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Scheherazade returns

The master storyteller from Lebanon at the top of her game. Urvashi Butalia writes.

books Updated: Jan 19, 2012 20:50 IST

One Thousand and One Nights

Hanan Al-Shaykh

Bloombsbury

Rs 699 pp 304

Long years ago, I serendipitously came across Hanan al-Shaykh’s wonderfully evocative novel, Women of Sand and Myrrh in a bookshop in London. At home, I sat down to read it, and did not stop till I had finished. I instantly became a fan. I didn’t, though, as one might expect of a fan, read everything she wrote after that. I would have liked to have done but her books are not easily available in India. But I did read The Story of Zahra, and some of al-Shaykh’s essays (in particular a lovely, moving one about her mother that eventually became her book title) and the admiration only grew. Thus, it was that I looked forward, with a sense of anticipation and some excitement, to her rendering of A Thousand and One Nights.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Candid, lovely, funny, wise this, the story to beat all stories, never fails to amaze and delight, and al-Shaykh’s rendering of it is informed as much by her love of this ‘ur’ story as it is by her admiration of the Arab language, her sense of wonder at stories that intertwine, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, the real and the fantastic, the animal and the human, the dream and the reality, nature and the world.

At the start of her rendering, al-Shaykh describes how she came to know the story of Scherezade. As a young girl she remembers hearing the words ‘Alf Layla wa Layla’ — A thousand and one nights — and then a radio rendering of the tales was what really drew her in. She tried to get her hands on the actual book(s) only to find that the cabinet in which her friend’s father had kept them was locked.

‘What did people fear?’ she wonders. And the adult speculates that it must have been the explicit and uninhibited descriptions of women’s sexuality — something that always sets off alarm bells in the minds of men. And then, as an adult writer she found herself being drawn yet again to this ur text about a woman who believes her life, and the lives of countless other women, depend on that amazing device, a story.

Like Scheherazade, al-Shaykh is a natural storyteller. The stories in this book flow effortlessly and with their motley population of merchants and dervishes, of women who turn into bitches, and jinns who fall in love, and caliphs and duplicitous princes and a host of others, the stories are tender, funny, sometimes cruel, and populated by women who not only flaunt their sexuality, but who refuse to be cowed down or to give in to men, no matter that the men may be the caliph himself. I found them hard to put down, and every now and again, I smiled and chuckled and gasped at her audacity and smelt the smells and heard the sounds and the clamour of the world she creates. Most of all, I just marveled at the sheer pleasure of reading a good story.

Urvashi Butalia is co-founder of Zubaan, a Delhi-based feminist publishing house