March is Women’s History Month (in the US).
I’m doing a series of posts about women who’ve inspired me.
Today’s inspiring woman is fictional. Well, kinda. She may have been based on one or two real women. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if she was an actual historical figure or not; what matters is what she meant. What she represented. So I’m going to talk about that first.
She was incredibly clever. More clever even than she was ever given credit for. She was creative and witty, and above all, she was an excellent listener. This is probably something nobody talks about when they talk about her, but in order to do what she did, she had to be a good listener. She learned from her elders, from her people, and from strangers who told stories to one another in the market. She learned without prejudice. She listened without judgement. It wasn’t important what the story was about – what was important was the story itself.
I remember hearing about her when I was very young – I wasn’t even in school yet. My mother and I were home alone, and there was a thunderstorm, and my mother was terrified of thunderstorms. She shooed me down into the basement where we snuggled together on an old cot covered with a leathery old horsehair blanket. There was an ancient television in one corner of the room, an old black and white thing with yellowed plastic dials and long, spindly legs underneath. It was topped by long, spindly rabbit ears, and it only picked up part of one of the channels that we received.
Of course the only channel that it picked up was the French channel.
But in that thunderstorm, in that basement, on that summer day when I couldn’t have been more than four, my mother told me about this woman. She had to narrate what was on television, of course. She knew the story – she’d seen the movie in a theatre when *she* was a little girl. The movie was Sinbad the Sailor (or, if you will, Seenbat le marin). Here is what my mother told me:
“A long time ago, there was a woman who told stories to her husband. Her husband was not a kind man. He was a rich man who was king of his tribe in the Arabian desert. He had married another woman, but she betrayed him, and so to teach the women of all of the tribes a lesson, each night he took a new wife, and each morning, he killed her. This went on and on until he’d killed one thousand women. But Scheherezade would not stand for it any longer. She said to her parents, ‘I will marry the King tonight, and no more women will have to die.’
“Her father begged her not to go to him, but Scheherezade was determined. She went to the King and agreed to spend one night with him. As she was preparing for bed, she said ‘my King, will you please grant me one wish – I should like to see my sister one more time to kiss her good night.’ The King permitted Scheherezade’s sister into their chamber, and she asked Scheherezade to tell her a story before she left. Scheherezade began to tell a story – it was a story the King had never heard, and before long, he was hanging on her every word.
“But halfway through the story, Scheherezade stopped. The King pleaded with her to continue the story, but she said ‘my King, the morning has come, and I have spent the night telling a story instead of coming into your bed. I cannot finish the story as our wedding night is over, and you must kill me now.’
“The King did not kill Scheherezade that morning. He promised that he would not kill her until she had finished her story. And so this went on, night after night, Scheherezade would entertain the King with stories she had learned from her people, from the people at court, from the elders and the visiting tribesmen and the cooks. Scheherezade told a new story every night for 1001 nights, and when she was finished, the King could not kill her because he had fallen in love with her. This is the power of stories.”
I later learned that Seenbat le marin was not, in fact, one of the “One Thousand and One Nights” story. Neither were any of the ones that Disney and Hollywood claimed were part of Scheherezade’s legacy. Those stories were full of romance and intrigue and sex and betrayal and adventure and tragedy and laughter. That didn’t really matter. It was the story of Scheherezade and her bravery and the power of stories that sparked my young mind that night in the basement. That was when I began to dream of hot desert winds and shifting sand beneath my feet.
I suppose my whole life I wanted to be Scheherezade. Perhaps you could hold my hand tonight as I tell you a story…