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NON-FICTION: Scheherazade & Scheherazade

July 31, 2011

Moroccan writer Fatema Mernissi’s reputation as a thinker, sociologist and researcher is well-established. In mid 1980s, Mernissi’s Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, a study of the lives of Arab women, shot her to international fame. Ever since she’s become a force to reckon with and has done more research related to women’s role in religion. Scheherazade Goes West — Different Cultures, Different Harems, is a book that puts western women (and men) next to their eastern counterparts, and draws a marked comparison between the two. The book is largely a result of Mernissi’s impressions and observations of Europe.

Scheherazade Maghrib Mein is the Urdu translation of Scheherazade Goes West. Noted writer and columnist Zahida Hina has translated the book, and not only has she tried to be intellectually faithful to the original text, she has also striven to convey to the reader the connotations of Mernissi’s insights.

Mernissi uses the institution of harem as the focal point and famous raconteur Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights as the symbol for women to evaluate the differences. She begins by pointing out her grandmother’s traditional, insular concept of harems. Of course, her grandmother didn’t have the luxury of globetrotting. Mernissi’s visits to Europe help her infer things that she might have remained oblivious or impervious to. She discusses Muslim caliphs, Haroonur Rashid in particular, and by shedding light on their harems, delineates the qualitative difference that exists between western thinkers and the Muslim mindset on the subject.

Mernissi pays a tremendous tribute to Scheherazade saying that “the initial translations in Europe of One Thousand and One Nights opened the East’s doors to the West’s orthodox clergy and rational philosophers like Descartes. They were now familiar with a storytelling, beautiful woman who spoke on forbidden subjects with complete abandon and was forced to entertain a dangerous husband. Her stories were centuries old compared to the satellite age. She was aware of the fact that in order to awaken men, words were the most effective weapon. This basic lesson she gave to her husband on the 28th night while narrating the tale of three women and a bachelor by the name of Hamaal. Despite the vulgarity or obscenity in the tale, the basic message in it is political. When Scheherazade chooses to tell such a story, she actually is delivering a political message.”

Mernissi carries on with this line of reasoning and claims that the West didn’t comprehend the purpose of Scheherazade’s storytelling — the attempt to create a dialogue between men and women — and instead appreciated what they saw on surface, which is merely fleeting and pretty. The West never fathomed Scheherazade, according to Mernissi.

In Germany, Mernissi has the opportunity to go through photo books of harem women, which revealed to her new ideas about German men and women. She also factors in on Emmanuel Kant’s opinion of women, making a distinct picture of the way they are traditionally thought of in the western world. In France, the encounter with odalisques and Ingres’ masterpiece, “The Turkish Bath”, further consolidate her view that in the West women are seen more in terms of aesthetics and beauty than anything else; whereas in the East, Mernissi argues, especially in Haroonur Rashid’s time, women were appreciated for their intellect.

Mernissi also discusses Edgar Allan Poe’s treatment of the Scheherazade; in Poe’s version, the storyteller dies in the end. This disturbs Mernissi.

Two sentences uttered by her friend over the phone echo in her mind: “The American writer killed Scheherazade in his story. Can Muslim men even think of doing this?” Add to this the assertion of her European friend that if you’re to understand western men, read their philosophers. This he said while referring to Kant’s “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime”. Kant’s view that “women predominantly have feelings for all that is beautiful while men mostly have feelings for the sublime” supplements Mernissi’s train of thought.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer

Scheherazade Maghrib Mein (FEMINIST THEORY) By Fatema Mernissi Translated by Zahida Hina Mashal Books, Lahore 223pp. Rs400