Fatima Mernissi’s books are like a knife that cleaves beauty out of ignorance. Grateful I encountered her work young.
Once I discovered Fatima Mernissi’s writing I did a thing I frequently do when I have a literary crush on a writer, I feel compelled to read everything they have written. Like a literary stalking of sorts. And that is how I discovered a little known book by her called Scheherazade Goes West. Scheherazade Goes West by Fatima Mernissi is a departure. So very different from her other writing. An ample criticism of the western style feminism. A thought provoking book about how a story changes once it travels across boundaries. A recommended read for everybody
Reading Scheherazade Goes West triggered my imagination in an unexpected direction. I found myself imagining what would it look like if Scheherazade showed up in modern day Canada. How would people respond to her? What would Scheherazade think of this world?
Take The Highway started as a question: “What would it look like if you took Arabian Nights and flipped the roles? Make the man the storyteller, the woman the receiver and set it in a modern day setting in North America.” I came up with several scenarios but the one that appealed to me in the end is the story of a man who tells his wife bedtime stories to help her with her insomnia. At the time they seem like fun stories. After the breakup, the wife remembers these stories and starts seeing hidden clues within their folds. Those stories help her get over the devastating heartbreak. I thought my idea was super cool and original.
It was only after the book launch party that my son pointed out that some other novel executes on the same idea. Very different story, but the man has to play the role of Scheherazade and the woman get to be Shahryar. Can you guess which novel?
Misery by Stephen King. Needless to say I am now reading the book. I never thought I would be mentioning Stephen King and Fatima Mernissi in the same blog post and yet here we are.
So here is my Scheherazade Goes West story
My grandmother used to start stories by saying “Kan ya ma kan, fi qadeem al zaman”. Long long time ago, there was and there wasn’t. My grandmother never said: “In a faraway land”.
Long long time ago in a faraway land, there was and there wasn’t a beautiful and clever princess named Scheherazade. Scheherazade had to tell stories in order to survive. She told such interesting and compelling stories that Schehrayar couldn’t help but let her live one more night and then another and then another. After one thousand and one nights Schehrayar’s heart get attached and forgets its murderous desire. By salvaging her life with her stories she in turn salvages Schehrayar from his heart of darkness.
Many years later Scheherazade’s children grew up and Schehrayar became a fully domesticated husband. Scheherazade was stricken by a mysterious feeling of weariness. At night she roamed the royal palace like a ghost and during the day she laid in her bed like a tree leaf that has fallen during the autumn months. Many doctors and wise men were summoned to investigate this mysterious condition. But all the medicines and witchcraft resulted in irritating Scheherazade and giving her skin rashes in different parts of her body.
One day while Scheherazade laid wistfully in her bed, she noticed the oil lamp that has been sitting on the mantle for over a thousand years. Scheherazade decided that it might cheer her up to chat with an old friend. She rubbed and rubbed and abruptly Genie appeared. “Shobek lubek, ana abdek been edeek” bowed down the Genie. I am you faithful servant he declared, your wishes are my command. He was tall, he was strong and he was dark.
“Oh Genie! it is nice to see you “ said Scheherazade. “Do you remember our adventures together”
I am your faithful servant, your wishes are my command.
“Oh forget those formalities, come sit next me, tell me all about you”
I am a slave of the magical oil lamp, I sleep until my master or mistress wakes me up to give me commands. There isn’t much to tell.
“O, Well let me tell you about my life”
“What am I? A psychiatrist? People don’t wake me up to tell me stories, people summon me to give me commands, which I execute most proficiently”
“I know, but my children don’t enjoy my stories any more. Mom! we heard the story about Ali Baba and 40 thieves a thousand time already, it’s boring. That story about the cow that is lost in the city of Baghdad, that is so old fashioned. Scheherayar, god bless him, he has become such loving husband, he listens attentively, but”
“People summon me to give me commands” The Genie interrupted Scheherazade for the first time in a thousand years. “When you know what you want call on me then” Pfffft, just like that he disappeared into the lamp.
Scheherazade went back to bed and felt more lonely that she has ever felt in her whole entire life.
The next morning Scheherazade laid in bed and stared at the magical oil lamp feeling massively agitated. “He can’t talk to me like that, who does he think he is” She picked up the lamp and rubbed and rubbed. When Genie appeared she started with a question.
“How long has it been? How long have we known each other?”
“A thousand years, but who is counting?”
“All these adventures we had together, all this time, why can’t we be friends?”
“Blah, blah, blah, tell me what you want Scheherazade, give me a command”
“but, but, but ..”
“What is it that you want? Make up your mind and just tell me what
you want, now!”
“I am sick and tired of being a princess in this fictional world. I tired of genies, kings, heroes and stupid behemoths. If I have to slay yet another behemoth, I will puke. Take me somewhere far away from all of this, somewhere where I can have a different life. Somewhere where I don’t have to tell stories”
Pfffft, in flash, just like that. Scheherazade found herself standing on the sea wall of Stanley park of the wondrous city of Vancouver, in beautiful British Columbia.
And she wrote Take The Highway.
I do feel a bit bummed out. I thought, Scheherazade goes west and turns into a man, was this super duper unique idea and now I discover that it’s not that original. Oh well! I need get more creative next time.