My Take on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade

I was a classical cellist for about 10 years.  I was, coincidentally, also a classical ballet dancer for 4 (though I was young at the time).

Funnily enough, I once had to play a part of “Scheherazade.”  The way I interpret the piece had much to do about the framing and techniques that were used to invoke certain emotions and even landscapes.

In the piece, there are many “callbacks” to the original “frame” score.  This includes weaving certain melodies and structures from the base into other parts.  I found this particularly interesting when we think about the Nights‘ frame – there are invocations time and again, and (depending on the translator/edition) very clear sections where another story begins.  For some, it can be a bit jarring and confusing and seem all over the place, but to my ear, it feels more grounded by reminding the listener of previous sections.  In this way, these callbacks feel more conversational rather than disorienting.  One part speaks to another; each instrument answers questions, makes comments, and conveys the emotion of a situation.

Now we’ll go into what this means for dancing.  When I did ballet, the way I felt the music was very imaginative – almost visual.  I could feel each part of the melody move my body, and it was as if one limb was speaking to another; I could see a landscape that the music painted in front of me, and it was like I was moving through this landscape.  For Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece, I personally can imagine a landscape with defined characters.  But the actions that these characters take aren’t concrete – they are nebulous and are more driven by emotion the music conveys.

And, of course, we take a lot from our own experience when we listen, play, or dance to music.  Things we’ve seen before color they way we perceive music.  A melody can sound sad to one person, but another might feel neutral about it.  Some people like listening to sad songs because it makes them feel better, while others hate it because it makes them feel more depressed and nostalgic.

So for “Scheherazade” it was quite easy for me to develop a story in my head simply because I have already read some of the Nights and pull action from experience to create a landscape.  The callbacks and layers of the music really make this landscape complex and create a good breeding ground for imagined action, and the structure allows the music to dictate movement.


Princess Jasmine’s New Look: The Changing Image of Shahrazad in the West

Disney fans were in for a surprise when Princess Jasmine’s new costume was revealed at Disney parks recently. Many fans were not too happy with the changing of her iconic crop top and pants ensemble to a more modest dress. Disney cites concerns from parents that Jasmine’s outfit was too revealing for their motivation to change.

However, Disney has given themselves an opportunity. Jasmine’s new dress is more similar to something an Arabian princess might have actually worn. Perhaps they could charm their old fans and win over some new ones by adopting this argument to defend the wardrobe change.

Although the reason might have just been to appeal to parents desiring more conservative dress for the princess their daughters look up to, this big change in one of the Western world’s most popular images of the Nights shows a shift in how readers/viewers are seeing Shahrazad. The previously sexualized, mysterious figure is adopting a more authentic presentation that better reflects Arab culture. Likewise, Princess Jasmine is intelligent, strong and outspoken, countering the image of the Arab woman as an oppressed figure.

I think the outfit change is positive. Not because girls can’t show a little skin, but because, especially today, the image Americans and other westerners have of the Arab world needs to be positive and authentic. The Arab woman is yet to find her best light in our society, and Princess Jasmine might be an excellent avenue for her to do so.

Naguib Mahfouz and influences from Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz seems to me to be an allegory of the condition in his Egyptian society with the same influences from the original Nights tales.  I like how the story starts with the Sultan awaking from his anger, realizing with guilt how many innocents he had killed.  I wonder why Mahfouz did this with the Sultan?  By making Shahrazade’s narration work, and changing the sultan’s mood in my opinion seems to weaken the nature of her narration.  It makes it less enticing.

I see the works of Mahfouz’s other novels here in Arabian Nights and Days.  Nuanced communication flows out of Shahazade’s lips describing the power in contemporary Egyptian Society.

The main allegory similar to the original Arabian Nights was the story of Sanaan al-Gamali and its allusion to politics.  In the story similar to the Merchant and the Demon as well as the Sinbad and Aladdin stories, Sanaan al-Gamali is trapped and must serve a demon.  When Sanaan awakes he realizes he has a large cut on his arm and that the dream he thought he had was actually a real encounter with a demon.  With Sanaan, Naguib Mahfouz illustrates the problems of corruption and sexual greed.  Sanaan rapes and kills a girl and then kills the governor to then which he is sentenced to death.  In this, I see satire and criticism of Shahrayr and larger Egyptian power, as Sanaan ultimately gets in trouble because he is poor, while the rich rulers of Egypt and Shahryar can get away with anything.

Words & Voice in Damascus Nights

I was really intrigued by this conversation in Damascus Nights:

“Just listen to those words!” the barber gushed . . . “What are books compared to that!  What is the most beautiful writing compared to the divine sounds of the human voice?  Mere shadows of words on paper!”

“Please, don’t exaggerate,” Faris replied . . . “Writing is not the voice’s shadow but the tracks of its steps.  It is only thanks to writing that we can listen tot he ancient Greeks and Egyptians even today, that we can hear their voices as full of life as if they had just spoken.  My friend, only writing has the power to move a voice through time, and make it as immortal as the gods.” (pg 30)

I’ll just run through some thoughts I have on this:

  • I thought this was really interesting because it reminded me of our conversations on the Nights as an oral vs. written piece.  I think that both forms of storytelling are crucial in how we perceive stories and unpack them.  Voice might hold more emotion and give you a sense of being there physically – sitting listening to a story being  told, listening to the speaker’s inflection, etc, is exactly what makes oral storytelling charming.  And that’s Salim’s special gift, too – the ability to move people into the story with his voice and gestures.

  • This also reminded me of when a King in a story asks a caliph for the amazing oral story to be written down in letters of gold for others to marvel at the history of the story.  Moving voice into letters gives other people the opportunity to experience an event that they didn’t get to witness – and maybe offer a little “proof” that it actually happened.  That’s the importance of written records today.  Solid paper or video evidence holds up in court, but hearsay and eyewitness reports are unreliable, no matter how elaborate and factual the story may be.  If it’s not written down… then you have no evidence of it actually happening.

  • This moment also speaks to when Salim is discerning the faces of people by their voice.  It shows how powerful voice is to identity, history, and associations.

  • I am also reminded of many poets who use poetry as a means to keep time frozen and immortalize a moment or person.  Once it’s written down, that moment can be “replayed” over and over by re-reading or speaking it.  I think that that’s why both voice and writing are so important in conveying moments in time.  When put together, the birth of new ideas is transformed into an immortal moment that can be enjoyed for years to come.

The Importance of One’s Voice

In the interview posted on Blackboard with Rafik Schami, Schami speaks about the power and significance of one’s voice. Schami makes the point that one ought to speak out and utilize one’s voice as an integral aspect to a functioning democracy; without speaking out, Schami suggests that democracy would fail. Silence then becomes anathema to democracy. According to Schami, democracies as a form of government would be unable to sustain themselves or function in their most idyllic sense without an electorate and citizenship that is unabashedly unafraid of using their voices and their freedoms to do so. Schami connects this notion of “responsible citizenship” to the importance of telling stories orally; the two are both vital to healthy societies.

Throughout Schami’s Damascus Nights, the notion of Salim’s lost voice and attempts to regain that voice through others employing their voices by way of oral story-telling, a cultural trope, allegorically parallels to the repression of free speech in totalitarian military societies. The impact of Salim’s lost voice reverberates throughout the Middle East as numerous authoritarian regimes monopolize speech in a manner directly inimical to democracy. For example, in addition to my grandfather’s anecdote about Saddam’s silencing of Iraqi’s voices, Schami’s work alludes to Nasser’s radio station, Sawt al-Arab,  which acted as a monolithic voice for the Arab people as it simultaneously silenced the voices of the Arab people. Furthermore, the theme of losing one’s voice occurs throughout the work to underscore its significance. In addition to Salim’s lost voice, the farmer’s Faustian bargain in which he trades his voice reinforces this theme. The farmer is noted to have paid an incredible price for the gold lira at the expense of his voice. Similar to 1001 Nights, the significance of one’s voice is equivalent to life. Within the Nights, oral stories allow the characters to live; the decapitated woman in “The Story of the Three Apples” is reduced to an object because she cannot tell her stories.

The significance of one’s voice, to me at least, is perhaps best expressed, as I said in class, by Dante’s image of Satan at the end of Inferno.  That Satan, the paradigmatic sinner, is punished by the denial of the Word, or in other words, the loss of his ability to utilize his voice, is significant precisely because of the importance of one’s voice. I think this image parallels to both Schami’s Damascus Nights and 1001 Nights well and reveals the importance of story-telling not only in both works, but also in literature and society as a whole.

Damascus Nights Thoughts

While reading Damascus Nights, the significance of the numbers intrigued me. Numbers are an obvious theme in the novel because, the fairy tells Salim that he will get his voice back “if you receive seven unique gifts within three months, then a young fairy will take my place and stand by your side” (25). From that moment on, the novel is obsessed with the number 7: his seven friends take him on seven journeys, encourage him to drink seven different types of wine and ultimately tell him seven stories. We see a similar reliance on numbers, particularly seven, in the Nights as well. For example, Sinbad goes on seven journeys. From its original title, One Thousand and One Nights, I know that the numbers in the text are not accidental. For example, in an Arab context, “one thousand and one” means more than the ordinal number, it means infinity. So, I then looked to Damascus Nights, to uncover the hidden meaning behind the numbers. The number 7 has great significance in Islam. For example, in Mecca, pilgrims walk around the Kaaba seven times.

I know the Islamic significance of seven is too great to be accidental but I am struggling to understand what role it plays in a novel originally written in German. Does he just choose seven because it has Arab significance or is the audience suppose to understand something about the story on a greater level because of the number 7? Does it add some divine authority to the novel? Does it provide cultural authenticity? Also, why does the fairy only give Salim 21 words? – seems fairly random. As I continue to think about Damascus Nights, I am still pondering these questions.


WLL Culture Pass[es]

Event 1:

A few months ago I went to see the Threepenny Opera at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. It’s a “play with songs” based on Brecht’s opera, which is already an adaptation of a German text called “The Beggar’s Opera”. It was re-translated by playwright Simon Stephens and directed by Rupert Norris. The National Theatre was founded by Laurence Olivier and is a prominent fixture in London’s theater scene, which is why, I presume, they were able to curate such a visually stunning production. Even though they had a lot of “DIY-esque”, meta-theatrical qualities (such as putting a small stage on the stage for the opening, expositionary number), everything appeared carefully selected, and, as the play progressed grander and grander (they dropped a giant tapestry with St. George’s Cross on it towards the end). I personally was not familiar with any iteration of the story so it was quite easy to get lost in it, however, the production volume and value made the feel of the piece very clear (albeit somewhat superimposed). I think it was similar to modern Shakespeare productions, where the audience is not expected to understand the words but the meaning (Rory Kinnear, who played Macheath and James D’Arcy who played Tiger were both familiar to me from various Shakespeare productions). However, the contemporary diction of Stephens’ adaptation made the feel of the piece seem at odds with the dialogue; the purposeful anachronism of modern word vs period dress (this production was set in 1920’s London) was overshadowed by the director’s intention of pointing out how much now (politically, socially) is exactly like then. Which, to be fair, in many ways it is but it would have been equally clear without being overexposed.
It was, however, very funny and well executed, as well as, as I said before, really beautiful. They had a very and truly diverse cast which included not only actors of color but also of various ages and abilities. My favorite moment was when, after Macheath mocked one of his henchmen by imitating the actor’s cerebral palsy, the henchmen got back at him by refusing to help him out of a life threatening bind.
I think that a part of the reason that I had a hard time fully liking the piece, which is by all accounts well done, is that the production was very Anglocentric (cf. the giant St George flag) which is expected from London’s NATIONAL, but it was very raw and close to home not only in a post-Brexit, but also in a (then) pre-election America.

Event 2:
On Sunday the 13th I went to see some shorts in the Boston Turkish Festival’s Documentary & Short Film competition. I did not know until they showed an informational documentary after the shorts that these films were made by high school and university students in Turkey. The prize was a scholarship to study film at a program in one of the SUNY schools. I found that this documentary was actually most revealing, because it showed not only the process of selecting the competitors but them filming as well as interviews with them where they got quite open about their opinions on their country and the world. It was interesting to see how they got to the conclusion of making that particular short, showcasing that part of their country.
The movies were very different, some more interpretive than others – such as Sarı Buzdolabı (The Yellow Fridge) which featured a dream sequence. The Spider’s Web (Une toile d’arraignée) took place entirely in France, but was about a Turkish family (and how they defined their identity in emigration).
My personal favorite short was Tuesday (Sali), directed by Ziya Demirel. It is about a high school girl’s day, from walking to the bus stop to walking from it after school. The climax of the movie was towards the end, when she is on the crowded bus home and an old man asks to lean on her so he does not fall. She initially agrees, but the scene is shot through the mass of people on the bus so it’s unclear what is actually happening, but she finally gets very uncomfortable and asks him to let go of her. There is immediate and full scale upheaval in the crowded, contained space of the bus that only stops once the driver lets her slip out by letting her off at a traffic light. She then walks up the street she walked down in the opening sequence of the film and, in her anger, bangs on the hood of a man sleeping in his car (when she was there previously, she only made a face at him). The film cuts after he chases her around the car and she finally runs away. It was a really powerful symbol of a loss of innocence, as well as a society where people often assume women are expected to be and/or be treated a certain way and where they clearly are not (most of the people on  the bus jump to her defense, she plays basketball with the boys in gym class). Overall I really liked the strong portrayal of women in the story (the mom in The Yellow Fridge, although presented totally differently, is also a powerful example). Partially, as I learned in the documentary, is because they chose many female students to write, direct and produce these shorts, and they all spoke in their interviews about how, although they were passionate about film making, this is the first opportunity they actually got to do it (and that is far from being exclusive to Turkey).
It was a really interesting few hours and I know that there are many more events as a part of the Boston Turkish Festival so I would really recommend attending one.