I stumbled upon Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh’s modern retelling of Alf layla wa layla, the monumental collection of folk stories known in English as One Thousand and One Nights, while compiling LJ‘s latest Classic Returns column. I read Mary Gaitskill’s introduction, al-Shaykh’s foreword, and skimmed through some of the stories. Before I knew it, I had finished half of them. Like Shahrazad’s captive king, I was hooked.
I spoke with the London-based al-Shaykh by phone recently and asked her about the role of women in the book, how she selected 19 stories from hundreds, and the process of translation.
M.M.: There are hundreds of stories in this tradition but you were able to narrow it down to 19 in this collection. What made you choose the stories you did?
H.al-S.: At the beginning, I felt as if there were so many jewels, that every story was a jewel. I couldn’t choose! Every time I read one story, I’d say, “That’s it! That’s it!” I’d read another and would be like, “That’s it!” I was collaborating on a theater project with director Tim Supple to adapt stories for a play, after we examined the many stories we decided that we should have a plot. All the beauty of all these stories would lead to nowhere if we didn’t have a theme. We chose stories that were dark, complex, violent, and explicit. They talk about the wiles of women and what made them crafty, their misfortune and who bestowed that misfortune on them. I chose the stories about misogynists, men who either killed their wives or their lovers. I understood that the behavior of these manipulative women was the second nature of the weak, [that] they were oppressed. I chose stories that go inside that oppressiveness. The theme [of the collection] is the oppressed and the oppressor.
M.M.: Tell me a little bit more about your work in the theater. Were these stories produced for the stage?
H.al-S.: I was contacted by Tim Supple, who’s worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and did A Midsummer Night’s Dream in different Indian dialects. He wanted to do One Thousand and One Nights next and he contacted me. He had read some of my novels and my lecture “The New Shahrazad,” which I gave at Sweet Briar College in 2000. He said, “Do you want to work with me?” and I said “yes.” I read 6,000 pages—3 different editions of One Thousand and One Nights. (Each edition has 2,000 pages.) It took two years. We did the play in Arabic and English. It was staged at the Luminato Festival and Edinburgh Festival two years ago. I just wrote the stories and he dramatized them.
M.M.: Women are so strong in this collection, exerting their strength through the narrative mastery that Shahrazad wields; or the physical domination the second dervish’s beloved (who castrates him) exhibits; or the fiscal power the three sisters, the mistress of the house in particular, have.
H.al-S.: I was astonished to realize that women were so strong, opinionated, and witty in those forgotten medieval societies. They were treacherous even to their gender, like in the stories “The Three Sisters” and “The Mistress of the House”.
The actual story is that the three sisters went on a trip and the two [older] sisters were so jealous of the younger sister. She had fallen in love with a man, a merchant, and while they were all on a trip to a ship to go and sell their goods, the older sisters drowned her husband. It became so complicated, this story—a magician came, and a witch came, the two sisters had a spell put on them, she bewitched them to become dogs. I thought, I don’t like it—it’s too complicated. I loved the character of the younger sister, the titular “mistress of the house.” She was so bold and so strong, and looked down on her other sisters because they were so weak.
They [married twice and] allowed [both] husbands [to] squander their inheritance. They returned home penniless. The mistress of the house took them back on the condition that they [would] never marry again, but live, like her, without a man and become, like her, interested in trading and becoming a merchant. When I had to create a character of the man [the mistress of the house would] fall in love with and marry, I chose to make him a bird, a djinn who can change…into a human being. I took this idea from another story that was about a father who didn’t want his seven daughters to get married so he built them a castle hanging in the air. The girls had to dress up as birds when they needed to leave the castle.
M.M.: He was the least destructive of all of the men in the story.
H.al-S.: There were many men in the stories, human beings, who were wise, fair, and nice. But I couldn’t fit them in [to this collection], they didn’t go with the stories. I wanted to show how romantic [the djinn] was, how he had such scruples, to give [my version] a breath of fresh air.
I think it’s so important to show how women were really bold. They just enjoyed sexuality, they enjoyed freedom, and they fought against oppression—whether against family members or husbands or society itself. And they were also very funny, and very creative. And the humor! They weren’t at all deprived of humor.
M.M.: Many of the stories you selected deal with romantic relationships, and most of those come to a violent end. What do you think this collection says about the intersection of violence and sexuality?
H.al-S.: Hundreds of years ago there was violence, and we have the same violence today! I wanted to show how the violence of years ago echoes today with honor crimes, which are against women. All that without the influence of religion, [which isn’t in the stories at all]. Violence and sexuality were aspects of life then.
Since One Thousand and One Nights was oral folk tales, the audience wanted to know what life was about—they didn’t have newspapers, media, nothing. They depended on storytellers to capture the fullness of daily life. That includes violence, justice, injustice, the romantic, all aspects of life. They were trying to understand how to live, and what living is about. And it’s very sad that in the Arab world, many thought that One Thousand and One Nights was folklore, tales, and that’s it—not a literary treasure. These stories were told so people could learn lessons about humanity, even from bad deeds or omens.
M.M: What did you add to the stories?
H.al-S.: I added the connections among the stories. For example, I made the fisherman’s brother the porter. I changed so many things, I don’t recall. I had the pain of the mistress of the house, that was my invention, as was the connections among all the stories. And when Harun al-Rashid, the caliph, says I want so-and-so to marry each other, I made all the girls say no. In the original stories, they marry whoever the caliph told them to marry.
I connected the stories together by adding episodes, happenings, here and there. For example, I made a fisherman’s brother a porter in the “Porter and the Three Ladies.” I invented as I said before the djinn husband in “The Mistress of the House.” I added from scratch the story of the shopper’s tale. Most important…was my creation of the story, “The Reaction of the Caliph,” in which the five sisters challenged the Caliph and nearly died defending their freedom of choice. When he ordered them “to get married,” that “I will not allow you to live on your own without men looking after you,” the girls said no until they finally won [their freedom]. In the original stories, they were so submissive and did what they were told. I must have changed and invented a few episodes in some stories, I don’t recall!
MM: I loved that part.
H.al-S.: Me too.
Every writer has changed these stories, and I have changed them, and I’m sure someone else in I don’t know how many years will change them. These stories refuse to die—they are always expanding and shrinking, they have an organic life of their own. Usually, Arab women writers look down on Shahrazad, saying “Oh, she became a prisoner of the Shah, the bloodthirsty king.” No, in my opinion, she was stronger, he became her prisoner. He needed her stories; he depended on her to humanize him. She wasn’t doing it to save her life, but to educate him. That was what she set out to do, to humanize him.
M.M.: How was the process of translation?
H.al-S.: I wanted to adapt the Arabic and give the text to a translator like I always do with my novels, short stories, and plays. But the director [Tim Supple] said: “I want them in your voice, just write them in the English you’re familiar with, you’re comfortable with.” And this is what I did instead of giving them to a translator.
This is the first time I’ve written in English. I needed to do the Arabic and the English exactly the same. It was so difficult because of the idioms and the proverbs—what works in Arabic does not work in English. It felt like rewriting. So I would change the Arabic first and then I would translate it back into English. I was very happy and secure in the language.
The biggest challenge was the poetry, the poems. It was very difficult for me to find the voice—how am I going to construct these poems? There were many poems I wrote myself. Writing in English was liberating, I felt no shame, no taboos. I found that I could do the same in Arabic. If thousands of years ago they could write like this—it’s very explicit and erotic in Arabic by the way—then I could do it. If storytellers and later writers were bold enough at that time, why am I holding back? I was very bold; I was surprised that my publisher in Lebanon didn’t censor it.
M.M.: Were you consciously thinking of the stories’ first European translator, Antoine Galland? Especially as you were translating it into English for a presumably Western audience.
H.al-S.: He made me think, why not? There are no magic carpets in the whole One Thousand and One Nights, no Ali Baba, and no Aladdin! Galland added them. In a way I’m happy that Galland and others hailed the magical One Thousand and One Nights and adapted it. It made the Arabic intelligentsia ask themselves: “Why do we look down on these stories? Maybe there is something special in this folkloric thing.” Ultimately they become fascinated by it and reclaimed this treasure.
[19th-century English translator Sir Richard Francis] Burton changed the stories—everyone changed them—and it’s fine. You can always find a better translation. Penguin published three years ago an amazing, amazing translation. It was all there. Even as I’m talking to you, someone in his office is leaning on top of his desk and trying to translate these stories and adding new things. These stories…just want to have more [artistic] children. And why not?