Spinning a tale of a king and a nation

Once upon a time there was a master of the silver screen and storytelling called Walt Disney.
The secret of his companyand’s ability to stay at the top of the charts decade after decade must be its ability to keep abreast of the times. Nothing depicts this better than the transition from Disneyand’s andquotCinderellaandquot of the 1950s to andquotCinderellaandquot in 2015.
The modern film version is directed by Kenneth Branagh. Our heroine is still beautiful and downtrodden, but her name is a trendier Ella. Out are the cartoon characters. In are real stars. Out are the musical numbers. In are more than 7 million Swarovski crystals — including, of course, the famous glass slipper.
andquotLittle Red Riding Hood,andquot andquotCinderella,andquot andquotThe Ugly Duckling.andquot It seems we just canand’t seem to improve on the stories of the three fairytale greats: the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen. Even in our modern age of Minecraft and cheap air travel, children and their parents are still enchanted by stories of good triumphing over evil and of princes getting their girl in the end.
Of course, Disney sometimes takes huge liberties with a story. For example the original of Aladdin appears in andquotOne Thousand and One Nightsandquot (Arabian Nights). Here he was Chinese. He had a magical ring (as well as a magic lantern) and the genie of the ring was able to take him from place to place. No magic carpet for him — that was in a different story. Plus, in the original, Aladdin gets married a lot quicker, and he certainly doesnand’t make friends with the genie.
We could just put these Disney modifications down to Orientalism — the romanticized mystic view of the Middle East. But maybe it is more to do with the Western way of telling a story compared with the Eastern one.
The Western mind seeks a logical linear connection. A leads to B, which leads to C. There must be a straight-line connection towards an ultimate conclusion. Where there are multiple storylines, each has a linear progression before they finally unite in a grand ending.
The Eastern mind, however, seeks relational connection. Storytelling is often a series of concentric circles. Progression is in the series of a spiral, either emanating out from or reducing in towards a central point.
The Eastern telling of Aladdin is more about who Aladdin is — the qualities of his heart. The Western telling is about what happened to him.
So what would happen if we retold a scene from history — that we normally see through the and”what happened?and” lens — through Middle Eastern eyes? We would need to focus more on the characters and their hearts, qualities and motives, rather than on what exactly happened.
In andquotThe King,andquot Kader Abdolah does just that with a slice of Persian history. Abdolah is not his real name the author is an Iranian political refugee, having written for clandestine journals campaigning against the rule of the Shah and the Ayatollah. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1988 and his work has been translated into English from the original Dutch.
Encyclopedia Britannica gives us the Western factual version of the story: and”Naier al-Din Shah, also spelt Naiir al-Din Shah (born July 17, 1831, Tehran, Iran — dies May 1, 1896, Tehran) who began his reign as a reformer but became increasingly conservative, failing to understand the accelerating need for change or for a response to the pressures brought by contact with the Western nations.and”
Extra information historical biographers give include that although he was a younger son, he was named heir apparent through the influence of his mother. When he succeeded to the throne after his fatherand’s death there were serious disturbances, but these were quelled with the help of a tribal leader. He was unable to regain territory earlier lost to Britain and Russia, and so was forced to recognize Afghanistan as a country. Fascinated by the modern world, he was the first Persian to be photographed, but he gave significant trade concessions to foreign powers. He was assassinated by the leader of a resistance movement.
Taking these bare facts, Abdolah weaves a magical Persian story. He presents each character in the drama by introducing them one chapter at a time. Because the role a person plays is more important than the person, he uses their title rather than their name. As in a fairytale where we learn of a king and queen who lived many years ago, here we are introduced to the prince, the king, the shah, the vizier and many more.
Abdolahand’s delightful prose brings to life the values of Persian society. We witness the delicate dance of power diplomacy in an honor-shame culture, similar to two fencers with their swords:
and”andlsquoThe vizier is not to meddle in our personal affairs. The vizier would be wise to understand what his limits are,and’ said the Shah. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could hear his mother reproaching him.
and”andlsquoYour majesty must excuse the vizier. He is only doing his duty. I was told by your father to be tough and honest with you.and’
and”andlsquoWe are the king now and the vizier is no longer under any obligation to instruct us,and’ answered the shah.
and”andlsquoI am not instructing you. The contact between the vizier and the shah must always be straightforward, honest and professional. I only ask Your Majesty not to come to any decisions without first consulting his vizier.and’
and”andlsquoNo more insults the vizier is speaking to the shah. Watch what you say. We will decide what must be decided.and’and”
This Middle Eastern storyteller excels at delivering delicious surprises at the end of sentences. Just when our Western minds think he is going in one direction he astounds us with an about turn. Or as we are lulled into a soothing sense of going back in time to fairytale land, he bring us back to the 19th century with an unexpected twist: and”Once upon a time there was a Persian prince who, later on, after he had become king, went to visit Paris.and”
In turns resplendent and playful, finally he even gently pokes fun at his reader, as his traditional fairytale meets modern international relations:
and”The vizier got in touch with the governmental representatives of Russia, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, Holland, Belgium, France and England to enable the Shah to travel to Europe. To his delight he received highly positive reactions from every country.
and”The foreigners had all read about the Persians in their history books. They knew the saying andlsquothe law of the Medes and the Persians,and’ and whenever they thought about Persia they thought of gold, flying carpets, beautiful princesses, and The Thousand and One Nights. But no one had ever seen a Persian king in the flesh before.and”
Kader Abdolah admits that, like all storytellers in this tradition, he may have embroidered history a little. This enables him to explore themes such as power and also national paranoia. But it is this color that adds a spark of life into a story that explains the very events and thought processes that govern the psyche of Iran today.
and”The Kingand” by Kader Abdolah is published by Canongate. 6.99 pounds in paperback. ISBN: 978-085786297-6 Rating: five stars out of five

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman