It was 947 AD and the camels were tired. We’d just gotten into Baghdad, my first time. Hugh, infatuated with the Silk Road, had insisted on traveling with the merchants to learn more about how cultures interrelate one with the other.
To travel with Hugh, I’d been obligated to dress like a man. Now all I wanted was a bath and to wear my own clothes again so I quickly headed towards the hammam at the woman’s quarters.
Life in a harem was a new experience for me. The quarters I‘d been assigned to were big and airy. The floors were covered with Antiochene rugs and cushions made from Damascene brocade. The mashrabiyas windows casted suggestive shadows on a water fountain adorned by qashani tiles. Everything was so enchantingly exotic. Save for the women. I’d expected to see them languidly laying around fanning themselves and eating dates. Instead, they were huddled together with their shoulders slumped and their eyes puffed up like muffins. Why was everyone so sad? As if reading my thoughts, a woman with hypnotic eyes came up to me. She introduced herself as Scheherazade and explained why the women looked so jaded.
King Shahrayar, cuckolded by his wife, had exorcized his wrath by killing her. But the anger wouldn’t go away so, like an authorized serial killer, every night he would share his bed with a young woman then have her executed the next morning. Now women were constantly fearing for their lives.
But Scheherazade, feminist and activist, along with her sister, Dunyazad, had come up with a plan. Scheherazade would volunteer to spend the night with Shahrayar but, before retiring to bed, would begin telling him a story that teased his imagination. Just as the story was about to reach a climax, she’d stop. The king, unable to confront a cliffhanger, would postpone killing her until the following night just to hear the story’s ending. The next night Scheherazade would finish quickly the story of the previous night but immediately would begin another one and, again, stop the story just as it was about to reach its climax. This, according to the plan, would go on indefinitely saving not only Scheherazade’s life but, above all, the lives of many other women as well.
“But how will you be able to come up with all these stories?” I asked. “By appropriation” she replied, “we will simply collect the stories that the merchants tell to entertain themselves while travelling on the Silk Road. Then we will rewrite them adding The Female Touch.”
For the next few days, we women of the harem busily collected stories. Finally we had 1000 tales and, after a lunch of saffron scented pilaf and fig balls rolled in sesame seeds, sat down to re-write them. Scheherazade, a scholar, knew that the Hindi used fairytales as medicine for emotionally unbalanced people.
There are emotions inside of us that we can’t escape. But standardized thinking patterns make it difficult to find solutions. That’s why imagination is necessary as it gives us the possibility to resolve conflict in various ways. Thus an emotionally sick person can contemplate on a fairytale then re-interpret it in such a way as to find his own solution. So why not heal King Shahryar in the same way.
The King’s main problem was that his psyche couldn’t let go of his wife’s unfaithfulness and, unconsciously, this lead him to believe that no one woman could ever truly love him. Thus all women were to be hated—and killed.
Knowing how well men loved them, Scheherazade would tell the king adventure stories but with carefully planted subliminal messages. For example, the story of Ali Baba on the surface is just another story about bandits. But in the end, it’s a story about the dangers of greed and the wonders of gratitude. The only men in the story who have a happy ending are those able to express gratitude towards Morgiana, the slave who saved Ali Baba’s life. Men and women, rather than compete, should enhance one another.
Storyteller and femme fatale, Scheherazade’s turn to spend the night with the king had arrived. Her silk skirt danced when she walked and her agarwood perfume left a trail two meters wide. That night the women of the harem stayed awake praying to the stars that Scheherazade’s life would be saved. And the next morning when she returned to our quarters, our sighs of relief and our joyful laughter could be heard around the world. Synergy and solidarity had brought us success.
For weeks, every night while Scheherazade was busy telling the king one story, the rest of us were busy preparing another one. And every morning when she returned alive, we danced to celebrate the lives that had been spared.
By this time I felt so much a part of the harem that I was a bit disappointed when, a few months later, Hugh, restless, wanted to go back to Rome so he could concentrate on his studies.
Once in Rome, life got back to normal and our experience of Baghdad and the Silk Road was slowly covered in dust. Several years later I learned that Scheherazade was not only alive and well after almost three years of storytelling, but she and the king had fallen in love. They were married and had three sons!
Stories can make things happen.
Stories are always based on a conflict to solve: a conflict with the self, a conflict with others, or a conflict with nature. And in between “Once upon a time” and “lived happily ever after” there’s a journey towards the self that must be taken in order to find a solution.
Dortchen Wild lived in Kassel and was part of the local women’s storytelling circle. She liked to tell stories like “Rumplestiltskin,” “”Hansel and Gretel”,” and “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” Some of the stories she’d heard from others, some she made up herself.
Napoleon’s troops had taken over the area of Kassel and two of Dortchen’s neighbors, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, were afraid that local traditions and folk spirit were at risk. So they started collecting fairy tales and asked for Dortchen’s help. The brothers collected tales from other women as well such as Dorothea Vichmann who sold vegetables at the market (“The Three Feathers”, “The Goose Girl”) and the Hassenpflug sisters (related to the Grimm’s by marriage) also contributed to the fairy tale collection ( “Little Red Riding Hood”).
Now the problem was transforming oral stories into literary ones. In 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their first book of fairy tales. Although women had collaborated, the men got the credit.
Women, who enjoy communicating with others, are natural born storytellers. Storytelling was once a social event as well as means to pleasantly pass the time as they shared chores such as spinning, foraging, and child caring. Women’s stories were about the fears and desires of everyday life. And sometimes these stories silently left seeds in the subconscious to sprout at the most unexpected moment to offer a solution.
Everyone has a story to tell. But often we don’t know how to recognize this story or, if we do, we don’t know how to tell it.
In Raymond Queneau’s best known work, Exercises in Style, the same story is told in 99 different ways: One day in Paris, the narrator gets on a bus and looks on as two men fight over space. The narrator later encounters one of these men at the train station getting advice as to how to sew a button onto his coat. Even if the story in itself is not very exciting, Queneau shows that there are limitless possibilities to affront the same situation.
Sometimes we have difficulties seeing ourselves as we really are because we’ve transformed self-interpretation into a cliché. But a fixed point of view can limit our options. Not all of us have Scheherazade’s talents. But we can still use stories to create personal change. A diary can help actualize this transformation.
Exercise: Write down the day’s events. Then retell the story in a different way. Like Queneau, explore the story until you find the narration that best suits you. Try turning a negative event into a Zen koan.
As narrator, you are the true protagonist.
(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)
There are almost no comments, but I cannot be the only one who comes here every day to check if you have posted a new story, I think many people enjoy them. You are, as they say, on fire!
I love this very personal form you have found (invented) for your tales. You teach me, you make me think and enjoy myself, thank you!
Madeleine, your comments always give me Joy…thank you!