Rosa Montero is a highly respected Spanish journalist and author. She writes a regular column in the newspaper El País and has published 29 books.
Rosa Montero, El País – 6 Jan 2019
In One Thousand and One Nights, the young woman manages to appease the wrath of Shahrayar, a ruler so filled with resentment towards women that he slits the throat of one every day.
Turandot, the eponymous protagonist of the Puccini opera, is a Chinese princess who lives in an imaginary Peking and makes all of her suitors answer three riddles; if they answer incorrectly, the men are executed. The puzzles are impossible to solve, but the princess is beautiful and the young men are arrogant, and so inevitably, the crème de la crème of the world’s young royalty fall victim to the executioner’s axe. “And why is this beautiful lady so cruel?” I hear you ask. Well, because an ancestor of hers was raped and murdered by a Tartar prince, and so Turandot has decided to punish men. The libretto is from 1920 and is written by two men; how interesting that they wrote this fable about a princess dedicated to avenging the never-ending atrocities committed against women.
Actually, the opera Turandot is the inverse of the story of One Thousand and One Nights. Shahrayar is a Sassanian monarch who, upon discovering that his wife cheated on him with a slave, sentences them both to death. Filled with resentment towards women, he decides to deflower a virgin maiden every night and slit her throat at dawn. Three years of this horrifying practice go by, and desperate parents flee the kingdom with their daughters. One day, the chief advisor to the king is unable to find a virgin and he fears for his own life. So, his young and beautiful daughter, Shahrazad, offers herself up for a night with the bloodthirsty murderer, declaring, “If I live, then all will be well, and if I die, my life will be taken instead of the lives of other Muslim girls – I will be the cause of their salvation.” You already know what happens, of course: Shahrazad spends each evening telling the king tales, leaving the story at such an interesting point at the end of each night that he continually postpones her killing.
At times, when I feel overwhelmed by the endless and incomprehensible brutality against women, I remember Shahrazad. At times, I become acutely aware of the barbaric dystopia in which we live, and of the ongoing femicide happening in the world. I think of the three million girls who have their clitorises cut off every year. The girls who are burned alive for not wanting to marry old men. The girls and women who are raped, beaten, mutilated, doused in acid, sold like livestock, used as sex slaves, tortured, punctured and penetrated with their teeth knocked out and their bones broken. I think of all the women and girls covered by thick veils, shut away in their houses, deprived of education and of the most basic rights. At times, I am struck by the inconceivable horror and pain that has occurred since time immemorial. I hear the howl of the millions and millions of victims for whom nothing has been done. The international community has put pressure and imposed economic sanctions upon countries with vile regimes, as in the case of apartheid South Africa for instance. But in the face of the constant genocide of half of humanity, no action has been taken. On the contrary, the treatment of women has always been an issue of great flexibility in international diplomacy: if there’s a treaty to be signed with the Taliban, for instance, the issue of women is swept under the carpet. How is it possible that we are allowing this to happen? Why are we not protesting?
The atrocious and senseless murder of Laura Luelmo has left us shaken and wondering, once again, what darkness must lurk in the corners of some men’s hearts to make them act in such a way. The demented cruelty of King Shahrayar is the embodiment of a femicidal impulse as old as time. “Tales and stories speak to us in the language of symbols and represent the contents of the subconscious”, says the psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim. What Shahrazad tries to do is save us all, not only from the slaughtering ordered by the king, but from men's ignorance, and from their brutality and violence. At the end of the thousand and one nights of conversation, Shahrayar has had three children with the young woman, has fallen in love with her, and has overcome his horrible murderous instinct - according to Bettelheim, she has cured him of his depression. Fortunately, it seems that we too are starting to open our eyes to the horror in front of us. And not just women either, but also decent men who, in the last few years, have become involved in the anti-sexism movement; Turandot is saved by love too, after all. It seems that we could be reaching our very own Shahrazad moment.
Translated by Molly Shevlin