The Story of King Shahraya and His Brother
Translated by: Melanie Magidow
Artwork by Jean-Paul Riopelle
It has been related (though God—the Strongest, most Generous, most Kind, most Merciful—in all God’s transcendence, knows best) that once upon a time—long, long ago—in the islands of India and China, one of the Sassanian kings had two sons, the elder named Shahrayar and the younger named Shah Zaman. Both were heroic horsemen, and each one ruled one of the great kingdoms that their father had seized and settled. However, both of them—according to the original storyteller—had unfaithful, wicked wives. It was, of course, a great shock for them when they had conclusively confirmed their wives’ unfaithfulness; but they soon found consolation in their double betrayal, and they began to reassure one another in that it had befallen both of them.
After a while, though, this sharing in grief failed to comfort them, and it was no longer enough to exchange words of sorrow and regret over the incomplete joy of life. Their combined discussion of betrayal led them to a conclusion, the underlying idea of which was that the unfaithfulness of their wives did not mean that all women were unfaithful. But in the same manner of objective, logical thinking, they were skeptical of any woman’s ability to be loyal, no matter what the circumstances. For they were models of men before whom the world and all its gifts had gathered: power, riches, strength, and an aristocratic lineage. If these were not the assets women prized most highly, then what about him whose lot is meager and insignificant? They decided to travel in order to study together the state of women in the other capitals and countries. Soon fate afforded them an opportunity which they could only have dreamt of. They did not hesitate in taking this chance to unequivocally confirm that the fault, as they had already expected, lies in women, the evil of whom one can not ward off, even if they be shackled, chained, and imprisoned at the bottom of the sea.
Weariness overtook them after the first day of travel, so they sat next to the seashore, in the shade of a towering tree. And lo and behold, a terrific column of smoke issued forth from the sea, straightening out into the form of an enormous genie, with his feet in the sea and his head in the heavens. They trembled in fear, rushed to climb to the top of the tree, and watched the genie, who emerged from the sea, and stretched out below the tree. After a little while, he took a chest out of his pocket, and opened it. There—inside it—was a smaller box, which he also opened. Out came a young woman, rebellion and anger written all over her face. Her hands and feet were chained. The genie started to undo her shackles, and then asked her to sit down so he could rest his head in her lap; the girl complied. After a little while, the genie started to snore in a deep sleep, so the girl pushed his head aside. In moving, she glimpsed the two kings, Shahrayar and his brother Shah Zaman. She began to plead with them to rescue her from the genie who had abducted her on the day of her wedding, but they started looking one to the other. When she saw this hesitation, she took out a necklace for them, on which they saw five-hundred seventy rings. They asked her what she meant by this gesture, so she said: “This is the number of men who asked for my body as a means of rescuing me.”
“And you granted them their desire?” Shahrayar asked her in mockery.
The girl said, “If you believe what the stories say about me.”
“And what do the stories say about you, beautiful one?” asked Shah Zaman.
So the girl answered sorrowfully: “The story says that I routinely took advantage of the genie’s inattention, tried to seduce all who passed by me, and threatened them that if they didn’t do the deed with me, I would wake the genie. So they did, and afterwards I demanded a ring as a keepsake.”
“It doesn’t seem that the story lied,” said Shahrayar, his eyes examining her slender body. The girl felt the opening of her gown at the neck to ensure that nothing was showing. Then she answered with a dignified tone, although tinged with grief: “I am not in a position to defend myself against the story, for it is of long standing, and was spread in such a way that makes its denial difficult after all these years.” Then she proudly added: “What do you say? Free me to return to my people and my relatives. If I try to flee by myself, as I have tried before, the genie will overtake me in the blink of an eye; for I have no horse like your horses here.” She gestured to the two purebred horses, who had gone walking leisurely, parallel to the coast.
When she got no answer, she almost lost hope, so she said without thinking: “I have no provisions, and I do not possess one dirham to be of use to me.” But she noticed the brothers, who were frightened a moment ago, had begun openly making snide remarks about her. Then each of them took off his ring and threw it toward her. They commenced to descend from the tree, while still signaling their interest in her and winking at her. The poor girl understood their desire scornfully, so she fell to making noises and movements to wake the genie. The two kings ran, leapt upon their horses, and fled.
After a short journey, they arrived at a town surrounded on all sides by fields. They asked after, and were shown to, the inn. They tied up the horses, carried their baggage, and ascended to their room to relieve their tired bodies of the hardship of travel. When they had fully gotten their rest, they went down to the tavern. Night had fallen, and the men were vying with one another in telling stories. The wine had gone to Shah Zaman’s head, and his imagination was fit for storytelling, so he entered the arena of the competition, and said before all the others: “I’m going to tell you a story like none you have ever heard before. It’s not like other stories, which are concocted by their tellers. Quite on the contrary, this is a true story. And all that I am going to tell you—down to the letter—actually happened, with my brother as witness.” He pointed to Shahrayar, who did not seem to object to his brother’s telling a story to a group like this, as long as no one knew their actual identity, although he was a little apprehensive that Shah Zaman would tell the story of his wife’s betrayal of him with the slave. However, his fear quickly dissipated when Shah Zaman began to relate the story of the young woman and the genie.
Shah Zaman said, “There was once an infamous genie tall of stature and wide of breadth, and on his head was a chest. He removed from it a small box, and opened it. Out came a young girl, slim of stature, as if she were the shining sun. As the Atiya poetry reads:
She rose in the darkness, and day broke
And she illuminated the trees from above.”
This he said looking at his brother somewhat scared that he would interrupt him, for Shah Zaman knew it was a bit of an exaggeration. The girl had had strong features. He himself had remarked, when they were bantering, that she resembled a young boy on the verge of losing the femininity of his features. When Shahrayar made no comment, Shah Zaman regained his confidence, and went on to continue the story: “She was extremely open and honest. She approached us, and told us her story with the genie who had abducted her the night of her wedding. She said that she wreaks revenge on him every day. When he takes a nap, she summons someone to sleep with her near him. Then she demands a ring from her companion of the day, which she adds to a necklace that has grown to one thousand five hundred rings, as of now.”
Shah Zaman had not completed his minute description of every part of a woman, of that which was concealed as well as that which was revealed, and how he intoxicated her with his manly vigor, and how she asked for more, and how he threw his ring to her when he was done with her, and how she grieved as she threaded the ring onto the necklace, before Shahrayar started in. The wine had begun playing with his head as well, and he was filled with an intense sensation that he had almost stumbled upon the essence of a principle which would guide him in his life and supplant his sense of the meaninglessness of this life, imbuing it with meaning and value. So he fell to chanting some verses of poetry, putting into their recitation all his newfound sense of wisdom:
“Do not trust women
And don’t take their word
For both their satisfaction and their wrath
Are determined by their vulvas
They profess their love deceitfully
And betrayal is the stuffing of their clothing
By the story of Joseph, take heed:
In it you will find a sample of their deceit
Or look to your father Adam—
And his exodus for their sake!”
And here, the voices of all rose with cries of: “True…True,” “Right!”, and “Yes, by God!” This pleased him, and his spirit filled with vanity and warmth. There was, amidst the group, a grave man, who appeared dignified and clever. He occasionally nodded his head in agreement, so one of them turned to him, asking “What do you think?”
The man, a merchant with a wealthy bearing, said: “My opinion is like that in the Story of the Dog and the Rooster with Their Friend and His Wife.” The band answered in one voice, “And what is the Story of the Dog and the Rooster?” The merchant sat up straight and looked around himself to make sure all were listening to him. Shah Zaman sensed that the crowd was about to hear a story better than his, but circumstances forced him to give way to the other, due to the merchant’s powerful presence. He looked at his brother, and found him apparently absent-minded, so he began listening without great interest.
The man started his speech in a confident, full tone, and told a story which he said he had witnessed in all its details, and it did not occur to any of those present that it could be his own personal story, except for Shahrayar. For he saw things as one self-centered, and could not therefore conceive of a story not revolving around its teller, but he listened anyway in case he would find the man’s words reinforcing his satisfaction with the corruption of women under each and every circumstance. However, the beginning of the story eluded him because he noticed that the waitress who had been serving them had a small figure and some marvelous curves. Her face seemed sweet and easy to lure.
When he woke from his daydreams, the sheikh had finished his story and the gathering was beginning to break up. His brother was chattering beside him. Shahrayar’s mind was still wandering, so he heard nothing his brother said except for one sentence: “Did you see, brother, that we’re not alone in this calamity? No woman knows virtue except when all the paths to vice are blocked in front of her.” When it seemed to Shahrayar that his brother had stopped talking, he stood abruptly, having made up his mind: “I’m going to kill them all and cut away the stain that pollutes the world. I am going to deliver the world from its blemish.”
The waitress was coming and going between the tables, removing the empty tumblers and glasses that some left on the floor, drying up what had been poured onto the tables, and putting chairs back into their places, when Shahrayar blocked her way as he was leaving the tavern and accosted her: “What do you say?” He gestured obscenely with his hands to indicate what he meant.
The waitress grimaced, wiped her hands with a towel, and said with a tired sigh, “Not likely, Your Grace.” So Shahrayar departed, followed by Shah Zaman, together feeling out the way to their room.
* Translator's comments:
This story comes from a collection of stories written by a group of fourteen Egyptian women to address gender politics, and to redress the marginalization of women in official history. The Women and Memory Forum met in a series of workshops in 1998 to read and discuss episodes from the famous collection One Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian Nights) and other folktales, and then to write individually and in small groups. The collection (Qalat al-rawiyya / The Storyteller, She Said...) attests to women's freedom of expression and experimentation, attempting to revise Arab and Egyptian cultural history. The writers reclaim oral texts, and the margins of society that they represent, from official cultural history of Egyptians and Arabs generally. Oral texts, by their nature, incorporate multiple versions and variants, originating from multiple tellers, and often multiple locations and eras. Retelling folktales plays on this tendency toward multiplicity, building on the audience's expectations for certain patterns, and adding an awareness of contemporary social issues.
This particular story satirically retells the frame story of One Thousand and One Nights, in which two brothers rule distant kingdoms. When one prepares to visit the other, he returns unannounced to his palace and discovers his wife in the arms of a slave. He arrives at his brother's palace distraught. The visiting brother stays inside one day, and discovers that his brother's wife is also unfaithful to her husband. Having lost all faith in women, the brothers set out on a journey. The first thing they see is a great genie, seemingly invincible, in possession of a chest. While the genie sleeps, the woman who was imprisoned in the chest propositions the two brothers, reinforcing their ideas about women's promiscuity. The brothers leave this scene thoroughly shaken. This is the opening that Ramadan remakes in her following rendition. The title points to how much still remains unknown in history. This idea of revelation plays out as the story unfolds, revealing new knowledge and an alternative understanding of this classic tale...
Source: Ramadan, Somaya. "Ḥikāyāt Malik Shahrayār wa-akhīhi fī riwāyatin ukhrā lam tunshar ba‘d." In Qālat al-rāwiyya: Ḥikāyāt min wajhat naẓar al-mar'a min waḥī nuṣūṣ sha‘biyya ‘arabiyya. Ed. Hala Kamal. Cairo: Max Group (1999): 80-86.
Somaya Ramadan lives in Cairo, where she writes fiction, translates English to Arabic, and teaches English and Translation.
Melanie Magidow is an Independent Scholar who sometimes teaches courses in Arabic language and culture. She also translates Arabic literature to English, and conducts research in Arabic literature and popular culture.