Scheherazade Goes West:
Different Cultures, Different Harems
By Fatema Mernissi
Washington Square Press, 220 pp., $25.95
Once upon a time there was a fairy tale that began, as any good fairy tale must, as a tale of tragedy, and it went like this:
Good King Shahzaman, the happy ruler of "The Land of Samarcand," returns to his palace one day only to find his wife in the arms of a kitchen boy. Enraged, Shahzaman kills them both then sets out for the Persian kingdom of his older and wiser brother, good King Shahrayar. One morning, however, Shahzaman, with that habit of being in the right place at the wrong time, happens to look out onto Shahrayar's harem garden only to look in on still more monkey business: Shahrayar's lady of the house in cahoots with a slave freshly swung from a tree and her retinue of slave girls magically transformed into 10 swinging couples up to their own business. Shahrayar gets wind of it, kills the whole unfaithful lot, then goes several steps (and heads) further by marrying then decapitating in revenge every virgin in sight. Except for one: daughter of the king's vizier, Scheherazade, who keeps her head by filling the king's with some tales of her own, the body of which we know as The Thousand and One Nights.
This makes Scheherazade, in the mind of Fatema Mernissi in the pages of Scheherazade Goes West, the one thing not one Westerner, she's convinced, wants Scheherazade in truth to be: a political hero and self-liberator and on the following three fronts: knowledge, which would mean she's an intellectual; words, which would mean she's a cunning strategist; and cold blood, which would mean she's a cool cookie. The very opposite, in other words, of what Western ideas and art -- from Kant to Ingres to Delacroix to Matisse to Picasso to Diaghilev to Hollywood -- have taken harem insiders in general to be, which, Mernissi argues, is basically ready, willing, and able, dumb-struck before the "male gaze" and stark naked while we're at it. Why the misunderstanding? First, some understanding, from the Islamic point of view and to wit:
Muslim men expect their women to be "highly aware of the inequality inherent in the harem system" and, by extension, aware of the inequities in conduct and dress prescribed by present-day and fundamentalist Islamic societies. Background insight: Muslim men fundamentally fear women. Reason: Muslim men are full of self-doubt. Why? Because Islam, as a legal and cultural system, "is imbued with the idea that the feminine is an uncontrollable power -- and therefore the unknowable 'other.'" Again because: It's not the men who do the penetrating where it ultimately counts -- the brain -- but the women, what with their capacity to outthink and outwit men, which is, to men, the "essence" of sexual attraction. A man in love risks slavery, therefore locking women up makes rejection impossible. The Muslim fantasy in art nonetheless: "self-assertive, strong-minded, uncontrollable, and mobile women." Evidence: the story of Harun Ar-Rachid, "the sexy caliph," born 766; the Muslim tradition in secular painting as propounded by Empress Nur-Jahan of India in the 16th century. Mernissi makes all these points and cases clear but only until she finds space to get to them and only after she dispenses a lot of chitchat, the ultimate mark reached when she discovers that she cannot fit into a size 6 skirt and blames Western mankind for it.
And what of the West's historical response to Scheherazade? Kill her off, according to Edgar Allen Poe, who plainly feared her in his short story "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade." Beauty plus brains? A philosophical contradiction, according to Kant. Ingres' La Grande Odalisque? "By spending months painting a beautiful woman," Mernissi confidently concludes, "Ingres was declaring daily to his wife that she was ugly!" Matisse? His passive odalisques "did not exist in the Orient!" And poor Hollywood? Maria Montez, Mernissi disposes of as a low-budget burlesque queen, and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra Mernissi cannot even bring herself to openly name as Montez's high-end offspring. Muslim men at least have an inkling; Western men, we learn, haven't a clue, until, that is, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu publicly put the stamp on the "symbolic violence" perpetrated on women's bodies and Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth ran with the idea.
Other ideas in Scheherazade Goes West it's up to you to run from. As in, in the author's words: "Scheherazade's passive submission to her own death [in Poe's story] upset me so much that I could hardly carry on with the book promotion tour when I arrived in Paris." Or: "I would have to see a doctor about my heart palpitations. It would be such a hassle to have a heart attack in France. "
One idea, though, is way off the register. To talk herself down from the upset of a heart attack in France, Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist best known for her book Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, puts herself through what she calls "Arab psychotherapy," which means "you keep talking nonstop about your obsessions, even if people don't listen or care. One day, someone will give you a sensible observation or answer, and save you the trouble and expense of checking yourself into a psychiatric hospital. The only problem with this technique is that you lose a lot of friends."
East may still be East; West, West. But on this centuries-tested and cross-cultural method of losing friends (never mind the attention of readers), there is no divide.