Scheherazade

‘Arabian Nights’ is the atmospheric miniseries that sprung from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, a compendium of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories within stories. In the miniseries, Mili Avital plays wise Scheherazade, a lover of tales whose own journey to becoming a master storyteller is wrought with peril; but also spellbinding imagination and unconditional love. Her stories say much about the world and people around her, but they say more about Scheherazade herself.

Spoiler Alert
For a start, her stories are bright and imaginative, and so Scheherazade is bright and imaginative. Scheherazade isn’t on screen at all for most of the series, but her personality is in every tale she weaves: every tragedy, every comedy, every battle.

The stories of Ali Baba and Aladdin explain her notion that fortune favours the good and punishes the wicked. The tales of the hunchback and the beggar show her dark and satirical sense of humour. And all five stories maintain a running theme of real treasure being something that is abstract, a moral that defines Scheherazade in that she absolutely doesn’t become Sultana for the sake of wealth and power.

Perhaps she is this way because she tells stories. After all, people need stories more than bread itself. They tell us how to live, and why. Scheherazade is directionless, motherless, and living with unrequited love — and yet she is composed, happy, and tremendously rational despite her recklessness. Why? It’s because stories are her lifeblood.

That is what fuels her in her epic quest to save the Sultan Shahryar from himself through the revitalising magic of stories. Shahryar was betrayed and almost murdered by his previous wife, and now believes that all women desire his death. But the law states that the Sultan must be married, so he requests a concubine to wed and then execute… and Scheherazade volunteers herself. It’s a brave and foolish decision. She’s just like a hero from one of her own stories.

Through stories she learns that the world is an inferno full of darkness and evil, and that there are only two ways of dealing with it. The first is easy and wrong: to accept it and become part of it. The second way is harder and right: you fight it, and recognise those who aren't evil, and help them endure. Irredeemable though Shahryar seems at first, Scheherazade has faith that she is his antidote. She helps him endure the inferno, and so he falls in love. Not because of her beauty or harmlessness, but because of her fortitude — and, of course, her stories.

Like so many storytellers, Scheherazade is loathe to admit that she’s put herself into any of her tales. In Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Morgiana is described as beautiful, clever and independent, and the audience, Shahryar, observes that she sounds like Scheherazade herself. “Like me?” She replies. “Oh, no, she wasn't like me. Not like me at all."

But Scheherazade is Morgiana — and she is Ali Baba, Black Coda, Aladdin, the Genie… she is even Shahryar. The storyteller is the sum of her stories, but she is something more than that. Something missed at the first and even second viewing of ‘Arabian Nights’. Something you won’t expect.

And I would tell you now, but I was told to learn how to leave an audience in suspense.
Life often turns upon such small things as a flickering oil lamp.
Feed a grub royal jelly and he will turn into an Emperor Butterfly in an instant.
The trial of Jerome Gribben was the social event of the season. The judge in the case was the venerable Judge Zadic. Judge Zadic was totally incompetent but, being a Judge, nobody had noticed.
Stories are less simple than we think they are.
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Published on 14 January 2016
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