Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and, most recently, The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books. For Signature’s Under the Influence series, in which authors reflect on their literary influences, Nafisi reflects on the marvelous origins of One Thousand and One Nights.
A few years after I left Iran in 1997 to migrate to the United States, a former student of mine, Nima, on his visit to Washington brought me an unexpected and much-cherished gift: six small volumes of One Thousand and One Nights wrapped around with a ribbon. He had salvaged these from my library in Tehran. Perhaps no other book would have so embodied what all the other books in that library, now lost forever, had meant to me.
Their origins are as marvelous as the tales themselves. The only ‘known’ narrator of the tales is a fictional one, Shahrzad, the protagonist of the frame story, to me the mother of all storytelling. In reality they are narrated by not one but numerous anonymous storytellers over several centuries, going back to pre-Islamic Persia and India, later translated into Arabic with Arab tales added to them. Then discovered by the French and the British who also added to and took out their own particular tales. What can be more symbolic of the universal and multicultural nature of fiction?
When I first heard Shahrzad’s story as a child, my father like all good oral storytellers both embellished and modified it for my better understanding and enjoyment. I might not have understood it all, but I knew once upon a time there was a king named Shahryar, apparently a good king, who went mad on discovering that his queen had betrayed him. My father did not clearly explain how the queen betrayed the king, but I knew she had hurt him. Later I discovered she had sex with one of the slaves at an orgy in which other slaves also participated. The king was a kind despot, but still a despot, so when he went crazy with grief and anger, instead of a trial or at least a hearing he killed the queen and the slave. Again a despot has little reflection, and self-questioning, so he decided that the queen’s betrayal meant that all women were betrayers. For three years the king avenged himself by marrying a virgin every night and killing her every morning before she had a chance to deceive him. Soon the country ran out of virgins, everything was in a bad shape and the vizier, equivalent of king’s prime minister, began to worry about his own two daughters who had been exempt from the ordeal.
When reality closes all doors, when fear replaces freedom, how do you open the closed spaces, how do you free yourself from fear? Which is where Shahrzad enters. Like all great heroines she is beautiful, but in this case as in the case of some other classical Persian heroines like Shirin and Vis, her beauty also resides in her wisdom, her knowledge of the world, and her magical way with words. Unlike the queen and the virgins who never utter a word, she wins over the king more with words than with beauty, risking her life by relying on her powers of imagination.
She knows that she cannot confront the king with his own weapons, that he is far stronger than her; in order to win she must take him to her domain, speak a language he has not known, not to physically eliminate him, but to radically change his mindset, his attitude. Both the queen and the virgins had stayed in the king’s domain, the queen cheated him and the virgins obeyed, and they were killed. Telling the king that her younger sister, Donyazad, is used to hearing her tell a story, Shahrzad begged him to let her tell the last tale on their wedding night before her execution at dawn. Little did the king know that when Shahrzad leaves her story unfinished at dawn he will be so curious to know the rest of it that he will defer her execution, and each night she will tell another unfinished story for one thousand and one nights, by which time he is cured, marries Shahrzad and orders her stories to be recorded.
Shahrzad takes the king to the domain of imagination, where the most potent weapons are not guns and jail, but curiosity and empathy. Through her stories she awakens his curiosity, forcing him to leave his own narrow world, to want to know about other people, to become interested in their stories, and concerned with what happens to them, thus evoking his empathy. When he returns to reality the king sees the world through the alternative eyes of imagination, realizing that not all women are cheaters, and that men, as well as kings, can also cheat and lie, that the world is not black and white, it is filled with color and shades. He realizes life is filled with ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty.
The six small volumes are now on a shelf in my new library, holding the pride of place among other great books, a reminder of my portable home, protecting me against tyranny and blind violence of an absolutist state like the Islamic Republic as well as the blind complacency and indifference that are greatest threats to a democracy. But perhaps more important she is there to remind me how imagination is essential to our survival as human beings, that we need curiosity and empathy to confront not just cruelties of man but that of life itself.