Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation (Part II)

Imagination as a Tool of Civic Awareness

by: Dr. Azar Nafisi

Part One

It has been said with some justification that the most significant story in the Thousand and One Nights is the frame story itself.  Although it looks simple and is less fantastic than some of the stories told by Shahrzad, it is, in fact, the most magical of them all.  Like all good tales it has the power to startle its readers with some miraculous discovery about their lives.  The listeners as well as the readers can elaborate and reinterpret the tale by relating it to some important aspect of their own life experiences.  It is fantastic enough to seem not to have nay relation to reality, but because it is so unreal, so truly fictional, it can expose and illuminate readers' experiences in unexpected ways.

Despite its simplicity the frame story in the Thousand and one Nights has a unified structure provided by repetition.  The skillful use of variation through repetition creates the dynamic in characters and action.  The use of repetition provides the frame story with the very spaces that allow the readers to reinterpret the story within their own experiences. Perhaps part of the excitement in reading Shahrzad's story is that through the links to readers' own lives they feel they are rubbing shoulders with the great lady herself as her story echoes in their memories.

The inner tempo of the tale is sustained by a series of different incidents, all repeating one act, betrayal.  Betrayal is the central predicament of all the characters in the story.  The individuals' actions are determined by the way each person perceives this problem and reacts to it.  The first part of the tale, which I call the king's story, as opposed to the second part, which is Shahrzad's, mainly centers around how the kings deal with this dilemma.  As the story progresses, one brother, Shahzaman, gradually dissolves into the other brother until he just fades away from the scene.  The same is true for all the main women, who are eliminated until only Shahrzad is left.

The king's story is divided into three almost identical discoveries: Shahzaman's discovery of his wife's betrayal; Shahryar's discover of his wife's betrayal; the brothers' discovery of the demon's betrayal by the woman he had abducted.  The same action is repeated in relation to three different characters, but in each story the act of betrayal is magnified further.  Shahzaman's queen betrays him with a slave; Shahryar's queen betrays him with a slave in an orgy, which implies that the king is cuckolded by many slaves; and the demon is betrayed for the five hundred and seventieth time.  The two brothers' reactions to their discoveries of the betrayal of others are peculiar and remarkable: Shahzaman is relieved when he sees his brother's greater woe, and the two brothers resign themselves to their own fate when they see the demon's more horrible one.  This means that the two kings learn about themselves through observing In others exaggerated versions of what had happened to them.  The act of seeing, of observing others from a distance, lead to further action.  The scenes of betrayal are like scenes enacted in a play for an exclusive audience wherein the audience's own lives are portrayed.  This distancing becomes central to the actual frame story and to the role Shahrzad is to play in it.

But this is not the end of this story.  the two kings are not only betrayed but humiliated in the worst possible manner: they are betrayed not by their equals but by persons of the lowest rank, two slaves.  Later, they are forced to betray the demon who thus substitutes for the slaves.  The kings now should feel even with their betrayers, yet somehow their revenge is more bitter than sweet.  Their sexual encounter with the young woman is the reverse of the usual pattern n such cases: here it is the men who out of fear for their lives have to give in to a woman.  To add insult to injury she informs them that they, as were hundreds of men before them, were chosen not because of their irresistible charms but as mere instruments of revenge.  She leaves them no excuse to justify the matter as a conquest.  The woman's relations further lead the brothers to conclude that no man, not even a demon, is safe from the guile of a woman.

The kings realize their own plight not only by observing the demon's fate but also by enacting the role of the slave, by becoming one with those they despise.  One could ask - with justifiable irony - Which is more humiliating, to cuckold someone one despises or to be cuckolded by him?  In any case, their experience is reason enough for the kings to condemn all women.

The incident with the demon and his young woman completes the turnaround of the two brothers' world.  Once this world is completely reversed the kings find themselves unable to act as they had done before.  Although now the brothers choose two diametrically opposed lifestyles - one withdraws from all worldly life while the other becomes a serial killer - the result of their actions is the same:  they can no longer manage their lives as before; they are alienated and alone.  At this point the two kings' lives and all they had taken for granted turns into a seemingly insoluble puzzle.

Before going any further, one must remind oneself that this is a tale and not a developed story.  Its structure does not create the fullness and roundness that hide many inner complexities.  Rather, it reveals the basic spine upon which the precarious lives of characters depend.  This spine represents a strictly hierarchical society with the king at the very top.  Each character is known through his or her position along it.  Within such a structure there can be only little space for individual expression or interaction.  Accordingly, most relations in the story are polarized with the king at one end and his subjects at the other, and the king has absolute power over the private and public lives of his subjects.  He enforces his will through brute force if need be.  Within this polarized framework differences are not resolved but simply eliminated.

In this world the private lives of citizens are dependent upon and subordinate to the citizens' public ones.  In the world behind the walls a life unfolds that follows the same patterns and rules as the public one.  Parallel to the use of brute force outside, inside the relation between the male master and his female victims is one of pure physicality.  Their unions begin with his deflowering of the virgin bride, and act of violence, a conquest.  A man's betrayal by a woman has only meaning within the sexual sphere and is punished by death as an act of disobedience.  All three main male figures in the tale, who - not accidentally - represent authority, use force to gain their objectives in relation to their women.  the demon does not think of negotiating with or wooing the girl but simply abducts her and imprisons her in an iron trunk.  The two kings' judgment of their queens' infidelity needs no court or hearing.  The acts themselves are presented as transparently sufficient for their condemnation.

Within any despotic mind-set the free use of words is very dangerous.  The domain of words is the world of interpretation, ambiguity, and doubt.  In the story the king cannot tolerate any dilemmas or questions.  The virgin victims are silent.  Nobody remonstrates or argues with the king.  The possibility of a dilemma would immediately cast doubt upon the absoluteness of the king's power.  Those who transgress his authority must be eliminated.  Not only that, but those who have the potential to disobey, the virgins, must also be eliminated.  What the two kings do not realize, but readers one hopes do, is that they themselves are also forced to obey when threatened by physical force.  When the young woman forces them on the pain of death to copulate wit her, the kings lose the courage befitting their rank and reputation.  They, too, are defeated by force.

There is one more important point to be made.  A hierarchical and polarized structure of society and of relations within it simplifies the use of force and, therefore, supports the power that rules society.  Hence, tension and differences are suppressed and remain unresolved.  The authoritarian relations make the king at once very powerful and very vulnerable.  The unresolved tensions and differences ultimately crate cracks in the social pyramid.  When the bottom part of the pyramid starts shaking, the top most likely will fall firs.  So, ironically, the source of the king's power is also the main cause of the king's downfall.

To sum up the story so far, the king who defines himself only through his public role is undone by a most private affair.  He has not yet allowed for differences, for interrelations between the public and the private spheres.  Not knowing how to interact with others creatively, the only language he is prepared to use is that of force.  What, then, has the king learned through his observations and his personal experiences?  The answer can be found in the next part of the story in which the king and Shahrzad become indispensable to one another.

Before Shahrzad enters the scene, the women in the story are divided into those who betray and then are killed and those who are killed before they have a chance to betray.  Although the woman abducted by  the demon gets to tell her side of the story and survives, her role is mainly to emphasize the heinous nature of the tow queens' crimes.  The virgins who, unlike Shahrzad, have no voice in the story are mostly ignored by the critics.  Their silence, however, is significant.  They surrender their virginity and their lives as well without resistance or protest.  Not asking, not conscious, incapable of influencing the king in any way, they can only surrender their physical bodies.  They do not quite exist because they create no images, leave no trances in their anonymous deaths.  They are the other side of the coin to the "naughty girls," the queens and the demon's woman.  Both types of women tacitly accept the king's public rule by acting within the confines of his domain and its arbitrary laws.  Had any of the virgins taken a knife with her to the king's bed one could laud her courage, but whether she killed the king of not, she would not have changed the relationship.  Like the king she, too, would have tried to do away with her adversary  in the simplest and speediest way, the act of elimination, which humiliates both the victim and the killer.  To change the relationship imposed upon her she would have had to change the mentality that justifies violence as the way of settling differences.

Their story suggests that in relation to absolute power one has not choice but to obey completely and surrender one's identity or to cheat and lie.  It seems that the two queens must be punished because their disloyalty challenges and threatens the brothers' potency as men and absolute power as kings.  But the subsequent deflowering of the virgins does not restore to the king what one woman took away from him.  Neither he no they learn anything from their tragic fate.  One cannot change a stagnated situation unless one can appraise it from a distance, can see it reflectively and imaginatively to reveal possibilities  hidden in the stalled reality.  The women's infidelity does not take away the king's absolute authority, it takes away his balance.  The demon's captive woman does not open his eyes to his own flaws; the king does not learn to see by killing his brides.  As victims these women do not take the responsibility  of trying to change the situation - they simply cheat or succumb.  Only Shahrzad has the ability to contemplate her situation coolly and, thus, to rise above it.  Like the king before her, Shahrzad has the chance to see herself through seeing others in her position.  She is able to learn from the fates or other women, unlike the king, who never learns from the fates of other men.  This distinguishes her not only from the king but from all the other characters in the story.  Quite fittingly, she is the only woman who is describes by her personal attributes and not just by her title and place in the social and gender hierarchy.  The two kings are described as knowledgeable and courageous, but their knowledge does not help them in their crises nor solve their dilemmas, and it takes no courage at all to kill a hapless and helpless virgin every morning even by the standards of the day.  Shahrzad alone is different.


To be continued