Missy: A Post­script to The 1001 Nights

The Iowa Review - - THE IOWA REVIEW - John Barth

Good evening. My thanks to Pro­fes­sor Khan for his kind in­tro­duc­tion; like­wise to the univer­sity’s Depart­ment of Near East­ern Stud­ies for spon­sor­ing this lec­ture se­ries and invit­ing me to par­tic­i­pate in it, and fi­nally to all of you for brav­ing this in­clement weather to hear a bit of my story. I wish that this were a peace­ful, cres­cent-mooned evening, but “It was a dark and stormy night” is prob­a­bly a good way to be­gin my tale. Shall we? Okay: as you will have noted in your pro­gram, my name is Jami­lahMelissa, which sounds like a hy­phen­ated first name: “Jami­lah-melissa What?” one might ask. But as you may also have no­ticed, we char­ac­ters in the Kitab Alf Lay­lah Wah Lay­lah, or Book of A Thou­sand Nights and a Night, or The Ara­bian Nights, while we may have ti­tles—like Shah Za­man or Sul­tan Some­body or Caliph What­shis­name—usu­ally go by one name only: my mother Scheherazade, for in­stance; my Aunt Dun­yazade (of whom more to come), et cetera. One of my broth­ers had two names (Ali Shar); the other didn’t (Gharib). Don’t ask me. But now that we’ve got all hands on deck, so to speak, let me re­mind you how Mom’s story be­gins and ends. Shahryar, the “King of the Is­lands of In­dia and China” (what­ever that means), is so out­raged at the dis­cov­ery of his wife’s in­fi­delity, as well as that of his brother Shah Za­man’s wife, that he quote “mar­ries” (any­how, de­flow­ers) a vir­gin ev­ery night and has her killed in the morn­ing, lest she cuck­old him. Soon enough, all fam­i­lies with maiden daugh­ters are get­ting the hell out of there, un­til the coun­try is on the verge of col­lapse and the Shah’s Grand Vizier—whose job it is to come up with a new maiden­head for his boss ev­ery night Or Else—has run out of vic­tims. Where­upon, as you all know, the Vizier’s daugh­ter Scheherazade (my mom-to-be) vol­un­teers her­self, over Grandpa’s protests (the Shah had been spar­ing her as a po­lit­i­cal cour­tesy to his sec­ond-in-com­mand), ask­ing only that the Shah please let her kid sis­ter Dun­yazade (my Aunt Doony) come sit by the bed to com­fort her through her de­flo­ration and pre­sum­ably the fi­nal night of her life—not telling him, of course, that their plan is for Kid Sis to then ask whether they mightn’t hear a lit­tle story be­fore all hands fall asleep. The Shah reluc­tantly agrees to her pro­posal, groom and bride go to it, Aunt Doony asks her post-coital ques­tion per pro­gram, Shahryar gives his OK, and Mom launches into

the first of what will be a se­ries of tales-within-tales, tim­ing it to break off in the mid­dle-of-the-mid­dle-of-the-mid­dle-one, more or less and so to speak—right at the crack of dawn, when “the first rooster crows in the east”—and the Shah de­cides not to kill her un­til he’s heard the end of her story. Which is to say, her sto­ries, since Mom sees to it that when­ever one story ends, she im­me­di­ately be­gins an­other, to be bro­ken off when the go­ing’s good—the nar­ra­tive equiv­a­lent of coitus in­ter­rup­tus— on and on for a thou­sand and one nights. Then, on the thou­sand-and-sec­ond morn­ing, she asks Aunt Doony to fetch the nurse­maids in with her and Shahryar’s three chil­dren, and in they come—“one walk­ing, one crawl­ing, one suck­ling,” so the story goes—and she begs for her life on their be­half, a re­quest that the Shah im­me­di­ately grants, hav­ing long since re­al­ized that he loves not only Mom’s sto­ries but their teller as well. So he mar­ries Scheherazade, his mur­der­ous brother Shah Za­man mar­ries my Aunt Dun­yazade, and all hands live more or less hap­pily—not “ever af­ter,” but un­til the De­stroyer of De­lights rings down the cur­tain on them and their story. Now then, those three kids, of whose se­rial births and prefa­tory preg­nan­cies there’d been no men­tion at all in the course of the thou­sand and one nights of Mom’s or­deal, and of whose gen­der there is no men­tion even at the end—the “walker” was my brother Ali Shar, now sixty and liv­ing all over the map with his wives and con­cu­bines; the “crawler” was brother Gharib, now a late-fifty­ish bach­e­lor, al­ways Mom’s fa­vorite be­cause Ali Shar was Dad’s; and the “suck­ler” was Yours Truly—aunt Doony’s fa­vorite, per­haps in part be­cause I was no­body else’s un­til my late, not-es­pe­cially-lamented hus­band came along. Ah, life! And ah, mar­riages—any­how, the pre­ar­ranged sort. I was still in my teens when they hooked me up with Never-mind-whom. Not a bad guy, ac­tu­ally; we never really clicked (Hubby was more in­ter­ested in his work and his as­sorted con­cu­bines than in me), but we got along okay, I sup­pose, and then poof!— the D-of-d saw fit to sink his ship on what was sup­posed to be a reen­act­ment of Sind­bad’s First Voy­age. “No sweat,” Aunt Doony said, “your mom and I will find you an­other one.” But the fact was, I just didn’t feel like mar­ry­ing again, per­haps be­cause of my no-bet­ter-than-c-plus first mar­riage, per­haps be­cause I sim­ply felt no need for it. I ex­per­i­mented briefly with a les­bian con­nec­tion—not un­pleas­ant, but not my thing. Since then I’ve been con­tent to be more or less celi­bate—“call me Nun­yazade,” maybe?—sat­is­fied with friend­ships male and fe­male. I don’t much miss sex, I guess (well, maybe a lit­tle, now and then), but I do miss in­ti­mate com­pan­ion­ship: a gen­uine bond

with some­body, be­yond mere friend­ship and sib­ling­ship. Know what I mean? And that’s enough about that. As you may re­call, when that shmen­drik Shahryar (ex­cuse my French) came off his crazy en­ter­tain-me-or­die thing and made a proper wife of my mother at the story’s end, he then said, “Oh, one more thing, dear: please retell all those thou­san­dand-one-night sto­ries to my scribes, so they can write them down for our kids and grand­kids and the world in gen­eral. Okay?” Can you imag­ine? But Mom, be­ing Mom, said, “Sure, hon, just give me a year or three.” (Do the math: 1001 di­vided by 365 equals 2.7424657 or there­abouts.) And by Al­lah, she did it, one way or an­other: came up with 267 sto­ries (in­clud­ing the tales-within-tales and tales-within-tales-with­in­tales), plus about ten thou­sand lines of verse for good mea­sure. Who knows (or cares?) whether the ones that she re­cited for the scribes are the same ones that she spun out over the years, or new ones that she cooked up as she went along, or some mash-up from the reper­tory? Mom her­self prob­a­bly didn’t know (or care): just get the job done, on with the sto­ries, et cet.! I re­mem­ber ask­ing her for my usual bed­time story one night when I was a lit­tle girl—imag­ine Mom hav­ing to spin out bed­time sto­ries for us kids be­fore go­ing in for sex-and-sto­ry­telling, cop­u­la­tion-and-fab­u­la­tion, with Dad! But she did it, one way or an­other. That par­tic­u­lar night, e.g., when she couldn’t come up with a story for me, she said, “Once upon a time, Missy, there was a story that be­gan, quote Once upon a time there was a story that be­gan dou­ble-quote Once upon a time there was a story that be­gan triple-quote Once upon a time there was a story that be­gan— et cetera, ad in­fini­tum, okay? Or ad nau­seam, sweet­heart—which­ever.” To which I prob­a­bly replied, “Add what, Ma?” Such a yarn-spin­ner! Well. We kids grew up; our par­ents grew old. Shahryar and Shah Za­man died— au revoir, though they were cer­tainly sweeter guys in their old age than they were in their prime—and Mom and Aunt Doony spent their last years to­gether in a nice mid-rise con­tin­u­ing-care condo that we set them up in, on one of the not-yet-overde­vel­oped “Is­lands of In­dia and China.” More ac­cu­rately, that I set them up in, though my broth­ers were of con­sid­er­able help with the mov­ing-in chores af­ter I’d done the search­ing and find­ing with Aunt Doony’s help. Dear, dear Aunt Doony—what would I have done with­out her? She was the mother that Mom never man­aged to be, at least to me; she was the one that I could really talk to, and who would really lis­ten. Mom was too busy cook­ing up her en­ter­tain-me-or-die con­coc­tions, and

then re­peat­ing them for the scribes per Dad’s or­ders, and then su­per­vis­ing their pub­li­ca­tion, deal­ing with agents and pub­lish­ers and book­sellers, not to men­tion see­ing her kids—read: “her sons”—through ado­les­cence and col­lege, which I would never have man­aged with­out Aunt Doony’s help. Oy­oyoy. On with the story? I men­tioned col­lege—some­where in my un­der­grad­u­ate ad­ven­tures I took a course in some­thing like Yarn Spin­ning 101, where we ac­tu­ally read Mom’s Thou­sand and One Nights and other such tale-cy­cles, and I learned that a Story in­volves what’s called a Ground Sit­u­a­tion (or, more tech­ni­cally, a dra­matur­gi­cally-charged “un­sta­ble home­o­static sys­tem,” like the state of af­fairs in Shahryar’s king­dom be­fore Mom came to the res­cue) and a Dra­matic Ve­hi­cle (en­ter Scheherazade), which then Com­pli­cates some Con­flict through the story’s Ris­ing Ac­tion to its Cli­max and De­noue­ment—much like the course of in­ter­course from tit­il­la­tion through cop­u­la­tion to or­gasm and Ah! Ap­ply­ing that pat­tern to my own story-thus-far, it seems to me that what we have on our hands here tonight—or I on mine, any­how—is a Ground Sit­u­a­tion: the late leg­endary sto­ry­teller Scheherazade’s mid­dle-aged daugh­ter, now hus­band­less as well as child­less, man­ages to get by on the lec­ture cir­cuit but is look­ing for a han­dle on her life’s Next Stage, dot dot dot. Ques­tions? Ve­hi­cle, any­body, now that we’ve es­tab­lished my Ground Sit­u­a­tion? No Ve­hi­cle? Okay, then, I’ll catch a cab—and some­day, with Al­lah’s help, maybe find my own ve­hi­cle and put my­self in the driver’s seat. Thank you and good night.

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