scheherazade and The Thousand Nights And One Nights: the story

Written on October 14, 2014

 

Scheherazade.tif

Queen Scheherazade as painted in the 19th century by Sophie Anderson

This is a guest post by good friend Teeya Blatt, member of ‘The Byron Circle of Tellers’. She wove this exquisite version for our concert at the live performance night ‘ Tintenbar Upfront’.  

I’ve heard it said that there exist amongst us tonight a group that is not familiar with the ancient and age-old art of storytelling for adults!

Well, if that be true, I bid you who are new to this, on behalf of Storytelling Circles
everywhere, a most hearty welcome! As I am the saluting storyteller of this propitious event,
it is left to me to introduce you to our roles, that of listeners, and that of tellers, and the stories
themselves as the raison d’etre, the reason we are brought together and the reward of our
being here. Because, unlike listening to a band, or watching t.v., listening to a story requires
a certain light effort, not a heavy burden, but a willingness to focus on the story, a permission
to allow the inner child to fall into wonder, because if you drop out on a part, even a small
part, it just may be the bit that you most need to know for the story to embrace you and
transport you.

As a storyteller, I can tell you that your attitude and attention will transform me from
my little self to the teller of a story that adjusts itself to both our moods. If you as listener are
not willing, me as teller will fumble, or stumble or fall down flat. Have no doubt – you are
more important than me for the story that wants to be heard.
You may rightly ask yourselves, “What for?” “Why bother?” “What good will it do
me?”
The best way to answer those questions is by story. So let me, please, tell you the
ancient story of Scheherazade, Queen of Persia, whose name means “the freer of cities”. Her
story and the stories that she told – for she is one of the greatest storytellers of all time – have come to us as

The Thousand Nights and One Night, also known as The Arabian Nights, from
which collection come well-loved stories of Ali Baba and the 4o Thieves, Sinbad the Sailor
and all his adventures, Aladdin and His Magical Lamp. But these are a small number
compared to all the rest, and this collection was written down in the 14th century, but the
original, which was Persian, is said to have been told orally from about the time of 900 A.D.
We have here a collection of stories that have lasted so long, centuries, precisely because they
touch something essential in the human heart and human imagination. So now, let me answer
the question, ‘what can stories do for me?’ Let me tell you her story, the story of
Scheherazade.

The Tale

It is recorded in the chronicles of the things that have been done of time past that
there lived once, in bygone ages and times, a most powerful king, who
reigned of the Islands of India and China. He had two sons, and when he died, he set them
up each in their own dominions, the elder, who’s name, Shehriyar, means ‘king’ or ‘sultan’,
was given the larger part of the kingdom, of course. Kings Shehriyar and his younger
brother, Shahzeman ruled justly over their respective subject, and enjoyed the utmost
prosperity and happiness, for a space of time.

There are many stories about the two brothers which I may tell you another time, but
for now, suffice it to say that a rumour came to the ear of the Sultan Shehriyar, a terrible
rumour that involved his most beloved and wondrously beautiful wife.

He didn’t want to believe it was true, so King Shehriyar arranged to see for himself,
and rather than going to court to attend to his kingdom, he hid one day behind a latticed
window in his bedroom, and looked onto the garden outside. Soon, the gate to the courtyard
opened, and there entered 20 damsels and 20 slaves and among them his own wife, the
Queen. They all came to sit by the fountain, and the girls and the slaves proceeded to disrobe and sat down together. Then the Queen called out, “O Messoud!” and there came to her a
most beautiful black slave, who embraced her and she him, and then they ceased not from
kissing and clipping and clicketing and carousing until the day began to wane.
Even when the courtyard had emptied, in the dusk of twilight, Shehriyar was still at
his window, paralysed and enraged. What he had seen tore away at all that was soft in him.
His heart caved in on itself, became a hard know in the cavity of his chest, and he was filled
instead with a hot lust for vengeance.

He called for his Vizier and had him go to the Queen and behead her and her lover.
The Vizier, of course, asked no questions, simply went to do his masters bidding.
The King meanwhile, went to the harem, and he unsheathed his own sword and in the
rage of his indignation, he slew them all – all the damsels who had caroused alongside his
wife.

That very night, King Shehriyar bid his vizier, “Bring me a maiden suitable to marry!”
And the King went into the maiden, and in the morning he bid his vizier, “Take her away and
behead her!” which the vizier duly did.
This he did again the next night, and the next, and the next.
And the vizier was sore bereft but kept this well hidden, lest it be his head that the
king called for.

The King, the Sultan, ceased not to do thus for three year, till the land was stripped of
maidens, and all the women and mothers and fathers wept and cried out against the king,
cursing; and those that had daughters left fled with them, till at last there remained one day
not a single girl in the city apt for marriage.

And on that day, the king bid his vizier bring a suitable maiden, the vizier nodded his
head, but was very anxious, as there were no marriageable girls left in all the land. Now it so happened that the vizier had two daughters, who he had managed to keep
safe during these troubled years. The elder, Scheherazade, was of great wit, and had read all
the stories of the kingdom, and the neighbouring kingdoms. She knew the histories of kings
past and present, she had memorized the poetry and lore of her land and of lands far off, and
when she saw her father’s troubled demeanour, although she guessed at its reason, she asked
him what was troubling him.

The vizier did not respond, for he did not want to involved his beloved daughter int he
goings on at court, but she pressed him until he told her, and she responded, “Be anxious no
longer, my father, and offer me this night for marriage to the king!” Her father refused and
Scheherazade argued, and the vizier refused, but Scheherazade was adamant, and in the end
he relented, and Scheherazade began preparations for her marriage that night.
Besides all the things that women do to prepare for their wedding night, Scheherazade
took aside her younger sister, Dunyazade, and bid her thus, “My sister, after the king has
come into me and had his fill, and while we are lying in his bed, I bid you to say to me thus,
‘my sister, as we are awake, will you not tell one of your pleasant stories to while away the
watch?’ ” and Dunyazade promised to do just that.

And so came the night, and after the king went into her and had his fill, and while
they were lying in his bed, Dunyazade asked, “My sister, as we are awake, will you not tell
one of your pleasant stories to while away the watch?” and Scheherazade replied, “With all
my heart, if the king give me leave.” And as he was far from sleep, the King said, “Say on.”
And Scheherazade started her stories on the first night.

Here is where it is revealed to us that Scheherezade was a priestess of the psyche
secure in her craft, in her art. That she gave not the best of her tales the opening night, just
yet enough to pique the invalid king’s interest, is one of the subtleties of her craft. She told
her tale, and when Scheherazade saw that the night was becoming light, she stopped off her telling on the edge of a knife, and Dunyazade, her sister exclaimed, “My sister, that was a
most wondrous tale,” and Scheherazade answered, “It is nothing to how the tale ends, and I
will tell you more tomorrow night if the King let me live.” And the King, who wanted to
know the end of the story, said, “Let it be so.”

And on the second night, when the King Shehriyar had gone into her, and had his fill,
and they were lying in his bed, Dunyazade said, “My sister, as we are awake, will you not
complete the story you started last night, to while away the watch?” and Scheherazade
replied, “With all my heart, if the august king give me leave.” And as he was far from sleep,
the King said, “Say on.” And Scheherazade continued her story.

Scheherezade's sister Dunyazad

Scheherezade’s sister Dunyazad

And Scheherazade told until she espied the lightening of the sky and stopped her story
at the edge of a knife, and promised to continue the following night, if the King allowed her
to live. And the King, who was most interested and intrigued, agreed, saying, “Let it be so.”
This happened again on the third night, and the fourth and continued to happen for a
thousand nights and one night. Scheherazade told magical tales, mystical, adventurous. She
told tales of love, burlesque and erotica, she included historical tales, tales of brutality and
bliss, and interspersed to add depth, she even told poems.

The stories included genies and jinns, ghouls, sorcerers, magicians, legendary places,
and sometimes, a character in Scheherazade’s tale told other characters a story of his own,
and that story may have another one told within it, stories within stories within stories,
multilayered, rich and textured.

And in Scheherezade’s tales was depicted the whole range of human experience, from
the comical to the tragic,, the wondrous to mundane, the secular to mystical. In her telling,
nothing was rejected as common or unclean, all classes of people were represented; slave and
king, and courtier and countryman, pietist and free-thinker, ignorant and learned, wise and foolish, moralist and debauchee. In a word – Humanity – wise, obscene, and greater than
judgment.

Her narrative was sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous, but never a sentimental
reading of the human heart, and slowly, slowly was transferred to King Shehriyar’s morbid
intellect little by little (nevermore at a time than a self-righteous tyrant could assimilate), the
wondrousness of the kaleidoscope of life, until in the end, there was left nothing in the world
for him to resist or not to love. And within the stories, he saw his own story in perspective.
The stories, which was Life talking to him, wound its way underneath his self-righteous
indignation and released his heart from its stone prison.

Scheherazade, a master of her art, presented the Universe of story, or rather the
Universe as story. I have heard tell from the wise old storytellers that it is not humans who
tell stories, no no, it is us who are the characters in a large story, it is the story that tells us.
Scheherazade told her tales for one thousand nights and one night, and when she came
to the end of her stories, she had her three sons that she had in the meantime born to the king
brought to the room, and said to him, “My most august king, will you take away the mother
from these your three sons? I beg of you to spare my life.” And the King, whose heart had
been healed, had fallen in love with his wife, her wit and strategy, and he had already long
thought that he would not put her to death.

Thus we see that stories in One Thousand Night and One Night, brought about a death
– of the tyrant, and refreshment as man.
And now, I bid you all a wonderful life of stories and songs.

Note from Teeya: I have borrowed much from Joseph Campbell’s (1952) editing of the Thousand Nights and One
Night in The Viking Press version of this collection, The Portable Arabian Nights.

Teeya Blatt is co-host of the Heart of the Story on 99.9 BAY FM Radio with Annie Bryant.

Teeya is also creator and founder of “From Heroes Into Men: A Boy to Manhood Program for Communities”.
She has a website here.

30 Nov, 2014 Update: Here is a fascinating podcast on the subject from ABC Radio National ‘Poetica’  with an intro by Marina Warner and poetry “The Severed Head”.

Teeya and Annie co-host The Heart of the Story

Teeya and Annie co-host The Heart of the Story

Teeya Blatt

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