Imagination as Subversion: Narrative and Civic Awareness

The focus of this article is on the power of narrative to shape reality and the relation between individual and social responsibility and imagination. The frame story of "The One Thousand and One Nights" is examined within the context of the life of modern Iranian women in the post-Islamic revolutionary Iran. It responds to a set of questions: How could great works of imagination help us in our present trapped and helples situation as women? How is one to be a woman in a country where individual rights and private spaces are trivialized compared to the "larger" political issues? Obviously, fiction does not provide a blueprint for an easy solution, but just as obviously these works help us reassess and, in a sense, recreate our lives in the face of a seemingly unchanging and oppressive reality. The plot of the story is quite simple: Two brothers each ruling over a kingdom are betrayed by their queens, which betrayal leads one of the brothers to abdicate and withdraw from the world. The other weds a virgin every night and kills her in the morning. This state of affairs continue until the country runs out of virgins and Shahrzad, the Vizier's wise and imaginative daughter, volunteers to wed the king. She prolongs her life, the story goes, by telling the king a sotry each night for one thousand and one nights until the king gets over his lethal obsession and they live happily ever after. Their story suggests that in relation to absolute power one has no choice but to obey completely and surrender one's identity or to cheat and lie.

It seems that the two queens must be punished because their disloyalty challenges and threatens the brothers' potency as men and their absolute power as kings. But the subsequent deflowering of the virgins does not restore to the king what one woman took away from him. Neither he nor they learn anything from their tragic fate. One can not change a stagnated situation unless one can appraise it from a distance, can see it differently from the one who has created it, can see it reflectively and imaginatively to reveal possibilities hidden in the stalled reality. As victims these women do not take the responsibility of trying to change the situation; they simply cheat or succumb. Only Sharzad has the ability to see herself through seeing others in her position. This distinguishes her not only from the king but from all other characters in the story. Shahrzad fashions her reality not through physical force as does the king but through imagination and reflection. It is this attitude in fiction which helps us in reality. Shahrzad's stories create not only an illusion of reality, but some hidden truth, hidden insight. These insights help readers sort out their puzzles and predicaments in real life. This illusory reality in works of fiction does not offer a direct solution for one's riddles, but the insights it provides changes attitudes, it lets one look at life in new and subversive ways. Eventually, it becomes impossible to act as one did before in the face of all the new vistas, the new possibilities to think and feel and act. Through them one becomes unstuck; kindled by new insights, imagination sets one free.

Azar Nafisi
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