RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. "One Thousand and One Nights" is one of the most enchanting works of world literature. It begins with a king who discovers that his wife is having an affair. In a fit of rage, he has her executed.
HANAN AL-SHAYKH: And from that night, he decreed a law that he will marry a virgin every single day, deflower her at night and then kill her at dawn.
MARTIN: This killing continues until Scheherazade, the daughter of the king's closest advisor, offers herself as the king's bride.
AL-SHAYKH: She had a plan, a very eloquent and very civilized plan. She wanted to use her art to humanize him and to stop this bloodbath.
MARTIN: That's Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh, and she's published a modern adaptation of "One Thousand and One Nights."
AL-SHAYKH: She started to tell him every day a story. She will stop at a very crucial moment in the story and then she will tell him, well, now it's dawn and I cannot go on telling. It's the time for you to kill me.
MARTIN: Night after night, the king is enraptured by Scheherazade's storytelling. Tales of mystery, romance, magic and deception, until finally the king - now a wiser and kinder man - spares her life, and the women of the kingdom are saved.
AL-SHAYKH: I think she was the first feminist on earth.
MARTIN: Scheherazade and her stories have become a touchstone of Arab culture, part of an oral tradition that goes back centuries, put to paper in countless editions, even serialized for the radio. And that is where author al-Shaykh first heard them as a child.
AL-SHAYKH: And I was smitten. But at the same time, I was exasperated because I really wanted her to poison him and finish with that.
MARTIN: You write in your prologue that you wanted desperately to escape the world that this book evoked. Why was that and what brought you back to this story?
AL-SHAYKH: Well, I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. And all the characters around me, especially women, were very crafty and very intelligent, and they had a way to deal with life. And I thought, they are more or less like Scheherazade, while I wanted to become an existentialist like Simone de Beauvoir or Francoise Sagan, and I wanted to be somewhere else than my neighborhood. I thought I was more modern than everyone around me.
MARTIN: All these years later, what pulled you back?
AL-SHAYKH: The West. When I started publishing, every single review, they would call me the new Scheherazade, the new Scheherazade. And I used to think, oh, it is a cliche. Why do they do that? I don't like Scheherazade. But then I thought, I want to read "One Thousand and One Nights" and see why am I called Scheherazade. And then one director, he asked me if I'm willing to adapt stories from "One Thousand and One Nights" for the theater. And, of course, this is when I sat and read 6,000 pages - I read three editions in Arabic.
MARTIN: How did you choose the tales that you did? Because, as you mentioned, the original work is 2,000 pages. So you had to do some curating. How did you decide what to include in your version?
AL-SHAYKH: It was so difficult, because every time I read a story, I said that's it. I'm in love with this story. And then I felt that I was plunging in a sea of jewels and I couldn't really choose very easily. And then the director and I thought that we should find a theme, a plot. And, of course, from all these stories the theme was women are wily and men were oppressive, in a way. So, we thought it should be a war between the two sexes. Yes. And I chose stories where women depended completely on being crafty and manipulative in order to survive.
MARTIN: How were these tales received? I mean, was Scheherazade regaled as a heroine?
AL-SHAYKH: No, not at all. All of us, especially Arab women, educated Arab women, would say no. Do you think I am Scheherazade, a slave sitting and telling you stories so you won't kill me? This is how we thought about Scheherazade at the beginning. "One Thousand and One Nights" - (Foreign language spoken) as we call it in Arabic - wasn't looked at as a Arabic literary heritage. People thought it was vulgar; they thought it was very bad literature - it's not literature. It's folk tales and nothing else. But then everything changed.
MARTIN: You mentioned the vulgarity. I mean, these tales are very sexually explicit.
AL-SHAYKH: They are.
MARTIN: Why are these stories so sexual? They would be compelling stories without it. What is essential about that component?
AL-SHAYKH: Yes. Because they are down to earth. People at that time didn't think that, oh, this is forbidden or we shouldn't be talking about sexuality. They talked about all aspects of life. And one aspect is sexuality. And they left all to their imagination to play a big part in thinking about sexuality because you find djinns and demons and ghosts were all having affairs.
MARTIN: Djinns are genies.
AL-SHAYKH: Genies, yeah. You call them genies. And...
MARTIN: Everybody's having sex.
AL-SHAYKH: I couldn't believe it. When I was reading, I said, it is so open. And because they didn't camouflage anything. This is what they thought, this is what they said, this is what they wrote.
MARTIN: What is the connection of these stories to Arab society now?
AL-SHAYKH: Well, I'd like every single Arab to read "One Thousand and One Nights." They learn a lot from them, especially that these stories were written away from the influence of religion. And it's amazing to see how we were open, how we had a dialogue with each other, how we wanted to understand; we respected each other. There was a great dignity, and I'd like this to be restored again.
MARTIN: "One Thousand and One Nights," as retold by Hanan al-Shaykh. Ms. al-Shaykh, it has been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
AL-SHAYKH: Thank you.