Wednesday, December 28, 2005

the beginning

At the beginning there was alif, aleph and alpha. Alif begat the great story-telling tradition of the middle-east, known as the Alif Laylah Wa Laylah, that collection of marvelous and strange tales so richly flavored with human desire and corruption, eventually translated into english and becoming known as the thousand and one Arabian nights.

The stories of the thousand and one nights are bound by a macabre formula. King Shahriyar is a powerful and terrible king who has terrorised the people of his kingdom. Every evening, he marries and takes to bed a new queen selected from among the beautiful women of his kingdom. The next morning, every morning, on his orders the woman he married the night before is put to death. This ritual of marriage and death is played out on a daily basis, and every dawn brings another death warrant from the king.

That is until the day he marries Scheherazade. Scheherezade is the loveliest of women, beautiful like the moon. She marries the king willingly, risking her life out of compassion for others. Quite charmingly, she is extremely well-read and knows an extraordinary number of stories and legends with sexual themes and subtexts. She is also very clever, and has a plan to stop this slaughter of women.

Scheherazade invites her sister Dunyazade to come to the royal bed chambers on the wedding night, and watch while the marriage is consumnated. Once carnal introductions have been completed and they are all relaxing, Dunyazade starts to plead with her sister to tell them a story to pass the time.

Scheherazade begins telling them the story of "the fisherman and the djinn", and they stay up all night listening to her. But dawn breaks before the story can be finished, and Scheherazade falls silent.

The king is vexed. Policy demands that the new queen have her head struck off, but he wants to know how the story ends. He orders the execution to be postponed. That night, Scheherazade continues where she left off. Once again the night is spent listening to her tales, and when dawn breaks, there is a new story which remains incomplete. And Scheherazade is spared for another day.

And so for a thousand and one nights this nightly ritual of story-telling continues, and the lives of Scheherazad and the other women of the kingdom are spared. The stories told during these nights are the Alif Laylah Wa Laylah.

But what happens on that fateful last evening, on the thousand and first night? What tale is told then, and how does it conclude? What happens to Scheherazade and Shahryar, do they live happily ever after? How can I tell you the ending when I am still at the beginning! The end of the story will have to wait for now.

But there is another unsolved mystery we can look at, another riddle for us to uncover. Why did King Shahryar behave so dementedly, why was he so determined to murder his queens, why did he insist on ordering the death of women he had only married a day before? What method hid behind his madness? I will tell you his story now.

[ continued here ]