Misogyny, Racism, and Beheadings

As a kid, I had read individual stories from “The Thousand and One Nights” (aka “The Arabian Nights”) in forms adapted for young readers.  You know, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Aladdin.  These were taken out of the original, bowdlerized, disneyfied, and the stories were adapted to be marketable to Western, Christian sensibilities.   Now I am looking at a more “adult” version of the stories, and it is an eye-opener.  The version is translated, and some of the juicier parts are edited out, but at least the stories are more in context.

The tale begins with two brothers who are kings of different lands.  Brother 1 (King Shah-Zeman)  is ready to go visit Brother 2 (King Shahryar) in his kingdom, but before he leaves, he returns to his palace unexpectedly, only to find his wife in the arms of a black slave.  (This is apparently what wives and black slaves will do if you don’t watch them carefully.  This was definitely not in the edited version of the Tales.)  After killing them both (which is apparently what husbands were supposed to do), he goes on his trip, but is miserable, until his brother leaves the palace, and he observes his brother’s wife and the 20 ladies of the court all disrobed in the garden and cavorting with their black slaves. 

He is cheered to discover that he is not alone in his misery, and that all women are equally unfaithful.  When his brother, noticing his improved disposition, asks the reason, he tells him.  The two brothers then pretend to be leaving the palace to go hunting, but return to catch Brother 2’s wife in the act.  They then behead her, and all the other ladies, and all the black slaves.

King Shahryar then develops a nasty habit of taking a wife, keeping her for one night, and then killing her before the next morning.  He does this until the land predictably develops a severe shortage of virgins, and one of the only virgins left is the Wezir’s daughter, Scheherazade.  Sheherazade agrees to marry the king, knowing the danger in that occupation, and she starts telling him a long series of stories, hoping to avoid death by amusing him each night, and leaving the story to continue on the next night.  Apparently the strategy succeeds, and after 1,001 nights, she is pardoned.

I have only gotten to night 9 or so, but here are some observations:

1.  The tales are very Islamic.  The story begins with a doxology to Allah, and the characters show medieval Islamic beliefs and superstitions, even more so than the Canterbury Tales reflect medieval Christian beliefs.  The Djinni are not the cute things in Aladdin, but rather are fearsome spirits that may decide to kill you.  One of them was confined in a bottle for resisting Suleyman (King Solomon), God’s prophet.

2.  There seems to be a cultural thing about marrying the daughter of your paternal uncle (that is, a first cousin who shares your last name.)  Two of the husbands in the stories of so far have pointed to this relationship, noting they they were devoted to her because she was “of his flesh.”  However, there were issues in these marriages.

3.  Women are really untrustworthy, even if they were your first cousin before you married them.  So far, there are three instances of wives who cheated on their husbands, and were found lying with black slaves.  Perhaps Scheherazade figured her King would relate to these stories, after his troubles.

4.  And if you hadn’t guessed already, the view of blacks in these tales is one-dimensional.  They are always slaves, and good for not much except ruining marriages.  You will NOT read these stories unedited in a high school literature class.

5.  The way a man deals with these problems is obviously to behead or otherwise kill the adulteress and her lover.  Failing that, he may get a sorceress to turn the woman into an animal or some similar punishment.  Of course, the woman may strike first and put a spell on her husband.

6.  Once you get through the dim view of the world as described above, the actual stories are pretty interesting.

I will try to plough through these stories, but this was not what I expected.

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4 thoughts on “Misogyny, Racism, and Beheadings

  1. I also started reading an unedited version of the tales, but couldn’t keep up with it. The concept, though — that storytelling can save your life — fascinates me. I hope you’ll post more on this.

  2. Hi Elise,
    Welcome to my blog. I actually do hope to write about the next series of stories I read in The Arabian Nights. But it is a story within a story (within the overall story), so it will be a while before I am done.

  3. I recently read a version of Arabian Nights, and had the same impression. One thing that was very interesting was a lot more mention of wine than I expected in Islamic society.

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