Lessons from Scheherazade

The tale has been told and retold many times: Scheherazade, the daughter of the sultan’s advisor, has volunteered to marry the sultan. The sultan is in the midst of a hysterical killing spree; he felt betrayed by his first wife, so he decided to kill her, and then marry a new woman every day, having each one beheaded after consummating the marriage on their first night together. Scheherazade has a plan. She marries the fearful and vengeful ruler, and then once she is in his chambers, she invites her sister Dunyazad in, ostensibly to say goodbye to her on her last night alive. Dunyazad then asks Scheherazade to tell her a story, and as she tells it, the sultan begins to listen in. Scheherazade is such a good storyteller that they all end up staying awake through the night. As day breaks, Scheherazade cuts the story short, so that the sultan will have to keep her alive in order to hear the end of the story later that night. She dutifully finishes the story when night falls, but then she immediately begins another story, an even better one, and again she stops the story at dawn, and survives for one more day, and so on . . .

The Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights—as it is known in English—is a collection of Near and Middle Eastern stories that was compiled in Arabic over many centuries by many different writers, translators, scholars, and transmitters of oral histories, who drew from many different folkloric practices, including ancient and medieval Arabic, Greek, Indian, Jewish, Persian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Turkish traditions. With multiple origins and many splintering versions, the Nights is a thoroughly decentralized and impure text which is made up of multiple texts and texts within texts—with layers of narration that move through and break open a plurality of genres, including romance, erotica, historical tales, tragedies, comedies, poems, riddles, jokes, proverbs, burlesques, murder mysteries, suspense thrillers, political satires, philosophical explanations, anatomical descriptions, and stories that could be described as early science fiction.

The commonality throughout the many versions is the framing narrative of Scheherazade, the woman who is telling these stories from within her own story. As a figure who is simultaneously a character in and the storyteller of the Nights, she manages to maintain a façade of deferential obedience to the sultan while also subverting the logic of hegemonic time from within—rerouting its linearity and interrupting the sense of inevitability that has been set by cruel precedent. As a masterful storyteller, Scheherazade knows how to fit stories onto and into other stories, and she knows how to break them off at just the right moment. By always terminating her stories before they’re finished, she can keep bringing in more stories, which means more nights—since the time of storytelling is exclusively nocturnal. And it is through this restructuring of continuity and discontinuity that she eventually manages to save her own life, as well as the lives of all the women who were to be raped and murdered after her, because her storytelling makes the sultan want to change his ways.

Through the art of fabulation, Scheherazade interrupts the temporality of the status quo, replacing the ruler’s repetitive and open-ended killing spree with her storytelling, which is also strategically repetitive and open-ended. Her situation is one of utter desperation: she has no time left, this is her last night alive, there is no futurity. But then, within the radical present tense of storytelling, she weaves continual interruption, extension, and deferral. Once she has suspended the sultan’s sequence of murders and elicited his curiosity, she’s able to perform a kind of temporal dilation, wherein the linearity of hegemonic time is pierced and stretched out, because she tells stories in which people tell stories in which people tell stories . . . The listening sultan is plunged into the time of the narration, which keeps opening up into more time, and each internal proliferation of time in the embedded stories gives the storyteller more time in the broader framing narrative that is her life.

أَلْفُ لَيْلَةٍ وَلَيْلَةٌ (One Thousand and One Nights) was first translated and repackaged for European audiences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and ever since then the figure of Scheherazade has been burdened with the tedious and damaging projections of orientalism. In the introduction to her edited anthology Scheherazade’s Legacy: Arab and Arab American Women on Writing (2004), the Palestinian American scholar Susan Muaddi Darraj observes that the figure of Scheherazade was always revered in the East, but she “suffered terribly at the hands of translators […] An intelligent woman, schooled in literature, philosophy, and history, reduced to an erotic, shallow, sex-crazed body behind a veil—it happened many times, with many Arab and/or Eastern women, including Cleopatra, Khadijah, and Aisha.”[1] In spite of the west’s creepy and reductive warpings, though, Darraj writes that many contemporary Arab women writers have reclaimed the image of Scheherazade as someone who “wove a marvelous tapestry of tales” and “who saved a nation and healed its king.”[2]

In her book Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights (2013), the feminist mythographer Marina Warner observes that throughout the Nights, Scheherazade’s tales gradually move “towards a politics of love and justice that opens the cruel Sultan’s eyes to another vision of humanity.”[3] Within her complex tapestry of composite and multiply enveloped stories, Scheherazade begins to weave threads of critique: with stories about subjugated women who are clever and courageous, she chips away at the sultan’s rationale for his hatred; and with stories about murderous tyrannical men who learn to pull themselves together and mend their ways, she establishes an alternative lineage of precedent. Storytelling is deployed as an ancient technique of consciousness raising, and by the end of the Nights, Scheherazade has succeeded in getting the sultan to stop killing, not only because he wants to keep hearing more stories, but also because he doesn’t want to kill any more.

In some ways, Scheherazade’s approach aligns closely with the definition of parrhesia, or “speaking truth to power,” that was outlined by the philosopher Michel Foucault in a series of lectures given at the University of California, Berkeley in 1983.[4] Looking primarily at the context of ancient Greece, Foucault observed that the parrhesiastes, the one who speaks truth to power, “is always less powerful than the one with whom he speaks.”[5] Leaving aside for now Foucault’s exclusive use of male pronouns, the idea here is that parrhesia is critical speech which happens within an uneven power relation, and it is thus a dangerous activity which requires courage. The parrhesiastes is someone who speaks from a position of risk; in its most extreme form, Foucault says, “telling the truth takes place in the game of life or death.”[6]

This is certainly the case for Scheherazade; her situation is literally a matter of life or death. Closely related to the dimension of risk, in Foucault’s outline of parrhesia, is the dimension of duty. The parrhesiastes is someone who prioritizes their commitment to others above their own self-interest. In Scheherazade’s case, when she volunteers to marry the sultan, she forfeits her own security—and when her highly risky gamble pays off, she doesn’t just save her own life, she has acted from a sense of duty to others in order to end this man’s murderous rampage.

But Scheherazade’s practice of critique also diverges from Foucault’s outline of parrhesia in several ways—and these divergences can help us get to an expanded understanding of what political protest, critique, and activism can look like. While Foucault’s parrhesiastes is someone who chooses “criticism instead of flattery” when they speak truth to power, Scheherazade must deliver her criticism cloaked in flattery and subservience.[7] She does exactly what the sultan tells her to do, finishing the story from the previous night—just as he demands—when the next night comes around. She understands that it is only by playing with the sultan’s vanity, and maintaining his fantasy of control, that she is able to position him as a listener. While he thinks that she is obediently following his commands, her storytelling is actually making him embody the kind of listening that will lead him to challenge his own assumptions.

Foucault emphasizes “frankness” as part of his basic criteria for the Greek idea of parrhesia. His parrhesiastes is someone—someone male—who “makes it manifestly clear and obvious that what he says is his own opinion,” always “avoiding any kind of rhetorical form which would veil what he thinks.”[8] Scheherazade, meanwhile, is an artist of veils and indirection. As a woman who is married to a sultan who hates women, who kills with impunity, and who is planning to cut off her head in the morning, she becomes an oblique parrhesiastes, transmitting oral histories and gathering fabulatory tales while spinning them into a material means of survival, and of critique.

Some of the critique happens through the content of her stories—as when she introduces details that bear resemblance to the sultan and the situation that she is in with him—but her primary strategy is not about delivering a clear and direct political message that is designed to convince at the level of content. Rather, her polyphonic storytelling builds a space in which she can gradually shift the sultan’s perspective, and interrupt his myopic rage, by expanding his perceptual capacities. Through the masterful deployment of deferrals, detours, ellipses, cliffhangers, and embedded narratives, she clears more and more time for more and more voices, creating a situation of expansive compassion and mutual enjoyment.

“One can never go to the ruler in a direct way; in order to voice one’s opinion, one has to take an indirect way.”[9] This is the postcolonial feminist scholar and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha, in conversation at a screening of her work in London in 1992. She is referring broadly to the situation of marginalized peoples caught in uneven power relations—but one could imagine that she is speaking specifically about Scheherazade, who understands the necessity and the potential power of indirect modes of address. In valorizing indirection from a feminist perspective, Trinh acknowledges:

there is always a danger, in assuming a tone and a position of indirection, that one may simply fall back into the habit of understating and of muting one’s voice as expected from women: We are, after all, supposed to abide by the rules of proper feminine speech and manner, never going at something too aggressively and too directly, often taking the back door, the discreet path to arrive at certain locations or to make certain points.[10]

However, while there is this danger, Trinh also insists here that attitudes of indirection “can be assumed submissively, strategically or creatively.”[11]

Indirection, then, can be understood as more than just a survivalist necessity for the subjugated; it’s also an approach that can bring its own poetic and epistemological possibilities. While the effect might frustrate audiences who are looking for a clear, convincing, and direct political message, strategies of indirection and opacity can ultimately work against processes of reductive appropriation, instrumentalization, commodification, and assimilation. In the context of late capitalism, Trinh argues, “it is important to work with indirection and understatement, if meaning is to grow with each viewer, and if the interstices of active re-inscription are to be kept alive.”[12]

At the start of her book Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (1989), Trinh describes a nocturnal scene in an unnamed “remote village,” where people have gathered for a collective discussion. Rather than getting straight to the point, the participants in this discussion proceed through oblique and digressive paths, enacting a multiplicity of possible ways into and out of the discussion. “Never does one open the discussion by coming right to the heart of the matter,” Trinh writes. “For the heart of the matter is always somewhere else than where it is supposed to be. […] There is no catching, no pushing, no directing, no breaking through, no need for a linear progression which gives the comforting illusion that one knows where one goes.”[13] The nonlinearity of the indirect approach means that there is no preconceived beginning or ending; each speaker remains responsive to the situated context and allows things to emerge from it relationally.

As Trinh comments elsewhere, approaching the subject of one’s focus indirectly “allows oneself to get acquainted with the envelope, that is, all the elements that surround, situate or simply relate to it.”[14] An approach of direct opposition can treat the object of critique as something that is stable, neatly delineated, and external to oneself, whereas indirect approaches can allow for more nuanced understandings of the shifting relations and conditions surrounding the object—relations and conditions which include the position of the speaker. “It is in indirection and indirectness,” Trinh observes, “that I constantly find myself reflecting back on my own positions.”[15]

Foucault’s work on parrhesia has often fed into the familiar image of the activist as a heroic individual addressing a crowd with a bullhorn. When Semiotext(e) posthumously published his Berkeley lectures on parrhesia as a book called Fearless Speech (2001), for instance, they chose for the cover a black-and-white photograph of Foucault speaking through a megaphone at a protest on the streets of Paris in 1969—and similar images of the charismatic philosopher wielding a bullhorn tend to reappear whenever his work on parrhesia is revisited.[16] This is what “speaking truth to power” tends to look like in the popular imagination: there is an isolated individual, in public space, whose amplified voice delivers an uncompromising and direct message.

When the figure of the courageous parrhesiastes becomes one of fetishised heroism—and when incitements to ‘speak up’ in the face of power are universally applied—the uneven distribution of risk and access are overlooked. For the undocumented, risking arrest at a protest can mean risking deportation. For many others—including detained and imprisoned people, and many sick and disabled folk and their carers—physical presence at the site of the public protest might be impossible. In looking to the figure of Scheherazade as an oblique parrhesiastes, we can start to move beyond figurations of individualized heroism, and begin to think about other forms of “fearless speech” that do not lend themselves so easily to clearly delineated representational imagery.

Rather than speaking on the street, in broad daylight, as an individual with a mic, Scheherazade is a storyteller who works quietly and nocturnally, within a sphere of domesticity, while hanging out with her sister. Excluded from the realms of public discourse, she does not oppose the sultan as an individual facing an individual. In fact, she doesn’t directly address him at all; she and Dunyazad have triangulated things so that the sultan—the embodiment of absolute power—is no longer the primary audience. As he listens in on these two sisters, their transgressive solidarity must not be recognized as such by him. Their courageousness necessarily goes under the radar. Critique, in this setting, is not performed as the transferal of predetermined content from point A to point B. Rather, it’s something that is practised through the creation of a multisensory environment for opening up new times within time. It is enacted through the pleasures of telling and retelling; through practices of digression and deferral—practices which stay in the process, in the midst of things, and which are always to be continued.



“Lessons from Scheherazade: On the Art of Indirection” was published in the Sandberg Instituut’s 2022 graduation publication, which aims at thinking about works “in progress” and over time, to get away from the high-pressure ideas of finality and culmination at the art school graduation show. More from Our Polite Society and Sandberg.



[1] Susan Muaddi Darraj (ed), Scheherazade’s Legacy: Arab and Arab American Women on Writing, Praeger: Westport, Connecticut and London, 2004, p. 1-2.

[2] Darraj, Scheherazade’s Legacy, p. 3.

[3] Marina Warner, Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013) p. 10.

[4] Michel Foucault, “Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia” (lecture series, University of California, Berkeley, October–November 1983) https://foucault.info/parrhesia

[5] Foucault, “Discourse and Truth,” p. 18.

[6] Foucault, “Discourse and Truth,” p. 16.

[7] Foucault, “Discourse and Truth,” p. 20.

[8] Foucault, “Discourse and Truth,” p. 12. Foucault argues in his lectures that parrhesia depends not only on courageousness and duty but also on a degree of privilege: the parrhesiastes in Greek society must be able to speak freely as a citizen, so foreigners, children, the enslaved, and women, are generally excluded from the activity.

[9] Trinh T. Minh-ha, Cinema-Interval (Routledge: New York and London, 1999) p. 25.

[10] Trinh, Cinema-Interval p. 25.

[11] Trinh, Cinema-Interval p. 25.

[12] Trinh, Cinema-Interval p. 25.

[13] Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1989), p. 1.

[14] Trinh, Cinema-Interval p. 34.

[15] Trinh, Cinema-Interval p. 34.

[16] See, for example, the promotional image for the 2016–2018 event series Fearless Speech at Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin: https://www.hebbel-am-ufer.de/en/archive/fearless-speech/