The Kismet of Shahrazad:  Fate and Transformation in the Tales from 1001 Nights

The Kismet of Shahrazad:  Fate and Transformation in the Tales from 1001 Nights

The Kismet of Shahrazad:  Fate and Transformation in the Tales from 1001 Nights

Written:  January 30, 2002


Alf Layla Wa Layla, or 1001 Nights, is the most famous folktale of the Arabic speaking literature.  It is now written down and codified in the way that men tell tales, thanks to the work of Richard Burton and many other scholars, but it first appeared as an oral tradition.  This tale was told only by women without books, and was told in a rhyming formulaic fashion.  The framework of the story is the “story within a story”, and it actually begins in the middle of the entire collection.  The continuity from generation to generation is one part of what constitutes and defines a folktale, however each generation adds their own twist to the tale.  According to Dr. Hasan El Shamy, “lore” is a category of culture, and culture is “learned behavior”.  Therefore, this lore of the folk is defined as the behavior of telling tales that includes not only the substance of the tale itself, but the context within which many clues lie as to why and how the tale is being told.  Ultimately, this context defines how the tale is heard and passed down to the next generation.

The definition of a folktale has many parts, but as a foundation it must have continuity within its own cultural context.  When one juxtaposes folktales with classical literature one sees that the core of this foundation is the way it is passed down from generation to generation.  Historically, folktales are always spoken, and classical literature is always written.  Both folktales and classical literature were available at the royal courts, however in the villages only folktales were found.  Therefore, folklore is not bound to the village, but also includes the urban centers.  As the royal court is the epitome of urban culture, I believe Alf Layla Wa Layla tells us many things about the inherent truth of folklore.  The time frame for the Arabian 1001 Nights, or Alf Layla Wa Layla, is the 8th-9th centuries in the Arabic and Persian speaking countries, primarily Iraq, Syria, and Iran.  While it is true that folktales are handed down from mother to daughter, this does not always happen strictly in a village setting.  The royal courts of Baghdad and Syria were also home to the nurturing of these folktales, and I would like to take a look at the context of this phenomenon.

How does this transmigration happen from village to royal court, from folktale setting to classical literature setting?  It is through the women.  While women are thought of as being hidden away from the world in the royal harem, how they get there shows that they cross many social boundaries.  Few men get to cross as many social boundaries as the women of the royal court.  Many women are brought into the harem as slaves, and were taken either from a village or from a nomadic entertaining clan.  This intangible heritage of the performance art of telling tales easily crosses boundaries between the lower and upper classes this way.

Where does Scheherazade/Shahrazad come from originally?  I do not believe we know, but I would guess she is not royalty.  She most likely comes from a peasant background, as in the story King Shahyar has gone through and killed many wives, and I doubt royalty would send their daughters for this fate.  Therefore, we see the continuity of tradition transgress social classes to arrive at the royal court.  We also see continuity of this tradition in that Scheherazade’s younger sister, Dunyazad, is there every night listening to the stories, too.  She is the perfect example of the phenomenon of folklore as learned cognitive behavior, as she is absorbing the stories and will probably tell them to the generation younger than herself.

If folktales can move up in social direction, then how does classical literature move from the elite to the slaves of the court to help form the similarities and sharing between the two genres?  I can only speculate that within the royal court men who can read are perhaps reading to their lovers.  If classical literature is only written, and is not recited in a Bard fashion, then who are the ones that can read?  The men read, and perhaps a few brave and courageous women learn to read at the royal court, perhaps only the royal women.  The royal women also socialize with the women of the harem, as they are the same gender; especially when the men of the court must leave for matters of state and government, the women socialize to keep from getting lonely.  I believe there must have been a lot of sharing between the women of the lower and upper classes because of this phenomenon.

Seeing that folktales cross cultural and social boundaries we can now see how they may be influenced by classical literature in the royal courts.  The elitist attitude that somehow classical literature is better than folktales dies when one is faced with the facts that folktales have many of the sophisticated attributes that classical literature has.  Such as a formulaic prose, depth of knowledge of language, and continuity in time and space; surely these folk traditions show a highly advanced form of performance art.  Classical literature is written, however, and when language is put onto paper it carries a class distinction that puts itself above the people of the village, who generally do not know how to write.  Therefore, folktales have always been associated with the lower classes.  We now see that people in the upper classes also enjoyed folktales, and particularly the Arabian 1001 Nights.

Kismet:  The Fate and Transformation of Shahrazad

A remarkable transformation takes place in the lives of a King, and his wife, and in turn this brings about a change in the future lives of women in his Kingdom.  The themes of destiny/fate and transformation brought about by catharsis play heavily in the tales that Shahrazad tells to her heart-broken husband; she believes that it is her own fate that has brought her to the King.  It is through her story telling that she persuades the King to spare her life by healing his heart and changing his mind about women.

Shahrazad’s father, the Vizier, tries to persuade her not to marry the King; he even tells her his own tale to try to dissuade her from going.  Shahrazad feels that this is her fate to either get him to stop killing every wife after he marries her, or to die trying.  King Shahriyar’s first wife’s infidelity causes him to murder her, and close his heart off from love again.  Shahrazad knows that it is her destiny to save the women in her land from death at the King’s hand; how she knows this exactly is unclear in the story, but I would assume that her heart is telling her that this is her fate.

In “The Fable of the Donkey, the Ox, and the Farmer” the Vizier tries to demonstrate to his daughter that sometimes sacrificing yourself does not pay off.  Her father is so worried about her, understandably, and does not want his daughter to put herself in a position where she could die just as the other virgins in the Kingdom had.  In the fable, the donkey gives advice to the ox, and this backfires on the donkey.  The ox complains of the hardship the farmer puts on him by making him work too hard; the donkey shows him how to bluff being sick, and then the donkey is made to do the work when the farmer gives the ox a break.  The Vizier is trying to show his daughter that she could end up the donkey in her story, that by trying to help her fellow maidens, the “ox” in the fable, she could end up not even saving herself, let alone the virgins.  He is not able to persuade his daughter, and she marries the King anyway.  I think that she finds the moral of the story convincing, but what is stronger evidence for her is the feeling that this is her fate.  As she herself is a storyteller, I am sure that she understood what her father was trying to relate to her.  One cannot escape one’s destiny, however, and Shahrazad feels that her destiny is to marry the King and change his heart and his mind, or die trying.  It is this strong feeling of fate that keeps her on her path; perhaps she has faith that the King will change and that she is the one to do it.

For the course of the next three years after her marriage to the King, Shahrazade saves her life by prolonging her death.  Every night, accompanied by the King, and her sister, Dunyazad, Shahrazad tells a story with a moral; these stories make the King think about his own life and situation with his marriages, and eventually she is his last living wife.  Many of the stories show how someone can change, or how one cannot avoid one’s destiny.  We see fate being played out in “The Dream”; a man’s dream eventually brings him to his home where he finds a fortune, but he must go on a journey to realize it.  In “The Tale of the Hunchback” we see a collective transformation of all of the accused parties in the murder of the hunchback; when all of the innocent are acquitted of the accusation of murder, we see them treat the hunchback better than before his supposed “murder”; and in “Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp” we see both fate and transformation playing out with Aladdin, as he goes from an irresponsible youth, to a grown man through the course of the story, and we see fate bringing him this opportunity to better himself, even though it is brought to him by an ill-intending magician.

In the story of “The Dream”, a man dreams that he finds his fortune in Cairo; he is in Baghdad.  So, he travels to Cairo, stays at a mosque, only to get accused of robbing the place when thieves break in.  The police rough him up and ask him his story; he tells the officer of his dream, and that he has followed it to Cairo.  The policeman tells him he is crazy, because he has had a similar dream, but you do not see him traveling to Baghdad to receive his fortune!  Luckily, the man is clever enough to realize that it was his fate to meet this policeman just to hear his dream; it is the key to the door of his fortune that lays right in his own front yard.  If he had not gone through the hardship of the journey and the beating he would not have found the money he so desperately needed to survive.  I believe Shahrazad was trying to tell Shahriyar that he could have a happy ending, too.  That maybe it is his fate to have had a bad wife such as he did, so that he can find a good wife.  One cannot know light without the dark.  Also, I believe she was trying to convey to him through this story that it is ok to follow your heart, and not your mind.  I think that she senses that the King really needs love, but he is afraid of reaching out, and he lets his mind convince his heart that all women are bad.  Through this story Shahrazade portrays a man who does follow his heart, and wins.

In “The Tale of the Hunchback” we see a man who has a most unfortunate fate.  The Hunchback is the favorite companion of the King of the story; he finds himself entertaining a couple one evening, and they have fish for dinner.  A bone from the fish lodges in the throat of the hunchback, and it appears that he has choked to death.  The couple become very scared, and get rid of the body.  The poor Hunchback goes through several hands before it is realized that he is in fact still alive.  The bone is dislodged and he breaths again; the King is there and is very happy to have his friend back.  What I found interesting about this story was how the people’s behavior changed when they thought that they had killed the Hunchback.  Each person became so afraid, even when they knew that they had not killed him.  The fear of being accused of something they did not commit caused each person to actually do something wrong to get out of it.  I believe that this story was useful to convey to Shahriyar that sometimes situations are trickier than they appear.  That it may look like someone is guilty by association, but in reality they are innocent.  Shahriyar thinks that all women are bad because of his first wife’s infidelity; however, Shahrazad is evidence that not all women are “guilty by association”, that sometimes one finds oneself in difficult situations that may make one look bad, but that life is not that simple.  I believe that she shows him through this story that one must look deeper into situations in life before making rash decisions; that before he goes on killing every virgin in the land, he should judge each woman on her own merit.

In the tale of “Aladdin and his Enchanted Lamp” we see a major transformation taking place in the life of Aladdin.  As a youth he is unruly and a pain to his parents; he wears out his father so much that he dies when Aladdin is still young.  A magician from Morocco finds out through divination that Aladdin is fated to find the Enchanted Lamp that will lead to his fortune.  He finds Aladdin and convinces him that he is his uncle.  After he finds the lamp in the desert Aladdin realizes that he is tricked, and must fight for his life.  After much hardship through the story, Aladdin becomes a man.  He finds his love, Badr Al-Budar, and together they grow up and change through the story.  In the end, Aladdin becomes a responsible young man, and he meets his fate of transformation.  I believe that Shahrazad is showing the King that one cannot avoid one’s fate, and that if one meets it head-on, one can grow and change into something better.  Shahriyar is resisting his fate by refusing to accept that his wife cheated on him; by thinking that all women are evil he is denying the fact that it was his fate to have such a wife.  By resisting fate he is also resisting his own personal transformation; until he accepts what happened to him and is ok with it he cannot move on.

I find that Shahrazad’s technique, as a narrative tool, is very therapeutic.  By relating stories to the King that are both entertaining and have a moral basis she is convincing him little by little to change his mind about his life and about women in general.  Storytelling is a tool that helps the listener relate situations to their own life; one can see characters in the story as people in one’s own life, and use the stories as maps on how to behave.  Each role in the story portrays a different archetype that is inherent in each psyche; when we hear these stories we relate the characters to our own experiences.  Shahrazad had faith that her skill at storytelling was good enough to pierce the heart of her King, and she was right.  I believe that her role as a messenger for the King was also an inherent part of his transformation; she was a part of his fate, and a crucial part of his change.  Without the use of the stories Shahrazad may not have been able to bring about the catharsis that Shahriyar needed to meet his fate.