The Thousand and One Nights is by far the most famous collection of Arab popular narratives. Its heroine Shahrazad has become the symbol of the complex interactions of gender and power as they relate to the region, from those who see her as a positive agent of change, as in Suzanne Gauch’s interestingly titled Liberating Shahrazad, in which ”A long-silenced literary figure speaks for modern Muslim women,” to the negative, such as Joumana Haddad’s I Killed Sheherazade, or Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men, where the hero explains why the tale of Shahrazad angers his mother: “Shahrazad was a coward who accepted slavery over death.”
Another saga is the romance of the poet cavalier Antarah and his struggles to win his beloved Ablah, an episode of which Rimsky-Korsakov made the subject of the early orchestral work Antar. The child of a tribal chief and a black slave, Antar is ostracised until his bravery earns him respect. When Ablah’s father refuses the idea of a union between Antar and Ablah, the stage is set for an almost endlessly expandable saga that narrates the Herculean tasks Antar has to carry out and the impossible obstacles he has to overcome in order to marry Ablah. In the meantime, the heroine undergoes parallel trials which involve capture and confinement, although her resistance is restricted to scathing speeches.
In contrast to Ablah’s rhetorical resistance, the saga of Princess Dhat al Himma offers a typology of the warrior woman in the Arabic epic. As Gavin Hambly notes in Women in the Medieval Islamic world:
The epic tradition, just as Arabic popular narrative in general, abounds in themes and motifs that rarely occur in other Arab literary genres. This type of material may thus offer a fresh view on literary representation. The role of women is a good example: popular narrative casts them in roles different from those accorded to women in the high literary tradition…female versions of knightly warriors are among the stock character of Arabic (and for that matter Persian and Turkish) epic literature.
In Islam and the Heroic Image: Themes in Literature and the Visual Arts, John Renard argues that these women in Islamic epic literature “invariably function as links to the outside world, to the lands and peoples beyond those of the principal heroes.” This is probably true of figures such as the Princess Nura in the Dhat al Himma tale, but one of the exceptions is Amirah Fatima aka Dhat al Himma herself, whose name literally means ”She who is possessed of resolve.”
Dhat al Himmah’s saga is summarized in M C Lyon’s The Arabian Epic, and begins some time before the birth of the heroine; and you can also read the first part here in Arabic, or samples of one manuscript.
Citing the saga in To Speak or Be Silent: The Paradox of Disobedience in the Lives of Women, Lena Ross points out that “The rebellion of Dhat al-Himma must be viewed against the background of her great-grandmother’s oppressed existence.” Like Antarah, Dhat al Himmah’s rise to power begins from ostracism. Initially abandoned by a father who wanted a son, she avoids marraige, but is then drugged and seduced by the machinations of one of the villains in the story. In another echo of the Antar saga, linking gender, race and disempowerment, the son she bears, Abd al Wahhab, is black, and the two of them fight together. As Renard notes, “Unlike most other heroes, Abd al Wahhab learns the martial arts from his mother rather than from a male mentor.” Mother and son then embark on a series of battles against seven Byzantium castles, inhabited by the seven sons of King Aqritash.As Roger Allen notes in The Arabic Literary Heritage:
The context of the narrative is the period during the Umawi and Abbasi caliphates when Islam was expanding its domains and thus confronting not only other communities of faithful such as Christians of Byzantium but also questions of belief within the Muslim community itself.
Today, the saga of Dhat al Himmah is embalmed in the kind of inert nostalgia which is only effective through irony and subversion, such as in Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1992 novel Zaat (or Dhat) where the ”female protagonist locks herself up in her bathroom and cries after all her attempts at protest are defeated.”
As the Egyptian critic Ibrahim Fathi pointed out, the female protagonist Dhat inverts the mythical Dhat al Himma who “fought against the Romans and defended the forts during the early Abbassid period, a period characterized by negligence on the part of the rulers and the rise to power within the court of corrupt officials, thieves and frauds the likes of the infamous Sheikh ’Uqba who later became a minister.”
In Zaat, in contrast, as Samia Mehrez puts it, “the verbal noun is dropped from the title of the novel.” While Dhat does try to resist, “her resistance collapses in the face of the general tide of social reality. Unlike the princess, Dhat al Himmah, our Dhat’s ultimate heroic deed in the text is to try to report the green grocer who sold her an olive can with an expired date of consumption. She goes through the ordeals of the Egyptian bureaucracy, aided by her friend Himmat, to no avail, and fails to accomplish her heroic deed.” Dhat is detached from Himma, self without resolve.
But, returning to Shahrazad as the legendary story-teller, we might ask why the prototypical heroine of Arab popular narrative collectives remains so pervasive, even when it is recognised that, as Elfriede Jelinek put it in her review of Joumana Haddad’s I Killed Sheherazade,”Scheherazade has to die to be able to tell her own story: that is, to become a human being.”
Haddad writes, in her book,
“I’ve never been a big fan of Scheherazade who, to make matters worse, is nauseatingly cherished by the Orientalists even though I really loved reading and re-reading The Arabian Nights. a conspiracy against Arab women in particular, and women in general. I’ve had just enough people (especially in the West, but in the Arab world as well) turning her into a heroine, the symbol of Arab cultural female opposition and struggle against men’s injustice, cruelty and discrimination. She’s just a sweet gal with a huge imagination and good negotiation skills. Things simply needed to be put in their right perspective. Thus, I killed her.”
But how many times must the Orientalist’s Shahrazad be put to death? Instead of refuting the “false” Shahrazad, or rediscovering the “real” Shahrazad, perhaps we should be finding the Himmah/Resolve that has, somewhere along the way, become detached from Dhat/Self. If Muslim women need, as Gauch says, “a long-silenced literary figure” to speak for them – if they will always be given one, whether or not they need her – perhaps a change of spokesperson is needed.