Since rounding the milestone of 500, traffic has grown (nearly 80% of this site’s pageviews have occurred during the second half of its existence to date), awards have been garnered, and many, many heads have been harvested.
Quite a journey.
To celebrate the start of Executed Today‘s second thousand days, we are pleased to welcome scholar Elizabeth M. Hull for a feature excursion into what we flatter ourselves is our literary mirror, One Thousand and One Nights … which is the story of 1,001 stories, each related by the wife of the sultan to stave off her own execution.
By the way: the post below checks in right at 1,001 words.
1,001 Arabian Nights, when no one (real) was executed.
Once there was a young girl named Shahrazad who outwitted death and an angry king. But like all stories, this one begins long before that.
It is said that Shah Zamán returned home unexpectedly and found his wife asleep in the arms of their black cook slave. Naturally, Shah Zamán “drew his scymitar and, cutting the two in four pieces with a single blow, left them on the carpet and returned presently to his camp.”
Sick from dwelling “on the deed of his wife,” Shah Zamán witnessed the daily orgy between his brother Shahryár’s concubines and slaves, while Shahryár’s Queen’s “slobbering” slave “winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, … threw her and enjoyed her.”
King Shahryár’s greater power should have made him safe from women’s treachery; it did not. When the brothers discovered that even the wife of a powerful Jinn had cuckolded her husband 600 times, they concluded that “they all do it and that there is no woman but who cuckoldeth her husband.”
After slaying his wife, his ten concubines, and their lovers, Shahryár initiated his famous wedding policy, “marrying a maiden every night and killing her the next morning” before she could betray him. The slaughter went on every day for three years, until “there remained not in the city a young person fit for carnal copulation.”
The real story of Shahrazad is the story of damaged masculine honor and the holocaust it requires: 1,108 women and 11 men, until there is no one left to kill. The fundamental condition of this fictional world is men’s inability to control women’s sexuality — or even to control their own sexual desires. After all, the king does not give up sex; instead he kills his partners. His shame, jealousy, grief, rage, and power empty his city of life.
Shahrazad’s own story begins in this empty city.
The virgin whose father has carried out the executions volunteers to marry Shahryár. Her father warns her not to be like the Bull in the tale, and she eagerly asks for the story, which he frames in another cautionary tale. She still marries the king, but her father’s stories set the pattern for her stratagem: play upon natural human curiosity and the love of a good yarn, wrapped in another good yarn, rolled into a tangle of story threads.
Shahrazad tells her husband the story of the Trader who mistakenly killed his wife, and, famously, dawn comes just as he is about to kill his son, “knife in hand — And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day. … ‘What is this to that I could tell thee on the coming night, were I to live and the King would spare me?’ Then said the King in himself, ‘By Allah, I will not slay her, until I shall have heard the rest of her tale.’ So they slept the rest of that night in mutual embrace.”
The cliffhanger involves the trader’s love for his wife and his child, feelings Shahryár long ago killed in himself, since by executing his wives he has eliminated any children they might have borne. An empty city, and a sterile palace.
A complicated dance develops between Shahrazad and Shahryár, its rhythm set by the nights he spends with her between the setting and rising of the sun, metaphorical death and birth.
The stories themselves are a kind of life, not just in the liveliness of adventure, love, sexual humor, and trade. Like life they are full of interruptions, new stories springing from old ones, proliferating, fertile, oozing the kindness and evil in the hearts of man and woman.
The tales reflect the conflict between men and women in Shahryár’s past. Often, women are adulterous, jealous, abusive, and rapacious; occasionally men are angry and brutally violent. Most especially, death fills the tales, thousands of deaths, mostly murders and executions. The famous hero Sindbad, for example, cast into the tomb with his dead wife, murders other widows and widowers for their food and water, takes their valuables, and becomes rich. Sharazad’s world is Darwinian: survival justifies killing.
Sometimes, women govern better than men. In the final story, Ma’aruf finds a ring that controls a Jinn, loses it to his father-in-law, who loses it to his Wazir, who loses it to Ma’aruf’s wife. When her husband tells her to give the ring to him or to her father, she says: “I will keep the ring myself, and belike I shall be more careful of it than you. … So fear no harm so long as I live.” Indeed, they remain happy until she dies.
The point could have been that Shahryár’s life will be happy as long as Shahrazad lives –- if her story ended there. Instead, Ma’aruf’s jealous first wife tries to steal the ring; she is killed by his son in one last conflict with a wicked stepmother. The story ultimately suggests that good women protect their husbands, but so do children.
Sharazad will base her appeal for clemency not just on her own value and but also on her children’s. By now, “Shahrazad had borne the King three boy children … one walking, one crawling and one sucking.” Connecting the stories to their sons, she says to Shahryár, “‘these thousand nights and a night have I entertained thee with stories,'” and asks him for her life: “‘for, an thou kill me, they will become motherless and will find none among women to rear them as they should be reared.’ When the King heard this, he wept and straining the boys to his bosom said, ‘… Shahrazad, I pardoned thee before the coming of these children, for that I found thee chaste.'”
We never learn how he knows that she is chaste. Perhaps giving him life, life created just for him, not only through children but through the stories that restored his own desire for tomorrow, was enough.