Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 July - 6 August 2003
Issue No. 649
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Sheherazade meets Antigone

A curious intercultural encounter at Al-Hanager leaves Nehad Selaiha feeling ambivalent

Nehad Selaiha It never ceases to amaze me how the popular mind in the Arab world can condone the most atrocious crimes committed by males against females and how lying and wiliness are extolled as feminine virtues and trotted out under the rubric of wisdom. In a seminar at the AUC last winter, after a lecture by Iraqi scholar Ferial Ghazoul about Sheherazade, Mona Ibrahim, an assistant professor at Cairo University, wondered aloud about the validity of the image of Sheherazade propagated by The Nights. The reforming of the rake theme, popular in late 18th and 19th century European fiction, was here stretched beyond the bounds of credibility. Far from an ordinary rake, Shahrayar was a brutal murderer. "How could a woman tolerate being nightly raped by such a man and then treat him like a baby, sending him to sleep with bedtime stories?" Ibrahim validly asked. The answer was fear and the survival instinct. Sheherazade had to spin out the web of her days with yarns.

The first person to air Sheherazade on the Egyptian stage, as far as I can discover, was Sayed Darwish in a four-act comic operetta that carried her name and for which the pioneering colloquial verse writer, Biram El-Tonsi, wrote the lyrics. It was performed by Darwish's own company in 1919 and was later revived, according to an extant theatre bill, in 1926, under the direction of Aziz Eid, and starring Bishara Wakim (whose lively comic performances are preserved in old movies) and Alia Fawzi.

Long before the theme of the good ruler being corrupted by his evil entourage became rampant in the drama of the 1960s, after Nasser's accession to power, El-Tonsi and Darwish presented us with a startling image of Sheherazade as a dissolute queen spoilt by her vicious, power- grabbing court and turned into a ruthless autocrat. Rather than spend her nights taming Shahrayar (here conspicuous by his absence) and ridding him of his ferocious blood lust, she amuses herself with chasing prospective lovers even as the country faces the threat of invasion by a foreign army. Fortunately, however, Za'bulla, a valiant, virile officer, comes to the rescue, arriving timely on the scene to subject her to a long and tempestuous process of edification which steers the play to a happy end.

Za'bulla, the hero, a simple, upright man of peasant origins, is a budding symbol of the national hero (modelled perhaps on Saad Zaghlul -- remember 1919 was the year of the national popular uprising against the British) and he is deeply in love with one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, also originally a peasant. When the flighty, selfish and pleasure- loving Sheherazade (a clear symbol of the ruling royal family then) falls in love with him and tries to seduce him with promises of wealth and power he resists and remains steadfast. Eventually, after many trials and ordeals, he manages to knock some sense into her and she promises to reform, dismiss her villainous stooges and become a good queen. Salah Abdel-Sabour was to return, years later, to the same skeletal plot-frame in his verse drama A Princess Waiting (1971).

In 1934 Tawfiq El-Hakim dragged Sheherazade onto the stage once more and made her into a symbol of the mystery of life. The woman was projected purely through Shahrayar's arduous and convoluted philosophical-come-existential chasing after the truth and ruminations on the paradoxes of life and appearance and reality.

Eugene Delacroix In 1953 she appeared yet again, thanks to Ali Ahmed Bakatheer, in the garb of a clever psychoanalyst who manages to cure poor, disillusioned and sexually impotent Shahrayar of his aversion to women after his discovery of the adultery of his wife with a black slave (no time now to go into the thorny issue of racism or the shameful involvement of Arab traders in the slave trade in the 19th century, but it is a point to be heeded by future deconstructivists of The Nights). It did not matter to Bakatheer how many innocent women that arrant knave, Shahrayar, had killed. The main thing was to pamper and cure the insane ruler and then everything would be alright.

Worse still, in 1955, Aziz Abaza, a redoubtable poet, wrote a verse drama called Shahrayar in which that butcher of a king became the object of desire fought over by both Sheherazade and her sister, Doniazade. Once more Sheherazade was reduced to a symbol, this time of superior knowledge, while her sister became the embodiment of carnal pleasure. As if a woman could not combine both! And why should women always be condemned by writers to the status of symbols? The battle between the two sisters over the hoggish sultan results in the conversion of Shahrayar to a near mystic and ascetic moralist. It was once more a case of using Sheherazade as a prop on which to project the dilemmas of Arab males and their hallowed patriarchal order of thinking.

Sheherazade did not fare better at the hands of either Rashad Rushdi (in his Sheherazade, starring Libliba, at the Balloon Theatre in the late 1970s) or Ezzat El-Amir's The Reign of Sheherazade (also from the 1970s but staged at the National, with Raghda in the lead, in 1995). In both cases she was once more reduced to a symbol of the nation and the guardian of Shahrayar, the ruler. It was not until the 1980s that Sheherazade finally rebelled and decided, at the hands of playwright and poet Fatma Qandil, to cast off her long-inherited, tattered robes and appear as a real woman and a rebel. Qandil's play did not meet with favour. Her heroine was an outspoken denouncer of the image projected by The Nights. In Qandil's hands the tales were clearly interpreted as a political ruse, a manoeuvre to hoodwink and lull the tyrant Shahrayar. For once Sheherazade was allowed to escape his iron grip and lead a revolution against his reign.

No one, however, has gone as far as Nahid-Na'ila Naguib in ideologically deconstructing the frame- story of The Nights. She begins with the premise that mental and physical coercion cannot breed sane characters. Imagine a woman living for years in total oppression, under fear of death, and having to succumb daily to sexual and mental abuse. What can you expect? In the Harem, leading a life of indolence and sensual indulgence, under fear of death for disobedience, women can only rot, Naguib argues. How can you expect wisdom out of such fetid, paltry stuff. Needless to say Naguib's play was banned from public performance by the censor, and it is doubtful that any play by a man or a woman which dares controvert the traditional, hallowed image of Sheherazade will see the limelight or be sympathetically viewed if it does.

During the last two days of the Independent "light comedy" Festival, held at Al-Hanager in the first week of July, Effat Yehya and Nehad Abul-Enein staged a play-reading of a new venture into the magical realm of Sheherazade. Once Upon a Time, written collaboratively by Yehya and Tunisian actress Amel Fadji, a member of Fadil Gu'aibi's prestigious Familia company, features an imaginary meeting between the Arabian princess and her Greek, oppositional counterpart, Antigone. The project germinated in an international symposium on Greek drama and The Arabian Nights, held in Marakesh, in the year 2000. At the end of the two-week gruelling lecture-sessions, as Effat tells me, the participants were given four days to prepare an intercultural dialogue in dramatic form and asked to team up with one or two members of the group to produce something that related to the event. In the early 1990s Yehya had built a play, Desertscape, round the first act of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls. The idea of women from different ages and diverse geographical and cultural background meeting outside the ordinary geo-temporal frame had intrigued her and resulted in an intelligent adaptation which brought together Churchill's Pope Joan (a brilliant scholar who passed herself off as a man, was elected Pope and killed when she became pregnant) side by side with Sheherazade's docile and lovely Anis El-Galis, the perfect embodiment of the ideal odalisque. No wonder Yehya jumped at the proposition: to stage an encounter in the after life between Sheherazade and a Greek character was irresistible.

The first draft of the dramatic project, according to Yehya, did not focus on the stories of either Sheherazade or Antigone. Rather, it sought to distill the essence of both and combine the image of the female rebel and the theme of taming a powerful, possessive male in a third fictional figure drawn from Kalilah wa Dimnah, a book of fables by the eighth century Abbasid Persian writer Ibn Al-Muqaffa'. It told the story of a Moorish princess who had mystical longings and succeeded in taming the king who fell in love with her. Rather than join his Harem to entertain him with her feminine charms or stories, she managed to persuade him to allow her to go her own way and remain alone in the desert, dancing under the stars, singing to the moon and conversing with the deity. This initial draft of the project found favour with the sponsors of the workshop and in July, 2002, Yehya was allowed one week in Paris with Fadji to develop it further. The two women worked closely for that space of time and the result was a highly poetic text in terms of construction and verbal texture, but somewhat puzzling in its ideological underpinnings.

With exquisite costumes and a few carefully chosen props and accessories -- a dainty teapot, burning incense in an antique dish, enveloping the gallery at Al-Hanager in a grayish-blue aromatic haze, and traditional Turkish music playing softly in the background -- Effat and Nehad read or recited their parts, emphasising the points of contact between the two legendary figures. The stories of both women -- Antigone, the woman who never said yes, and Sheherazade, the woman who never said no, are foregrounded; and though they differ in course, detail and direction, they ultimately constitute two variations on the theme of the oppressed woman. Though sexually surfeited, Sheherazade died just as unfulfilled as the virgin Antigone. Both lived in the shadow of death which forms a major point of intersection between the two stories. Sheherazade's cryptic allusion to her brutal rape at the hands of Shahrayar on their first night together is unbearably painful. More shattering still is the fact that when he raised his sword at dawn to murder her, she clung to him desperately to arouse him sexually once more though she was, as she admits, in great pain. The stories came later, she confides. Antigone, on the other hand, had to bear the burden of the curse put upon her parents and despite her heroic, rebellious confrontation with Creon, the text presents her panic when she finds herself entombed alive as a tangible reality. What Once Upon a Time ultimately seems to say is that whether a woman says yes as a rule and succumbs to the dictates of the status quo or opts for clear, straightforward opposition, she is doomed. Both women were deprived of the joy of life early on in youth. Antigone never got to enjoy Haemon's love and Yehya's Sheherazade had to give up Qamar El-Zaman, the man she really loved. By way of vicarious compensation she wove him into her stories and slept with him in her imagination, using the body of Shahrayar as a surrogate. When Antigone asks her if in time she came to love the tyrant she simply says: "I loved his body." Equally, Shahrayar, as she admits, never really knew her. He slept with a different woman every night, all fictional fabrications.

But enchanting and occasionally gently humourous as this imaginary encounter was, I could not help feeling worried about the two women's obsession with their fathers and their total, oblivious disregard of their mothers. It felt as if, like the goddess Athena, reportedly conceived in the thigh of Zeus, both women were engendered exclusively by men. At one point Yehya's Sheherazade tells Antigone that when her father died she felt the load of fear lift off her shoulders. She went to Shahrayar and boldly told him that from now on there would be no more stories. She wasn't afraid then; nothing seemed to matter; she didn't even feel angry; anger seemed such a redundant luxury, she says. When Shahrayar begs her for one last story after which he will set her free, she tells her own and he falls silent. When Antigone asks her to forgive as she has forgiven all who have wronged her, the woman who never said no stoutly declares that she will never, ever forgive. And yet I left this intriguing play-reading with the shadow of a white-bearded, green-turbaned patriarch looming over my head.

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