The Double-Edged Sword of Middle Eastern Stories in YA Fantasy

A couple of weeks ago, an announcement on Twitter caught my attention regarding a new annotated edition of Arabian Nights. All at once, a whole host of emotions and mixed feelings came flooding in. 

The first was, of course, regarding the title. The translator of this new edition mentioned that she fought to call it the more accurate and less Orientalist “A Thousand and One Nights” but lost that particular battle. The West, the publisher reasoned, recognizes the title as Arabian Nights, and so that title remains. 

But my annoyance with the title was only the tip of the iceberg. 

The Double-Edged Sword of Middle Eastern Stories in YA Fantasy

Shahrzad and the Sultan by the Iranian painter Sani al Molk (1849-1856) in One Thousand and One Nights 
Shahrzad and the Sultan by the Iranian painter Sani al Molk (1849-1856) in One Thousand and One Nights 

My personal relationship with A Thousand and One Nights is a complex one. I’ve known the story for as long as I can remember. The tale of Shahrzad, the woman who marries a king who takes a new wife each day, only to kill her at the dawn of the next. The tale of a storyteller who through an intense amount of patience and a way with words manages to save the kingdom from the king, and save the king from himself. You can see the appeal in such a narrative for a story-obsessed child who probably wouldn’t be winning any fights with physical prowess, but who liked to think she had a way with words.

There was also something deeply personal in this story for me on a representation level, even though I didn’t recognize it at the time. As a child, I had Princess Jasmine to look to, of course, but one fairy tale over the course of a lifetime is hardly enough. A Thousand and One Nights is a fairy tale, except unlike the bulk of stories I grew up consuming, this one had names that were familiar to me, and my culture. It’s no wonder I grew fiercely protective of it. 

In an ocean of fairy tales about European princesses, this was one life raft I could cling to as I grew up. The story has a tinge of maturity about it that Aladdin simply doesn’t – nor should it, that’s not what I’m here to suggest. The older I got, the more I realized that this story was all my favourite story elements rolled into one beautiful Middle Eastern package: it’s romance, and deception, it’s a heroine who uses her wit to get out of a sticky situation, it’s the angry man who turns all soft and gooey.

Really, it’s Beauty and the Beast in different packaging. And given that that’s my favourite story ever – which explains a lot about me, but that’s for another day – how could I help but love A Thousand and One Nights with equal fervour. 

Unfortunately, mainstream publishing did little to scratch this particular itch of mine for a long time. I have vague memories of reading Cameron Dokey’s The Storyteller’s Daughter when I was in high school, and from what I remember, it was fine. But I was still left wanting more. More of this story. More fairy tales with people who look and feel like me. 

Then, in 2015, I seemed to get the answer to my wish, in a manner of speaking, with not one but two versions of Shahrzad’s story available to me at the bookstore. But in researching the authors, I got defensive once. Neither of these women were, in fact, Middle Eastern. I was livid. How dare they attempt to tell this story, I asked myself. This isn’t their story to tell.

I recognize that the first written version of A Thousand and One Nights was in Arabic, and I myself am Persian, not Arab. But I also know that the nature of trade and travel in the Middle East, and the way stories were told and shared means there is still a place for me in A Thousand and One Nights. It’s not theirs, it’s not mine. It always felt like ours. But to me, that collective who claim ownership over this story certainly didn’t include the two women who tried their hand at the story. 

I didn’t read either book at the time. I didn’t want to. It was only in preparing to write this piece that I decided to give them a try. In one case, my assumption proved correct. In the other, I was absolutely delighted to admit that I had been wrong. 

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

I don’t quite know where to begin with this one, so let’s just get right to it: this book is, despite its intentions of empowerment, racist. And full disclaimer, I gave up about 30% of the way in reading.

It’s clear from the outset that this is meant to be set in the fictional Middle East somewhere, but it’s not the Middle East I know. Here, everything feels washed-out, devoid of colour and life. There is none of the vibrance of the region of the world my ancestors called home. Every attempt at world-building felt like a white woman from the West attempting to exoticize the savages from out East, even as she intended for something empowering. The savages who pray in caves and don’t know what water is.

The fabrics are coarse, the food is bland and barely worth mentioning. Anything and everything is compared to sand. I’m not a fan of sand at the best of times, but this book had me ready to go full Anakin Skywalker and declare my hatred for the stuff. 

But beyond the barely researched, frankly Orientalist setting, I found even the prose and writing choices to be unsettling, and borderline condescending. The only named character is the king himself. No one else is given a name. Perhaps this was the author attempting to say that in a legend like this, the names don’t matter. Given that the cast of characters is largely female, I imagine she thought she was making a point about women having their personhood stripped away. And as a Middle Eastern reader, I honestly have never been more insulted by a piece of writing. 

She clearly believes she is writing a commentary on Middle Eastern gender dynamics, bringing us such classic lines as “a daughter is worth less than a son,” and “many husbands did not permit their wives to speak outside the home.” I’m not going to sit here and pretend like patriarchy isn’t a thing everywhere. But I’m not going to sit here and take this either, as it feeds into Orientalist and Neo-Orientalist narratives about the region The Cyrus Cylinder, the world’s first declaration on human rights, makes allowances for equality, including the rights of women. To this day, at least in Persian culture, it is extremely common for married women to keep their own names. Because names have value, even to us simple desert (sidenote: there are many more types of terrain in Iran) folk. Shock, I know. 

Perhaps she was attempting to distance herself from the original story by omitting the name of the storyteller. If nothing else, Shahrzad is the most recognizable element of A Thousand and One Nights. She even gets a shoutout in “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin. Kids grow up knowing her name even if they don’t know who she is yet. But all of this is stripped away in A Thousand Nights in favour of Johnston making some kind of point about gender politics? Why not give the storyteller a new name?

Which brings me to my main question regarding this work: if you plan on overlooking all of the beauty and richness of the Middle East anyway, why set it there at all? There is nothing inherently Middle Eastern about a murderous cursed king, and a woman who decides to save her kingdom through the power of her mind. She could have taken the elements of the story and set it anywhere. But she chose the Middle East. 

Again, in spite of her intentions of empowering readers, I have never felt more “othered” by a story in my life, and I grew up in the post-9/11 landscape of seeing exactly what the West thought about people from my part of the world. Ultimately, I want to read us as human, not as exotic. I hope that Ms. Johnston takes notes on this.

The Wrath & the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

The Wrath & the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

Before A Thousand Nights, however, there was The Wrath and the Dawn. Admittedly, this one was on my radar first, and I was initially more opposed to it. It was a direct retelling of this story I had been so enamoured with as a teenager, and was being written by someone who wasn’t actually Middle Eastern anyway. I refused to read it. I swore I never would. But in preparing this piece, and in the spirit of fairness and research, I decided it was finally time.

I borrowed it from the library, and about halfway through reading, I paused to purchase both The Wrath and the Dawn and its sequel The Rose and the Dagger from my bookstore. It was just that good. I’m just sorry I didn’t read it sooner. 

Renée Ahdieh succeeds everywhere Johnston fails. Each of her characters has a name, a nickname, and an endearment for everyone in their life. The fictional land the characters inhabit draws names and inspiration from real places – I have been to the real-life Khorasan and Taleqan. Her descriptions are so vivid, and so like the region of the world, I remember that I was picturing actual Taleqan before the narrative actually specified that that’s where they were. The clothing feels real, the food is all stuff I have eaten, and dishes I recognize. 

Ahdieh also makes the interesting choice to not commit her story setting to Iran specifically, or to an Arab country specifically. Instead she borrows words and titles liberally across the Middle East – and even some South Asia – as if to say that this story doesn’t belong to any one place. It belongs to all of them. Where I felt insulted and hurt by A Thousand Nights, I felt seen and healed by The Wrath and the Dawn

I do think it helps that Ahdieh is married to an Iranian man and has some exposure to the culture. The Middle East is not “other” to her, it’s her family. And it well and truly shows. 

But all this talk of A Thousand and One Nights makes it seem as though this is the only story of note for that entire region of the world, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a wide range of stories and legends that deserve their place in the novels aimed at Young Adults, and readers of all ages really, which brings me to…

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

This book changed me. And I promise that’s not an exaggeration. 

One look at the summary and I purchased it without question. Girl, Serpent, Thorn is not a A Thousand and One Nights retelling as the other two have been. Rather, it is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. But rather than playing it straight and setting it in pseudo-medieval Europe, the same vague time period many fantasies seem to be set in, Bashardoust (who is of Iranian descent like myself) chose to set it all in a fictionalized ancient Persia. 

I cannot tell you what a wonderful experience it was to read a familiar tale set in a mythological landscape I was so familiar with. I knew of many of the ancient religious practices mentioned. The creatures of myth and legend were all creatures I knew from the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, which is the definitive Persian epic poem. The celebrations in the novel are the same celebrations I observe to this day. 

The novel is the perfect marriage of a familiar fairy tale premise and less familiar mythology. It felt comforting. It felt like home. It’s one of those books I’m glad I bought because I want it close to me always. I also adore how she included a bibliography and a glossary. The amount of crossover between her bibliography and the one I included on my Master's thesis made me laugh. But that’s what happens when we draw on the same well to talk about the richness of Persian stories.

It’s also one of those times I didn’t realize how starved I was until I was properly fed. I love Shahrzad. I love her story and I always will. But this book made me realize there is so much more I want out of my Middle Eastern-set novels. I want the richness of Persian mythology, and other mythology besides. I want to discover the fairy tales of other countries and cultures, just as much as I want readers to discover the myths and fairy tales of mine.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn was the gateway to this realization for me, and I hope it’s also the gateway to more Middle Eastern set stories going forward. I know there are more and more Middle Eastern authors out there telling their stories, like Hafsah Faizal and Saladin Ahmed. I cannot wait to begin discovering their work too.

The Middle East is more than just the one story of Shahrzad and the king. I want more than just that one story. And if this is any indication, I think the world is finally ready to hear them. Maybe I’ll even tell a couple of them myself. After all, I grew up with Shahrzad. I had a good teacher.

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Arezou Amin is a freelance writer with a lifelong love of Star Wars, romance, fantasy, and all things pop culture. She is the host of Space Waffles, a Star Wars-focused podcast on the Geeky Waffle network, where she also co-hosts the flagship show and writes reviews and recaps for the site.