Scheherazade Stays West

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Growing up, I read a lot of books. From a young age I was the biggest book worm in my family. At age 5 I decided to read the whole Narnia series. And I did. My love for reading only grew, and when I was like 8 I went on a historic fiction kick. I read Cry, the Beloved Country and Wolf By the Ears, and one curious book called Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher.

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This book was about a young heroine, a storyteller, who saved the day because she had the powers of words. I remember loving that book. The girl was exactly who I wanted to be, adventurous, brave, using stories and words to control her own story. Of course, it wasn’t until years later that I met Scheherazade again.

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For my 6th grade ballet end-of-the-year recital, the theme was “Around the World”. Naturally, our lyrical ballet class was representing the “Middle East”. We wore typical bellydancer blue with lots of sparkles, and our song was an instrumental piece from the ballet “Scheherazade”. I mean I was a dancer, so I loved stepping into character and hip-rolling around the studio. But even then, I couldn’t see what bellydancing had to do with Scheherazade.

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The context Scheherazade was put in the next time I met her, in a high school World History class, couldn’t be more different than the storyteller I first met. She was described on a page filled with pictures of scantily clad women, in sensual terms, like her only importance was that she represented the collection of stories in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. I couldn’t understand why my history teacher was turning a childhood hero of mine into a slut. Had she always been an alluring bellydancer first and a storyteller who saves her kingdom second?

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Thankfully, history class was not the last time I met Scheherazade. In Scheherazade Goes West by Fatima Mernissi, I have finally found the Scheherazade I originally got to know. And even better yet, I learned more about her, about her political significance, about her culture, and about what she represents to muslim women like Fatima. I also got to discover through this book the reasons behind why the Scheherazade I first met was different from the Scheherazade of bellydancing and westernized harems. I felt like I had met two different women because I had. I had encountered Scheherazade from eastern culture, and Scheherazade from western culture.

I know which one I prefer. I prefer the Scheherazade that I fell in love with as a girl because she was a role model I looked up to and wanted to become. Not the Scheherazade I act out in a dance routine and then cast aside because I don’t really want to be a sensual object at all, I’m just playing the part assigned to me.

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