For 1,001 Arabic Nights, This Woman Told a Story to Save Her Life

How a king would marry a fresh virgin every night – only to execute her at dawn, and how one woman bested him.

Updated
Love and Sex
3 min read
The tale of Sharyar and Scheherazade is about so much more than love and sex. (Photo: iStock)

Part of the same sensual wilderness as Adam and Eve, 1001 Arabian Nights is a febrile epic of desert, darkness, death… and love. You can get high merely sniffing the pages – redolent of bazaars and perfumes and palaces and sand and primal passion.

“…he threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him warmly… he threw her and enjoyed her. Likewise did the other slaves with the girls till all had satisfied their passions, and they ceased not from kissing and… coupling and carousing till day began to wane; when the Mamelukes rose from the damsels’ bosoms and the blackamoor slave dismounted from the Queen’s breast…”
<i>1001 Nights</i> is made up of small arabesque tales handed down like gifts. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
1001 Nights is made up of small arabesque tales handed down like gifts. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

While the Kama Sutra is more of an operating manual, with insightful detours into social mores, 1001 Nights is made up of small arabesque tales handed down like gifts – all within the arches of a great narrative of royalty, treachery, vengeance and magic, seething with eroticism.

Of a Love Story That is Death-Defying, Literally

With roots straddling Persia and India, Arabian Nights opens with cuckolded King Shahryar roaming the world in grief, hoping to meet a man more unfortunate than he. He meets a demon who keeps a woman in a glass chest with four locks. She comes out while the demon snores and shows off 98 rings collected from chance lovers. The woman insists on sex with the King to get to a century:

“She rose… and said, ‘Stroke me a strong stroke, without stay or delay’.’’

King Shahryar feels the demon is the more unfortunate and returns to his land. He decides to wreak vengeance on women, and lets loose a reign of terror – marrying a fresh virgin each day, and executing her at dawn.

Scheherazade and Shahryar, by Ferdinand Keller, 1880. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
Scheherazade and Shahryar, by Ferdinand Keller, 1880. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Scheherazade is among the last virgins in the land. She is sent to Shahryar. After the King ‘finishes with her’, his daily quarry starts narrating a story that remains unfinished at dawn. But King Sharyar wants to get to the end, and so decides to let her die another day.

The following evening, Scheherazade starts another story. And so she goes on for nearly three years, weaving stories in the shadow of death, as she brazenly stretches time.

Over the course of many desert nights of talk and intimacy, Shahryar falls hopelessly in love with Scheherazade, they have three kids, and live happily ever after.

Though it may appear to be a story of epic misogyny, Scheherazade is actually considered by some to be among the strongest and cleverest heroines in literature, who triumphs because she is endlessly inventive and keeps her head – literally.

Scheherazade is actually considered by some to be among the strongest and cleverest heroines in literature, who triumphs because she is endlessly inventive and keeps her head – literally. (Photo: iStock)
Scheherazade is actually considered by some to be among the strongest and cleverest heroines in literature, who triumphs because she is endlessly inventive and keeps her head – literally. (Photo: iStock)

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