Sunday, January 04, 2015

My Review of One Thousand and One Nights in The Hindu


Updated: January 3, 2015 19:04 IST

Bedtime tales

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One Thousand and one Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh.
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One Thousand and one Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh.

An engaging retelling of stories from the Arabian Nights with an erotic twist.

The timeless Arabic classic One Thousand and One Nights has enthralled people all over the world for more than a millennium. Most of us are charmed and captivated by characters with magical powers and quirky idiosyncrasies, but how many have realised that erotic love and adultery are common themes that run through this magnum opus?
Yes, it is true and the author (or authors) of these stories inserted those elements so slyly and discreetly that they escaped the eyes of the censors of that era. In this latest retelling, Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh removes the veil of discretion and gives the stories an erotic twist. Her retelling of 19 Arabian Nights stories is strictly for adults only, though the framework and the characters are retained.
As in the original, the King Shahreyar discovers that his beautiful queen whom he loved dearly is unfaithful to him and has been sleeping with a slave. The furious king kills his wife and her lover. Subsequently, believing that a woman is deceitful by nature, he announces that he will marry a virgin every day and kill her the next morning. The Vizier’s daughter, Shahrzad, decides to marry the king hoping that with her wisdom and knowledge will stop the king from his bloody path. On the first night, Shahrzad, offers the king to tell a story. The story is so powerful and engrossing that the king puts off her execution by a day in order to listen to another story. For the next few years, the king keeps postponing the killing of Shahrzad and keeps listening to her stories. A few hundred stories later, the king finds himself in love with his new queen and finally forgets the idea of executing her.
The stories chosen by Al-Shayk for retelling are the ones with strong female characters in which men mainly play second fiddle. The women are independent and intelligent, understand their sexuality and are also sexually liberated. Each story also teaches us something about love, faith, relationship and other aspects of human existence.
The language is ornamental and colourful, and effectively conveys the sense of time and the sense of culture. The descriptions of sex are beautiful, but explicit. The scene of orgy, for example, at the beginning of the book is so graphic in its detail that it appears to be straight out of a porn movie. Nonetheless, it is an entertaining and engaging book.
One Thousand and One Nights; Hanan Al-Shaykh, Bloomsbury India, Rs. 350.