Aug 28, 2020 in Literature

Connotations of “Arabic Nights: in the Novel “Sherezade” by Leila Sebbar

The work “Arabian Nights” occupies a significant place in the world literature. Thousands years have passed since its creation, but the audience still expresses interest in this work. “Arabian Nights” charms the target readership by Oriental traditions, masterful representation of events, bright shades of meaning, and rich stylistic devices. A number of writers have created their adaptations and applied the connotations of this work. One of them is Leila Sebbar, a Francophone writer who managed to render the beauty of “Arabian Nights” in her work “Sherazade”. It is the first volume of the trilogy created by the writer. The novel depicts the life of an eponymous young Beur woman, examines the tensions of a bicultural identity she experiences, and masterfully represents it in her work.

The novel “Sherazade” attracts the audience as the protagonist of this story acts not act as a common Oriental woman. Sherazade manifests her inner resistance against the existing societal norms. This conflict is well depicted because the author has included a piece of her experience, knowledge, and soul into this character. Roman Jacobson explains this phenomenon in his work and starts his paper with the quote of famous Bertrand Russell that opines that no one can understand the word “cheese”, “if he does not have the nonlinguistic acquaintance with this thing”. This fundamental statement could be tied to the work by Leila Sebbar. This woman has a nonlinguistic acquaintance with the life of an Oriental woman in exile. While applying the connotation of Sherezade, Sebbar reveals the audience her own story and adapts the fairy tale to her life experience, which she obtained being a daughter of a French woman and an Algerian man. She understands the feelings of Sherezade, and this is the main reason of the trustworthiness of her work. Sebbar applies the Oriental connotations and character of the Arabic Scheherazade in order to add shades of the Oriental culture to her novel.

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In her novel, Sebbar uses the image of Sherezade in order to explore “the representation and interpretation that relate to the legacy of Orientalism”. In Sherezade, Sebbar uses the intertextual reference to the oriental fairy-tale. By means of intertextuality, the term which was originally coined by famous linguist Julia Kristeva, Sebbar denotes the choice of structures and entwines together the themes and meaning of the original work. The Author applies the inherited knowledge of Arabian fairy-tales and the most exoticized Oriental woman in her work. She creates a significant and interactive relationship between the present situation and the Oriental past. She exploits the image of Sherezade in order to use the old connotations and provides this character with new shades of meaning. The aim of Sebbar is not to rewrite the original work but give a hint of the life of Beur people. 

In such a way, the author mixes and transforms the original work and incorporates it in her piece of writing. She applies the code-unit from “Arabic Nights” in her work, recodes it, and equips it with her own message. In the new message, the author draws the attention of the audience to the Beur people and the oppression they experienced. Moreover, she also includes her personal experience of an exiled woman suffering not because of the inability to restore her self-identity but of patriarchal domination. This is the most peculiar feature of this novel, as the author has managed to unite several topics and created a masterpiece that arouses the connotations of the past but still concentrates on the problematic issue of the present. Speaking of Roman Jacobson thoughts, it could be stated that Leila Sebbar applies metalanguage in her novel. Metalanguage resembles denotation, as it translates the content of the work into a structurally and explanatory different form.  This was exactly what Leila Sebbar has done; she rendered the target audience the gist of Sherezade. She alters the temporal period of the work, location, background information, but preserves the inner essence of this character. In order to understand the story, one should deconstruct the original Arabic work. The Arabic Scheherazade is a symbol of fight, the fight against male domination. Despite the fact that at the first sight it seems that this individual is simply a narrator, the analysis of this story shows that it is not so. This woman applies her inner abilities and cognitive strength in order to make the male oppressor of a high social status alter his decisions. In the course of her story-telling, she obtains the ability to control the decisions of the man. The fact that the Scheherazade from “Arabic Nights” manages to achieve her objective could be compared to the first victory an Oriental woman gained over an Oriental man. She made him behave in the way she wanted. Leila Sebbar applies the image of the Arabic Sheherezade in order to denote her original thoughts. She applies metalanguage to render female strength, cognitive abilities, and inner power. She uses the essence of the original character, and creates the protagonist of her story.  Speaking in spiritual terms, it could be stated that Leila Sebbar conducts a reincarnation of the Scheherazade from “Arabic Nights” into her protagonist of the novel “Sherezade”. The personality of the Sheherezade from “Arabic Nights” is the major component that the author borrows for her writing. Sebbar’s protagonist is a contemporary character of the Oriental story. Sebbar used the same heroine, but deprived her of the Oriental context and put her into the postcolonial one. It has created a successful and interesting story from a linguistic viewpoint. Despite the fact that the original Scheherazade was put in the Beur context, she still possessed the connotations of Orientalism. One could state that it is the manifestation of failure of the original thought of the author, but it would be a mistake. The image of the Arabic Scheherazade hints the audience at the roots, as the novel discusses the challenge of European Orientalism.  Speaking in linguistic terms, it could be stated that she took the original work, altered it or used the sense layer, preserving the second sense layer, which is responsible for rendering the original author’s message. Sebbar reconstructed the Oriental myth into a postcolonial novel. 

One could challenge this assumption, stating that the figures of Sherazade and the original Scheherazade are completely different, and the only thing that unites both women are the connotations arising out of the original work. Though, a closer analysis reveals that Sherezade and the Arabic Scheherazade are one figure who has simply undergone different life experiences.  This statement could be proved by the fact that both heroines are united by one common nature. Both Sherezade and Scheherazade manifest themselves as strong and intelligent personalities, who are able to overcome all the hurdles they face and achieve their goal in the end. Their inner stamina is mutual and it is a principal feature of their characters. The rediscovery of the image of Sherezade in the postcolonial context reveals the original shades of refusing patriarchal domination. Sherezade in both works could be treated as symbol of femininity, sexuality, and wisdom. The image of Sherezade contrasted the Algerian women with Oriental images, which were affected by the character of Sheherezade. The main heroine of this work could be perceived as an individual who incorporated the ghosts of the past and the ambitions of the present. In the work, Sebbar tried to haunt the relationship of the past.

It should be stated that the character of Sherezade is the only link that unites the novel of Leila Sebbar and “Arabic Nights”. The author used this character because of the features that characterized her and the symbolism this heroine manifested to the world. The work includes the shades of the Oriental culture, and Sherezade emphasized it by her presence in the work. Nevertheless, it cannot be stated that Leila Sebbar produced an original novel simply rewriting the old plot. She has applied the old code-unit (the character of Sherezade) and put it into a completely new context. It has significantly altered the meaning of the code-unit. Sherezade in Sebbar’s novel has the features, which relate her to the prototype, but the new context equips this character, her actions, and behavior with new power. She manifested her protest against the patriarchal rule and symbolized an individual with a different identity. Sebbar rewrote the original work by deforming the character of the Sherezade myth in order to deconstruct the connotations of Orientalism and show that it affects the European perception of both the Beurs and Arabs. 

While discussing the issue of deletions and additions, it should be stated that this work represents a full transformation of the original work. The author did a great work as she equipped the initially strong character with additional identity features, which made her even more influential. The setting, plot, and characters of the work were altered, but the heroine remained the same. This is the advantageous feature of the work by Leila Sebbar, as she attracts the audience by Oriental hints, but presents them in an innovative, fresh, and intriguing novel where the protagonist resembles the old and well-known Sheherezade from “Arabic Nights”. It might be stated that Sebbar created  literature and linguistic déjà vu. The readers find themselves in a completely different literature milieu but feel the light spirit of Orientalism and the Arabic Nights myth. It does not distract them but arouses a certain feeling and atmosphere, which makes them continue reading. It is the highest level of mastership that an author can achieve. Sebbar took the old story, subducted the protagonist, and presented it a new literary life. 

One could claim that it is not ethical to take an original character and transform it to create a mix of an original novel and adaptation. However, it is necessary to oppose this viewpoint and emphasize that applications of literary characters prolong their literary life. Leila Sebbar gave the Arabic Scheherazade a new life in new content and transformed it into a French-Algerian Sherezade. The Arabic character obtained the possibility to live a new literary life.  Intertextuality played an exceptional role in this linguistic reincarnation, as it assists the author in providing certain allusions to the readership, but simultaneously preserves her autonomy over the work. When the protagonist of “Arabic Nights” penetrates a different milieu, she starts behaving differently but retains her inner features. 

In conclusion, it is worth pointing out that the novel “Sherezade” by Leila Sebbar is the masterpiece in which the author takes the protagonist of “Arabic Nights” and puts her into new content, setting, and provides her with a different objective. In order to do this, Sebbar applies intertextuality. In other words, she uses an old hero in a new work. It creates the double effect, as the audience becomes intrigued as they perceive the allusions from the known literary work and, on the other hand, the new novel that tells a completely new story. This phenomenon could be compared with the notion of reincarnation, as author provides the old hero with a chance to live a new life in a new literary work. It is important to highlight that Leila Sebbar used metalanguage in this work as she performed the role of both the writer and translator. She created her own work, but also became the author of her interpretation of the personality of Sherezade. She used “Arabic Nights” in order to reveal the essence of the protagonist. She divided the work into outer and inner sense layers. The outer sense layer was the myth itself, with its setting, plot, features, etc. The inner sense layer was the gist of this story. Sebbar applied her perception of the heroine from the Arabic story and preserved her personality of a strong and crafty woman able to obtain power over men. Her resistance towards male domination was the key feature that Sebbar transferred into her own work. Moreover, this character equipped Sebbar’s writing with oriental shades, which turned out to be essential as the story directly concerned this topic. In general, it has to be assumed that Sebbar deconstructed the features she found to be the most suitable for her work.  She performed the role of a linguist who skillfully denoted the message of the original work and splendidly hid it in her own piece of writing. This work is captivating since it includes enormous cognitive, linguistic, and literary potential. The novel amazes the readership by its multifacetedness. It takes the readers into the world of adventures, Orientalism, and feminine power.

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