Elegant, pointed retelling of the classic of medieval Arabian literature by Lebanese novelist and journalist al-Shaykh (The Locust and the Bird, 2009, etc.).
As Sir Richard Burton well knew, the tales that Scheherazade spun in order to keep from having her sultan husband chop off her head were full of erotic moments, explicit and implicit alike. Denatured into fables for children, the tales of Ali Baba, magical caves, flying carpets and Sindbad the sailor lost any such erotic possibilities, which al-Shaykh very gamely restores with the unmistakable conjuring of “[t]he stick, the thing, the pigeon, the panther, the shish kebab, the cock” and dizzying tales of noblewomen ravished by African slaves—in short, the sort of things that ought to find these once-tame stories a whole new audience. It’s not just the sex, but also the sexual violence and mistrust that run like a swift current below the stories. Says one sorrowful shah to his brother early on, “I caught my wife in the arms of one of the kitchen boys in her quarters before I set out to come to you. My anger took control and I avenged myself by slaying both of them and hurling their bodies in a trench, like two dead cockroaches.” It would take an accomplished psychotherapist and dream interpreter to plumb the depths of what al-Shaykh reveals of the relations, as fraught as any in Faulkner, of cloistered women and fearful men and those ever-watchful black slaves. Yet some of what the Arabian storytellers unleashed on their audiences, if we are to trust these versions, is utterly unveiled, as when a young woman tells her sisters, “I have learned a lesson: there is little that is good in marriage.” Readers of a nostalgic bent will be pleased to discover Sindbad in these pages, though a different one from the Sindbad of their youth. As a storyteller reporting Sindbad’s very own account of his adventures relates, “at times I was so terrified that I nearly shat myself.”
A lovely book, and a wonderful revisiting of tales that, told once again, are meant to inspire—well, if not piety, at least more humane behavior toward our fellow adventurers.