The Wily Dalilah: Arabian Nights Feminist


In a work as varied as The Arabian Nights there are naturally some portions more popular than others, probably because some are more easily adapted into standalone tales of adventure. I think we in the West are more familiar with the Nights as a concept than a whole, and many of us have only read or watched adaptions of the most famous of the tales.

Don’t presume that means that the best of the stories have all been filmed and that there is no point reading the rest. There are plenty of excellent, lesser known yarns within, and surely part of the fun of reading the nights is watching the puzzle box interrelation of stories within stories within stories. Admittedly, there are some portions that I don’t like as well and don’t revisit, as with any short story anthology, and many people feel the same, although you’re likely to get a slightly different list of favorites from whomever you speak with.

Today I want to draw attention to one of my favorite sections, “The Wily Dalilah and Her Daughter Zaynab.” If you’ve ever read my musings, you might expect this to be a tale of swashbuckling adventure set in distant locales, swimming with magic rings and djinn and evil wizards. “The Wily Dalilah,” though, is set only in Baghdad, and there is no magic to speak of within the entire story. There are no daring princes with swords, or mysteries, only a clever old woman running a series of con games. Over the course of the narrative, Dalilah, with occasional aid from Zaynab, foments so much trouble in Baghdad that she draws down the attention of the caliph himself.

I’ve encountered fantasy fans who aren’t interested in The Arabian Nights because they assume they will find heaps of sexism within the text. Well, yes… and no. Yes, you will find a patriarchal society, as you will when reading about most ancient cultures. But you will find women instrumental throughout many of the stories, and not just as objects to be won by questing young noblemen. The entire story sequence, remember, is told by a masterful storyteller outwitting a man so that she might live. But there are other prominent women within the story cycle apart from Scheherazade.

My favorite of all of them is Dalilah. Recently rendered destitute and infuriated that two notorious swindlers have been elevated to positions of power within the city of Baghdad, Dalilah launches a campaign to show Baghdad she can out-scoundrel the scoundrels. Through disguise and broad, bold-faced lies, Dalilah scams the unwary in a series of broad, low-comedy schemes. She so enrages the merchants that the police are called in. Captured in the evening, Dalilah goes to sleep near her guards, and the witnesses against her bed down outside. Dalilah wakens, pads past the guards, but, not satisfied with merely escaping, lies to the wife of the police chief and, pointing to the sleeping witnesses, says that she has brought the five mameluke slaves that her husband had asked for. As a result she makes off with a thousand dinars.

Caught again, Dalilah is tied to a post outside the city as punishment, then convinces a foolish Bedouin that she’s been left there because she refuses to eat  honeyed fritters. Eager for heaps of the fried dessert, the Bedouin swaps her places. In the morning, the guards, rather than finding an old woman, see a young Bedouin insistently demanding to be given his pastry treats.

arabian-nights-2Dalilah continues to wreak mayhem and accrue financial gain. In the end, the only person who can sort out the whole affair is the caliph himself, Haroun al-Rashid. After hearing the whole tale, and after Dalilah has returned the stolen goods and money, he rewards her (and her daughter, who was up to some additional mischief) with higher stations in Baghdad. Dalilah’s late husband had been town captain of the city, and she is appointed in his place, and given stewardship of the caliph’s special inn, which is tended by many slaves and servants.

There are a lot of ways to read the tale. If you just want to enjoy it for the surface details, it’s guaranteed to raise a few smiles, for Dalilah is genuinely clever and the setups are elaborate and humorous. Yet there’s a subversive air to the text. Dalilah does not gain justice or enrich herself by playing by the rules. She sets out to break the system and call attention to the idiots holding the finances and enforcing the dictates of the government. The wealthy class of merchants and those in positions of power, including their minions the city guards, are made time and time again to look like buffoons — although the country rube and the drug addict don’t escape a few laughs at their expense as well.

I can’t help wondering what the original listeners to the tale were thinking as they heard it. Surely they laughed as the hashish eater went crying through the city for his missing ass, but were they, too, thinking about the disparity of their station and those in the higher echelons of society? Were the women in the audience chuckling as the men fell again and again upon their faces while trying to catch up to Dalilah?

I re-read it from time to time because it’s loaded with great details about the habits of ordinary men and women of the time, complete to an argument between a married couple that both end up, rather touchingly, feeling regret for it. But I also re-read it because it cracks me up.


6 Comments on “The Wily Dalilah: Arabian Nights Feminist

  1. That’s too bad that people skip over Arabian Nights on the assumption that it’s horribly sexist. I love the range of engaging, proactive female characters in Arabian Nights. I’ve always really liked Morgiana — it’s like making broth AND single-handedly defeating a band of forty thieves is just in a day’s work for her.

    • This one is definitely worth seeking out.

      Megan, I sometimes think that most people just skim to the most popular of the Arabian Nights stories and don’t look further. And I’ve begun to think that most people aren’t particularly familiar with them at all, or their storytelling conventions.

  2. The tragedy is that the Arabian Nights all but launched speculative fiction, breathing life into 18th century Romances of the very new, at the time, novel.

    I did some research into the history of the reception of the 1001 Nights in American and British cultures. One fascinating thing is that up until the mid 20th century it was incredibly influential. For example, it was assigned reading Aleister Crowley foisted on his neophyte would-be mages, H.P. Lovecraft and E.A. Poe both cited the Arabian Nights as very profound influences on their storytelling and writing.

    I think our culture is uncomfortable with shadows such as sexism, racism, and classism. As if in order to become a more progressive order we banished from the safety of our circle these spectres, but they remain, dark wraiths at the edges of our social perceptions. Our banishing, if you will, were never effective but we lost sight of them. They haunt us and until we grapple with them more directly they will continue to do so.

    I think the 1001 Nights are brilliant in the way in which the most unpleasant human tendencies sit side by side with the most ethereal and magical, beyond being any sort of early fantasy and speculative fiction, they have a psychological aspect that is very important. An unpleasant magical mirror not just of medieval Islamic society, but of our own also, and of every human society.

    The ‘sexism’ of The 1001 Nights is incredibly nuanced, like the ‘racism’ and ‘classism’ and somehow people often find it easier to forgive worse in other older Western works. Such as Shakespeare.

    The Nights features nearly every single permutation of female characters, from Incredibly strong willed and assertive women with agency, ones without, as with male characters also, in the language of the age these stories were drafted in.

    The hundreds of tales within it really show a spectrum of human tendencies and this is what I find most amazing. The frame of it is a narrating woman who not only outsmarts a psychopathic murderer of a husband, but psychologically transforms him, and conquers him through intelligence and will power.

    The unstated subtext – that’s found in a few manuscripts – is that she and her sister would have tried to kill him if the story ploy didn’t work – but it did work, they had in a way more agency, and certainly displayed more intelligence, than the King. And in doing so she psychologically heals the entire Kingdom.

    In a sense she is the real heroine of the entire story cycle.

    • A brilliant, thoughtful post, and one I happen to agree with. Well said, sir. (Golf clap.)

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