“Queerness” in One Thousand and One Nights: Manifestations of Gender and Sexuality

One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling (hereafter 1001 Nights) is Hanan al-Shaykh’s reinterpretation of the popular oral tales that continue to enchant and inspire audiences today. Through her re-imagining of Shahrazad’s story and the interlocking narratives she weaves, al-Shaykh presents a definition of “queerness” rooted in the notions of gender and sexuality, both within and beyond the text of the novel. In turn, al-Shaykh demonstrates the countless ways in which queerness—as manifest in the novel—subverts the conventional cisnormative, heteronormative hegemony, consequently tearing down the patriarchal structures that attempt to confine it through means of abjection. For these reasons, I consider 1001 Nights to be a queer text, particularly in showcasing how the cis-heteropatriarchy appropriates their misfortunes to further uphold colonialist dichotomies of gender and sexuality, as opposed to generating a textual realm in which queer identities can flourish independently from their oppressors. Thus, 1001 Nights serves as al-Shaykh’s argument that the narrative “default” was built on the backs of queer voices, existing in diametrical opposition to the same communities they are leeching off.

At the intratextual level, Shahrazad is the sole voice of the entirety of 1001 Nights. By adopting the voices of various characters and mirroring her plight in their actions, every character becomes—by extension—a representation of Shahrazad herself. This expands upon my initially proposed understanding of “queerness,” as the chapter of “Shahrayar and Shahrazad” introduces the medium of voice and presents it as one that transcends textuality into the metanarrative. As al-Shaykh articulates in the preface of 1001 Nights, “I came to see that [Shahrazad’s] weapon was art at its best, her endless invention of all of those magnificent stories” (xviii). Here, she notes that Shahrazad’s storytelling is an act of creation and a type of verbal ammunition, queering the act of warfare that is typically associated with masculine aggression and imperialist domination. Additionally, especially in the sense that these stories were intended to “save[e] both [Shahrazad’s] life and those of all the girls who remain in the kingdom” (10), Shahrazad reclaims the intellectual oral culture in the context of this high-stakes situation, thereby transforming it into a space of queer dominion.

By contrast, queer identity is framed differently in “The First Dervish,” in which the heterosexual bond (between Aziz and the woman at the window) creates an inversion of cuckoldry (Aziz’s betrothed, Aziza, as the cuckold) and causes a queer character’s death (Aziza). Throughout, Aziz operates as the surrogate lover for Aziza, to which he attests: “it was only because of Aziza that I had reached the garden and consummated my desire for [the woman]” (60). Had Aziza not been a part of this narrative at all, Aziz would not have had the means necessary to seduce the woman, hence reducing Aziza to a mere stepping-stone. What’s more, Aziz’s mother later proclaims, “[m]ay God … regard you as solely to blame for Aziza’s death” (60). Aziz, a personification of compulsory heterosexuality, is explicitly deemed the catalyst for the demise of Aziza, a personification of sapphic love. Subsequently, al-Shaykh redefines “queerness” not as antithesis nor an independent sexual identity, but one that functions in concert with heterosexuality. In this case, heterosexuality usurps the budding homosexual relationship and colonizes a domain that is not theirs, flourishing atop the remains of a queer romance.

In “Zumurrud and Nur al-Din,” “queerness” is once again determined based on another set of parameters. The character of Zumurrud, whose identity fluctuates between slave girl and King—states inherently bound to her perceived gender, is an emblematic image of gender performativity. Focusing specifically on her transition into the role of King, al-Shaykh describes the height of Zumurrud’s achievements as such: “Zumurrud proved to herself and her people that she was the greatest of Kings. … everyone obeyed her and loved her for her justice and virtue” (263). In punning on “virtue” as both chastity and morality, al-Shaykh suggests that Zumurrud’s success as King does not dispel her previous status as a slave nor her womanhood, retrospectively dismantling the boundaries of classism and gender essentialism—the latter of which claims that men and women have distinct, innate traits specific to their sex. Ultimately, Zumurrud’s queerness lies within her ability to traverse the bounds of classed gender and take advantage of the (dis)empowerment imposed upon these identities, thus undermining the conventions of the binary-oriented social hierarchy that seeks to discredit her.

Returning to “Shahrayar and Shahrazad,” I am hesitant to interpret the slave men who cuckold the brothers as an expression of gender-queerness. Shahzaman depicts them as “ten black slave girls [who] were in fact men … with their penises erect like bayonets, their firm buttocks jutting out as though a cup and saucer might balance on them” (3). Though the men are characterized with the languages of weaponry—“bayonets”—and domesticity—“cup and saucer”—typically attributed to the respective realms of masculinity and femininity, the primary focus is on their genitalia, and the revelation of such actualizes their manhood. Aziz’s eventual castration is a reversal of this phallism, as the absence of his penis renders him unable to fulfill his sexual role as a man and, as his wife tauntingly yells, means that “[he] is a woman now” (67). However, these instances could be viewed as a challenge towards how cisgender, heterosexual identity is defined exclusively by intercourse and anatomy, whereas the queer-coded characters in 1001 Nights are depicted as such through their manipulation of the textual medium (Shahrazad), partaking in romantic relationships (Aziza), and gender performativity (Zumurrud).

All in all, al-Shaykh’s 1001 Nights presents a form of “queerness”—as a concept—that is not solely defined by the manners in which it is oppressed by the cis-heteropatriarchy, but by its awareness of and pushback against this enforced subjugation as well. This rendition of queerness—as a signifier of identity—holds both dimensionality and multifacetedness, existing in juxtaposition with the flatness of its normative counterpart. This is perhaps what makes the appropriation of queer pain such a visceral literary experience, highlighting the ways in which one’s textual authority and privilege are intrinsically linked to how much space one is permitted to occupy within the narrative. When one’s character is portrayed as only secondary to the colonial anachronisms at play, queerness surpasses its existence as a state of being and becomes a mode of resistance. By confronting, altering, and expanding upon the definition of queerness, howsoever it is expressed, 1001 Nights paints it as a force that frequently undermines the power of the exclusionary narrative, in spite of how queer struggles are exploited for the benefit of gender binarism and sex role conformity.