Hanan Al-Shaykh's childhood obsession with One Thousand and One Nights faded as she sought to escape the world it evoked. But Shahrazad found her. Now she retells 19 of the stories for a stage show to be premiered in Edinburgh
I don't recall exactly whether I was eight or 10 years old when I first heard the words Alf Layla wa-Layla, One Thousand and One Nights, but I do remember listening to a radio dramatisation and being utterly smitten: the clamour, hustle and bustle of the bazaars and souks, the horses' hooves, the creaking of a dungeon door, how the radio seemed to vibrate and shake at the footsteps of a demon, and the famous crow of the lonely rooster at the start of each episode, which would be answered by all the roosters in our neighbourhood.
I heard that a girl in my class had Alf Layla wa-Layla, and I hurried with her to peer at a few volumes in a glass cabinet, next to a carved elephant tusk. The volumes were leather-bound, their title engraved in gold. I asked my friend if I might touch one, but she said that her father always locked the cabinet and kept the key in his pocket, because he said he feared that if anyone finished the stories they would drop dead. Of course I didn't know then, and neither did my friend, that the reason her father didn't want any of the women of the house to read Alf Layla wa-Layla was because of its explicit sexuality.
As the years passed, my obsession with Alf Layla wa-Layla faded. I wanted desperately to escape the world it evoked. But Shahrazad found her way to me. I decided I must discover why, while most Arabs considered the framing story of Shahrazad to be a mere cliché, academics regarded it as work of genius and a cornerstone of Arabic literature.
I read page after page, marvelling at Shahrazad's perseverance in remaining the king's prisoner in order to reveal to him the truth of her mind. I came to see that her weapon was art at its best, her endless invention of all of those magnificent stories. The more I read, the more I came to admire the flat, simple style I had so criticised in the past. The simplicity of the language touched me, for it was the language of those who didn't reach for a dictionary but expressed their true, crude, raw and intense feelings, whether they praised, elegised or defamed. In these voices lay the foundation of magic realism, the flashback, and the use of the surreal to explain the ordinary – all the things I had mistakenly thought Alf Layla wa-Layla lacked.
Reading it this time was personal: I felt as if I had opened the door of a carriage that took me back into the heart of my Arab heritage, and to the classical Arabic language, after a great absence. I was astonished at how our forebears had shaped our societies, showing us how to live our daily lives, through these tales that were filled with insights and moral and social rules and laws, without the influence of religion but derived from firsthand experience and deepest natural feelings towards every living thing.
The effect of Alf Layla wa-Layla was so strong and real that Arab societies shaped themselves around it; the names of its characters were embedded in our language, becoming proverbs, adjectives and even modes of speech. I was in awe of the complex society the stories evoked, which allowed relationships between humans and genies and beasts, real and imaginary, and I smiled at the codes of conduct and the carefully laid-out etiquette. But as a female Arab writer my real enchantment was the discovery that women in those forgotten ancient societies were far from passive and fearful; they showed their strong will and intelligence and wit, all the time recognising that their behaviour was the second nature of the weak and the oppressed.
When I finished adapting these 19 stories for the stage and for a book, I thanked Shahrazad for leading me into a myriad of worlds. And, when I stepped back into our century, it dawned on me that in a sense my friend's father was right when he had said that anyone who finished Alf Layla wa-Layla would die: the reader might find herself detached and lifeless when forced to withdraw from the sublime vividness of the numerous worlds of the One Thousand and One Nights.
The European premiere of One Thousand and One Nights , dramatised and directed by Tim Supple, is at the Edinburgh international festival from 23 August to 3 September. One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh is published by Bloomsbury