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Who was Scheherazade?

Scheherezade was not a real person, and so, not exactly a historical figure, but her legacy is greater than most who ever lived. But who exactly is she? She is the narrator of the famous tales of the Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights.

A beautiful woman with brown hair and brown eyes stares into your soul, wearing a pink headdress topped with a peacock feather and lavish jewellery.
Painting of Scheherazade as imagined by British artist Sophie Anderson (1823-1923)

The magical stories of the Thousand and One Nights are part of the genre of the "frame tale" -- that is, a collection of stories within a story. And all of these famous stories, such as "Aladdin", "Sinbad", and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" were all told by one narrator - Scheherezade.

The story of Scheherezade begins before she even enters the scene with the mighty king Shahryar. When Shahryar finds that his wife had made love to someone else, infuriated, he kills her and swears never to be betrayed again. And so, to ensure that no woman gets the chance to cuckold him, he marries a woman each day and has her killed the next morning. In this way, she will have one night with him in the marriage bed and then never get the chance to be with anybody else.

As one would expect, Shahryar’s obsession has an unfortunate impact on the female population of his kingdom. While most parents would love to have their daughters married to a king, Shahryar’s subjects lived in fear of having their daughter’s betrothed to this vengeful king. And similarly, this is how the father of Scheherezade feels when she agrees to marry the king. But, Scheherazade has a plan.

At the end of her wedding day, Scheherazade lays in the marriage bed with Shahryar and begins to tell a story. Shahryar is enthralled by the story and wants to hear the end, but before she finishes the tale dawn breaks. And so, if Shahryar wants to hear the story’s conclusion, he must let Scheherezade live another day. And for, you guessed it - 1001 nights, this pattern continues - Scheherazade tells story after story, telling enough of the next to get the king hooked, but leaving it to be finished the following evening. After 1001 nights have passed, she tells the king that she has no more stories to tell. But by this time, the king has fallen in love with her, is cured of his rage, and decides to make her his queen permanently.

Though Scheherezade may not be a real woman, her struggle against a tyrannical husband is not at all unique. So many women, both in history and in the world today, live in relationships of fear with the men in their lives instead of love . Scheherezade's story shows the power of women's ingenuity to survive in such difficult times. But beyond the doom and gloom, Scheherezade is representative of a beautiful tradition of storytelling. No single person wrote all the stories of the Thousand and One Nights; rather, it is a collection of popular oral tales that were told over and over from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

While we can never know all the details about how these stories were passed down, I like to imagine women sitting together over tea and telling each other these amazing stories. Whether escaping murder or just boredom, stories have an amazing power to inspire us and show us the importance of our humanity. They teach us empathy by giving a glimpse into the lives of fictional characters who show a depth of feeling that few people would dare to reveal.

I named this week’s tea box after Scheherezade because I think she is a big part of the tradition of tea and conversation, and while during the pandemic there hasn't been much chance to gather and tell stories, we can still share with each other through social media, through blogs, through books, and through phone calls with the ones we love. As long as we keep telling stories, we can remember just how important the people around us are.

P.s. For some excellent scholarship that references the tales of the 1001 Nights in the context of feminism in Europe and the Middle East, read Fatima Mernissi's Scheherezade Goes West.

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