Western Adaptations of Scheherazade a Form of Fanfiction?


Fanfiction.  If you haven’t heard of it by now then it’s probably because you do not have internet or have Wishmaker_Scheherazadesomehow successfully managed to avoid all ads, trailers, and conversation about the most recent fanfiction phenomenon, 50 Shades of Grey.  While most fanfiction is intriguing and a reflection of fan’s dedication and admiration for characters and worlds created by someone else, fanfiction does have a detailed pornographic side (ex: 50 Shades of Grey).  While fanfiction is a development of the past couple of decades, adaptations and other forms of borrowing stories and culture have been present worldwide for centuries.  Specifically the West’s interest in Scheherazade and her stories told in The Thousand and One Nights have been recreated and readapted with specific focus on tiny details often taken out of context much like fanfiction.  However unlike most forms of fanfiction and its artsy counterpart of fanart, the West belittles and destroys the essence and message of Scheherazade’s tales, exemplifying not only an early form of cultural appropriation but also ignorance on the Arab culture and society.  The dissimilarities found within the depictions of Scheherazade in the East and West also illuminate the differences between the Eastern and Western harams.

Within Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems, Fatema Mernissi rejects, defies, and condemns Western understanding and misrepresentation of Scheherazade and the stories she narrates by enlightening and informing readers about Eastern harams and the highly political backbone of The Thousand and One Nights.  Unlike the Western haram, the Eastern haram does not perceive women as something of frivolous beauty with a lack of brains.  Mernissi explains how “according to Western philosopher Kant, women should not study geometry, astronomy, or history” which are “all disciplines considered vital for any ambitious harem beauty who wanted to keep up with her caliph” (93).  This explicitly illustrates the stark differences between what the West and East expected of their women as well as illustrates the differences between the literal Eastern haram and the figurative Western haram. Manovens_Francisco_Masriera_y_Mal_Des_Amores_An_Odalisque_1889_Oil_on_Canvas-large As Mernissi explains, the Eastern haram acknowledged women as intelligent and equal to men expected and capable of participating in intellectual dialogue that further attracted men to women.  This contrasts not only with the Western perception of harams being silent women bending to the will of men, specifically sexually, but also contrasts with the Western haram.  Furthermore, Mernissi explains and enforces the idea that while Scheherazade narrates stories within The Thousand and One Nights that contain pornography, “the key message is a political one, even when Scheherazade chooses to speak in the register of pornography, she has a political message to convey” (64).  This therefore exemplifies how the West belittles the politically charged stories Scheherazade narrates, focuses solely on the pornography, and utilizes the pornography to provide the basis for their highly sexualized, exotic fanfiction versions of the story.  Mernissi rejects this belittled version of Scheherazade and argues that Scheherazade and her emphasis on social and political change is well acknowledged in the East.  The East understands how much The Thousand and One Nights “stresses female self-determination, helping to explain why in the 1980s and 1990s, why Egyptian fundamentalists repeatedly burned symbolic copies of the populist Arabic editions of the book, making certain that in the Arab world no one mistakes Scheherazade’s descriptions of sex for trivial pornography” (68).  Therefore while the West has lucratively transformed the haram and Scheherazade into something sexy and exotic in order to fit Western social constructs, the East views Scheherazade as a fiery political force needed to be tamed and censored.  This stresses the power Scheherazade holds in the East that she has lost in the West.

Mernissi further explores the belittling and exploitation of Scheherazade by the West and argues Kant’s philosophy forms the basis of the Western haram.  Mernissi continuously stresses Scheherazade’s role as a political figure with a feminist, humanitarian agenda using education and stories to advocate social and political change.  However the West has disregarded Scheherazade’s political role in favor for a “skin-deep, cosmetic, and superficial” understanding and representation of not only Scheherazade but also the relationship between men and women in the haram (74).  As exemplified through various Western art pieces, Hollywood cinema, and popular fashion and costume, the West hyper-sexualized Scheherazade and stripped down her personal story and the stories she narrates until individual pieces out of context can be easily viewed and portrayed as exotic and pornographic.  This exemplifies early form of purely pornographic fanfiction made to cater to Western men’s sexual needs and project ideals Western women should aspire to.  Mernissi explains how philosophy discussed by Western philosopher, Kant, stresses the stark contrast between the Eastern haram and the Western haram.  Mernissi states, “Kant’s message is quite basic: Femininity is the beautiful, masculiniScheherazadety is the sublime” which is “the capacity to think, to rise higher than the animal and they physical world” and according to Kant “you’d better keep the distinction straight, because a woman who dares to be intelligent is punished on the spot: she is ugly” (91).  Kant’s thoughts on the differences between the sexes exemplifies the cause for the West transforming and reducing Scheherazade to something of a simple pretty thing to look at as a means of maintaining desired social archetypes.  Because the Western haram expects women to be silent, pretty things willing to be exploited, when the West wrote the fanfiction of The Thousand and One Nights Scheherazade also became a silent and therefore unpolitical, pretty thing that fit perfectly into the Western archetype for all women.  In Western fanart of Scheherazade, a sexualized version of her image and cultural dress became the focal point of many pieces and articles utilized as costumes by the upper class.  This reduces not only Scheherazade, but the Arab culture as well because it allows the West to reduce various, diverse, and entire cultures to one stereotypical and exaggerated image.  This continues to allow the West to separate and divide itself from the East and also helps the West project itself as more sophisticated because of the belittling of a story that is political, aware, and complex to something revolving completely around superficial beauty and appeal.   Mernissi supports this when she explains according to Kant “the world is not populated by a single race of humans who share the capacity to feel and think, but by two distinct kinds of creatures: those who feel (women) and those who think (men)” (94).  This further explains the Western expectation of women very present in the Western haram and still present in today’s Western society.  Representation of the East in ways that takes away they dynamics and truth from its culture and reconstructs it as something frivolous enough to be used as a costume and misperceived as simply exotic and strange also helps create a third creature: the other, also known as anything not found in the West.

Until the West learns how to be identify the beauty, intricacies, and differences found within other, individual cultures, the adoption and representation of other cultures within Western media and society will continue to resemble poorly written, ignorant, heavily cultural appropriated fanfiction that simplifies cultures and insults rather than compliments.SheherazadeFanart(In my internet quest for Scheherazade fanart, I discovered a Japanese anime that includes the character Scheherazade while the plot follows Aladdin.)

As exemplified in this “blog” post, I have been unable to master condensing my interest and passion into a blog post that contains all the necessary information but in a not as lengthy form.  This is something I hope to improve on while in Spain and Morocco.   


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