1. The Beginning of the Stories: Shahrazad The Beginning of the Stories: Shahrazad
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate!
Praise be to God, the Beneficent King, the Creator of the Universe, who hath raised the heavens without pillars, and spread out the earth as a bed; and blessings and peace be on the lord of apostles, our lord and our master Mohammad and his Family; blessing and peace, enduring and constant, unto the day of judgment.
To proceed: the lives of former generations are a lesson to posterity; that a man may review the remarkable events which have happened to others, and be admonished; and may consider the history of people of preceding ages, and of all that hath befallen them, and be restrained. Extolled be the perfection of Him who hath thus ordained the history of former generations to be a lesson to those which follow. Such are the “Tales of a Thousand and One Nights,” with their romantic stories and fables.
There was in ancient times, in a country between China and India, a young girl who had read histories, and chronicles of ancient kings, and stories of people of old times. It is related of her (but God is all-knowing, as well as all-wise and almighty, and all-bountiful) that she had read a thousand books of histories and chronicles and stories. Her memory, too, was stored with the verses of poets and the sayings of kings and sages; moreover, this girl was wise and prudent and witty. Her name was Shahrazad.
Her father was the Wezir of the King of that country—King Shahriyar. One day the Wezir appeared in his home looking downcast, and troubled, and dejected, and ill at ease. He sighed often, he ate nothing, and it seemed that he would not be able to sleep. His daughter, having watched him for some time, went to him and asked him to tell her why he was so troubled and anxious.
He sighed heavily, and he would not speak. Thereupon Shahrazad said to him, quoting from one of the verses that were in her memory:
Tell him whom anxiety loads that anxiety will not stay: As happiness passed, so will this, too—anxiety travels away.
Her father, hearing the verses, ceased to sigh; then looking upon his daughter, he began to speak of the troubles that oppressed him.
“Know, O my daughter,” he said, “that in all the world there is no office more dreadful than the one I hold as Wezir of King Shahriyar. The King, my master, makes me his partner in deeds that have raised the people’s outcry against him and that have caused fathers and mothers to flee with their daughters from his dominion. But the King’s own story is a grievous one: he was deceived and injured by a wife whom he loved and trusted; not only that, but he saw his brother whom he loves deceived and injured in the same way. And it happened to the King also that he was shown a woman who had been carried away by a powerful enchanter, and it was made known to him that, although the enchanter brought this woman down to the depths of the stormy sea, she found ways to deceive him and to make him a mockery.
“King Shahriyar made a vow that he would never permit a woman to deceive him, and he made the dreadful decision that he would let his wife live only as long as he himself might be beside her. He took to marrying girl after girl, marrying one in the evening, and in the morning having her head taken off. Now for three years he has been doing this, and it will soon come about that the girls of this land will all be married by the King and slaughtered. I, who am his Wezir, have to deprive fathers and mothers of their daughters, so that he may have a bride whom he will kill. Is it a wonder, then, that I am oppressed with sorrow and solicitude?”
So the Wezir said, telling of his distress. He did not know that his daughter Shahrazad already knew of King Shahriyar—his story, and the marriages and slaughters that he made. When he had finished speaking she said to him, “O my father, take me and bring me to the King, that I may be his bride.”
The Wezir was made very angry by the speech of his daughter. He turned away from her and he sat apart. But Shahrazad went to him and she said: “I have thought upon the deeds of this King, and it may be that I shall be the means of saving the girls of this land from death, and of ridding fathers and mothers of the anxiety that oppresses them. If this can be done by me, my father, I shall have a name that will be for all time remembered.”
Her father would not listen to her, but Shahrazad persisted, and at last, fearful that she should imperil his life as well as her own by going before Shahriyar and letting him believe that his Wezir denied his daughter to him, he brought her to the King’s palace.
Now Shahrazad had a young sister whose name was Dunyazad, and this sister went with her and was lodged in the palace. On their way, Shahrazad said, “O my sister Dunyazad, I will contrive means of having you brought into the sleeping-chamber to-night. If it happens that you are given leave to come in, sit near the end of the bed and be very quiet. Then, when it gets past the middle of the night speak up and say to me, ‘O Shahrazad, my sister, if you are still awake, tell us one of your delightful stories so that we may beguile the waking hours of this, our last night together.’ Say this, and it may be that it will lead to the saving of my life.” Dunyazad promised that she would do all this.
When the marriage ceremony was over Shahrazad was left in the place from which so many girls had gone forth to death—in the chamber where the bride of King Shahriyar slept. The King came to her and Shahrazad made a show of weeping. He asked her why she wept, and she said:
“O King, I have a young sister, and she is at this moment lodged in the palace, and I weep because I shall not be able to take my leave of her.” Then said the King: “Bid your sister come into this chamber; I give permission for you to have her with you through the hours of the night.”
Thereupon Dunyazad came into the sleeping chamber. She sat there very quietly until it was past the middle of the night; then she coughed, and she said:
“O Shahrazad, my sister, if you are still wakeful, tell us one of your delightful stories so that we may beguile the waking hours of this, our last night together.” “Most willingly,” said Shahrazad, “if this good King will give us leave to be talkative.” The King, hearing these words and being restless, was pleased with the prospect of listening to a story, and he said, “Tell on.” Thereupon Shahrazad rejoiced greatly, and at once she began.