Monday, August 22, 2005

Scheherazade’s Story: Proving Reason is More Effective Than Violence

Githa Hariharan on why Scheherezade's story is irresistible:
[. . .]

The lone soldier on the battlefield is a young woman. Scheherazade undertook the most unique mission ever undertaken by either a subject or a storyteller — saving her life, and that of her fellow-citizens, through her body of stories. At the heart of the Scheherazade story, a story that has travelled in so many different forms to different parts of the world, is this oddity that needs to be explained in some way or the other.

In this story of a subject bringing a ruler to his senses, a story of a storyteller reconciling her audience to the difficulties of continuing with normal life despite fear of betrayal, it is not a man, the sultan’s venerable wazir for instance, who performs the difficult task. It’s a woman.

[. . .]

To me, the most interesting fact of the Scheherazade story is not just that it is a storyteller who undertakes such a rescue mission, but a woman storyteller. My suspicion is that this explains much of the fascination with the figure of Scheherazade — and much of the need to explain her, tame her, and in reaction to this domestication, re-appropriate her into a feminist icon.

[. . .]

the next time we encounter Scheherazade in a story or a painting or a film, it may be useful to remember Mernissi’s summing up of the strategy Scheherazade had to use to be a civilizing agent — convincing the king that reason is more effective than violence. “Scheherazade had to master three strategic skills: control over a vast store of information, the ability to clearly grasp the criminal’s mind, and the determination to act in cold blood.” The first skill is intellectual — Scheherazade had to know reams of poetry, the sayings of the wise, and improvise a great deal in terms of content as well as narrative device. But knowledge alone could not have helped her. She had also to draw on some more “psychological talents” that would change the criminal’s mind by using words alone, something like the highly trained specialist who speaks to the anti-social person holding a hostage.

Scheherazade had to be a strategist, and guess accurately what would be the unbalanced criminal’s reaction or next move, even as she talked into the night. Finally, she had to sustain nerves of steel that would help her control her fear — that any moment she would lose her listener’s interest and he would revert to his blood-spilling practices. In short, in this nightly interaction between her and the king in their harem-prison, she had to lead though she was the prisoner, the subject and the woman. Being led would only mean that her neck — and the necks of other women — would be that many inches closer to the sword.
Link via indianwriting.

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