(a Persian tale)
In ancient times there lived a king who had two sons. The elder, Shahriyar, inherited his father’s kingdom, and the younger, Shah-Zeman, became king of Samarkand. For twenty years, both ruled with justice and kindness.
One day King Shahriyar wished to see his brother again. He sent his vizier with many gifts to Samarkand, and when the vizier arrived, he kissed the ground before the king and spoke of King Shahriyar’s desire.
First King Shah-Zeman entertained the vizier, and on the fourth day he prepared to make the journey to his brother. He set off, but at midnight he suddenly remembered something he had forgotten. He hurried back to the palace, but there he learned his wife had run off with another.
In despair at this betrayal, he set off with a heavy heart to his brother’s land.
Shahriyar was overjoyed to see Shah-Zeman, but when he saw his brother stricken with grief, he asked what was wrong.
“What troubles me is not your concern,” his brother said. “I only wish to be alone awhile.”
Out of respect, King Shahriyar left his brother and went out on a hunt. Shah-Zeman paced his room, and when he looked out the window, he saw the queen in the garden speaking quietly to another man. He suddenly realized that she was planning on running away from King Shahriyar.
Suddenly his grief felt lighter. When King Shahriyar returned, Shah-Zeman told him what he’d seen.
“This cannot be true. My wife loves me,” King Shahriyar said, but when he saw proof of her betrayal, all his reason fled.
He ran to his brother and said, “Let us travel the world, brother. I wish to discover if every woman betrays the one she loves.”
The next morning the brothers set off and when they reached the edge of the sea, the water suddenly turned rough. A huge black pillar rose out of the sea. From that pillar rose a gigantic Jinn — a mystical being — bearing a chest upon his head.
Terrified, the brothers climbed a tree. The Jinn sat down beneath the tree, opened the chest, and took from it another chest. Out of this chest stepped a beautiful woman. The Jinn looked at her and said, “O lady whom I stole on your wedding night, O lady who loves me alone, I wish to sleep.” Then he placed his head upon her knee and closed his eyes.
When he was fast asleep the woman removed his head from her knee and called to the kings, “See this.” She took a purse from her pocket and drew out a string with 98 rings. “Even though I am imprisoned in a box within a box at the bottom of the sea, whatever I wish a man to give me is mine. Ninety-eight rings, each one from a king. Now I wish you to give me yours.”
The brothers could not resist the lady’s request. They handed over their rings, and Shahriyar wept. “Even a great Jinn cannot trust a woman,” he said. That very night he hurried back home and ordered his wife to be executed.
After that night, each day the king took a new wife, but at the end of each night, he ordered his servants to execute her. He became a cruel, cold man.
The people were horrified by the king’s behavior. Those who could fled the kingdom with their daughters.
At long last when the king called for a new queen, the vizier’s own daughter, Scheherazade, intervened, begging her father to send her in place of any other girls.
At that time, few girls went to school, but Scheherazade was not only beautiful and charming, but intelligent, and she had been well-educated.
Scheherazade had read thousands of histories of dynasties and kings. She read poetry, philosophy, science and art. “By Allah,” she said, “give me in marriage to the king, and perhaps I will live and deliver justice to our land again.”
Naturally the vizier argued passionately; he could not bear to lose his child. But Scheherazade insisted, and then she conferred with her sister, Dinazade, before going to the king.
Later that night she went to the king’s room, and the moment she arrived, she began to weep.
“What troubles you?” Shahriyar asked.
As she had planned, Scheherazade said, “I wish to bid my younger sister farewell, please.”
The king agreed and sent for Dinazade. When she arrived, she pleaded for Scheherazade to tell her a story, just as they had agreed.
Scheherazade began. Deep into the night, she wove her tale, but as dawn broke, she was only in the middle. “I cannot finish,” she said. “It is morning and time for me to be sent away.”
But Shahriyar said, “We’ll wait another day. I must hear the rest of the story.”
The next night Scheherazade finished the story and began a second, this one more exciting. She told tales of Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and his magic lamp, and Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Again at dawn she reached the middle, and again Shahriyar spared her so she might finish the tale.
Night after night, Scheherazade told another story, reaching the middle at dawn. Entranced by her stories, the king kept her with him, and 1,001 nights passed.
On night 1,001 she said, “After this I have no more stories.”
But by then the king was in love with her, and thanks to her tales, he had become a wiser man, versed in the tales of this world.
And so he made Scheherazade his queen, and justice and kindness reigned once again.