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Fatema Mernissi

Why was China an enchanted land in my childhood?

Introduction to the Chinese Edition of Dreams of Trespass

Shortened version
© Fatema Mernissi, 2007

Only when I was asked by Ms Situ Shuang, the wife of China's Ambassador to Morocco who translated my book" Dreams of Trespass", to write an introduction to the Chinese edition, did I realize that in my childhood her country was synonymous with enchantment. But why was that so? Why did Moroccan children of my age confuse China with charm and fascination? () What inspired my dreams as a child were the stories grandmothers and aunts told us and the magic birds artisans embedded in their crafts, starting with Chinese ceramics. And it is this fantasy-fueled childhood I tried to capture in my only fiction book "Dreams of Trespass". In my Moroccan courtyard China kept emerging constantly either in the popular fairy tales inspired by the 'One Thousand and One Night Tales' that grandmothers and aunts told us after sunset or by the delicate birds painted on the precious imported porcelain they tried to imitate in their embroideries.

Grandmothers and aunts were the main source of entertainment before the television everywhere I guess, and the experience of the Iraqi translator of '1001 Night' into English, Hassan Haddawi describes mine perfectly :"It has been some years now since as a little boy in Baghdad I used to listen to tales from 'The One Thousand and One Nights'," he remembered. "It was on long winter nights, when my grandmother was visited by one lady or another ... we would huddle around the brazier, as the embers glowed in the dim light of the oil lamp ... I waited patiently ..."(1) And just like myself, Hassan Haddawi who lived at least 5000 km away from my Moroccan city of Fez, added that "I used to like romances and fairy tales best, because they took me to a land of magic."(2) And among the lands of magic in the tales, China kept constantly emerging. In fact it is in China that the '1001 Night Tales' start, since the troubled King Shahrayar, the main hero, happened to be living right there.

China's enchantment is due to its link with the 'One thousand and One Night'
This is how the 1001 Tales start:" It was related but only Allah knows, that long ago in ancient times and bygone centuries accounts, there was a mighty King from the Sasanid dynasty (Persian) who lived in the islands of India and China and who had a powerful army and staff...He had two sons who were superb knights. The oldest name was Shahrayar and the youngest Shahzaman."(3) It all starts with the main heroes: the King Shahrayar discovering that his wife had betrayed him


But the new enigma we have to solve now is why China played such an important role in the imagination of Arab storytellers who crafted the tales in 9th and 10th century Baghdad? I think that the reason was the importance of the trade between these two parts of the world because, as the Italian novelist Umberto Eco stressed, "Every fictional world is based, parasitically, upon the actual one, which the fictional world takes as its background".(4) If many tales such as that of 'Sindbad the Sailor' involved navigating east towards China, it is because they reflected the cosmopolitan reality of Baghdad, a city created by the Abbassid Caliphs in 762 A.D. (145Hijra on the Moslem calendar) which traded with the entire planet. "In Baghdad gathered that which does not exist in any other city in the world," wrote Yacoubi, a nineth century geographer (898 AD/ 284 Hijra). "On its flanks flow two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and thus goods and foodstuffs come to it by land and by water with the greatest ease, so that every kind of merchandise is completely available, from east and west, from Muslim and non-Muslim lands. Goods are brought from India, Sind, China, Tibet, tha lands of the Turks, the Daylam, the Khazars, the Ethiopians and others to such an extent that the products of the countries are more plentiful in Baghdad than in the countries from which they come."(5) Taking the risks to navigate towards China was worth the trouble for a Moslem traveler, since as Jahiz, a nineth century author explained, adventurous Arab merchants imported huge profit-making luxuries to Baghdad: "From China came aromatics, silk, porcelain, paper, ink, peacocks, fiery horses, saddles, felt, cinnamon, and unmixed rhubarb."(6)

Only with the economic background could we understand tales such as those of 'Sindbad the Sailor' who was described as extremely wealthy while another inhabitant of Bagdad who had the same name but never dared to travel was described as poor: "It is the adventures Arab travelers described, once back in Baghdad, remembering their trips to India and China, which inspired the storytellers, who invented Sindbad, one of the fictional heroes of the "1001 Nights".(7) The King of China is granted the hero's role in many tales, mostly as a protector of the stranger's rights when an Arab merchants gets involved in complicated thriller scenarios such as that of "The Story of the Hunchback" Sheherazade narrated in the one hundred and second night: "It happened that the hunchback was the favorite clown of the King of China, who could not bear to be without him even for the batting of an eye. So that when the hunchback got drunk and failed to make his appearance before the king that night ... he at last inquired about him."(8) And of course, as soon as the police started enquiring into the affair, the king of China found the time to listen to the foreigners involved in the thriller to make sure that their rights were guaranteed, starting with an Egyptian broker : "O King, I came as a stranger to your country, bringing merchandise with me, and was fated to stay here these many years. I was born a Copt(Christian), a native of Cairo. My father was a prominent broker, and when he died, I became a broker in his place and worked there for many years." There follows a long story where the Egyptian explains to the King of Chinath e mysterious path where he met his hunchback. But I am not going to tell you the whole story because I want to entice you to look directly at a Chinese copy of "1001 Nights" to discover the rest. And now I will conclude by giving a glimpse of the fascination of the Arabs with the esthetic dimension of China : the perfection of its artists.

China's reputation as a land of artists : its ceramic birds inspired my aunts embroideries
Besides being the source of luxuries, China had another enchanting feature: it is the wonderful birds painted by its artists on the precious silk and ceramic pieces the wealthiest members of my family exhibited during festivals and special events. And painting birds were , as one can guess, the obsession of women stuck in the harem, as I explain in this book. To teach a child how to create beauty, Professor Tazi, our secondary school teacher forced us to learn by heart a passage on Chinese artists from Mas'udi, the 10th century Arab historian who was born in Baghdad in 896 AD. Mas'udi who spent most of his life travelling and writing alluring manuals we would call tourist guides today, described himself as more adventurous than the fictitious Sindbad: "I have sailed many of seas, the Chinese, the Roman, that of the Khazars, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea and have experienced innumerable panics during my trips ...".(9) He went to a lot of trouble to discover the planet, he says, and one of the things which struck him was the Chinese artists:" The inhabitants of this empire are the most gifted among God's creatures, when it comes to the dexterity of their hands in painting and in all kind of arts. No other nation can compete with them in this field."(10) And Mas'udi proceeded to explain the reason why the Chinese were so productive in the arts and came to the conclusion that it was the king's sponsoring which forced artisans to compete ferociously with each other. "When a Chinese creates with his hands a piece he thought of as unique, he will bring it to the king's palace with the hope of getting a reward for it as a work of genius. The king gives then an order for the piece to be exhibited in the palace for one year. If during this time no one criticizes it by noticing a defect, the king then grants him the prize and admits him among his palace artists. But if a defect is noticed in the piece, he is sent back without gratification."(11)

But the passage from Mas'udi which enchanted me as a child, and encouraged me to pay attention to tiny details, was where a hunchback noticed a defect in a painting of a bird exhibited at palace which brought the king of China to dismiss the artist as mediocre: "One day, a man presented a piece of silk with a sparrow perched on a branch which was so perfect that the spectator took it for real. This masterpiece was exhibited for a long time. One day a hunchback noticed a defect and started criticizing it."(12) And when he was invited by the king to explain his criticism, his answer was simple: "Everyone knows that when a sparrow falls on a branch, it forces it to bend. And the artist did not reflect this in his painting."(13) And that is how the perceptive hunchback brought the clumsy artist to lose his chance of getting the king's prize!

Decades later, when I decided to write "Dreams of Trespass", I decided to avoid at any cost the fate of the distracted Chinese artist who forgot to reflect reality as accurately as possible in his fiction: his invented piece.

However, I have to confess that I did introduce one major change in my childhood reality to create a more enchanting fiction in this book: my mother is very nice in "Dreams of Trespass"! I decided to delete her ferocious dimension. In real life, my mother insulted me often and spent her time criticizing me. Exactly like your mother did in Shanghai or wherever you happen to be born. And I think that my decision to tamper with reality and forget about violence to focus solely on the nurturing dimension of the mother is the source of all enchantments: it highlights our vulnerable side.

And vulnerability is what this book is about. And I guess this is why it has been translated into 30 languages: vulnerability is our universal bond. The universal bond, which will bring us all, hopefully, to engineer a more secure globalized planet than the one we live on now.

1 Husain Haddawy "The Arabian Nights", English translation based on the Arabic original edited by Musin Mahdi, Norton and Co, New York, 1990, First page of the introduction.
2 Husain Haddawy "The Arabian Nights", English translation based on the Arabic original edited by Musin Mahdi, Norton and Co, New York, 1990, First page of the introduction.
3 Mas'udi: 'Muruj ad Dahab' ( The Golden Meadows), dar al ma'rifa, beyrouth,1983.The English translation is that of Adam Metz "Marine Navigation " chapter 29 of his book "The Renaissance of Islam", Luzac and Co, London, 1937p 510. h
4 Umberto Eco: "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods" Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 1993. p 92.
5 Yacoubi, Ahmad Ibn Abi Ya'qub:" Kitab al buldan' (Book of the Countries)ed. Goeje, second edition, Leiden(Brill), 1892. page 232/ The English translation is that of Bernard Lewis " Islam" Harper and Row, New york, 1974, volume II p 71.
6 Jahiz " Epistle on trade's prospective strategic planning"( Kitab at-tabassur bi-tijara), commented by Hassan Husni At-Tunusi, maktabat al Khanji, Cairo, edition of 1994 page 26 / The English translation is that of Bernard Lewis" Islam." Harper and Row, New york, 1974, volume II, p 155.
7 See my two articles on Sindbad posted on my website ( The first is "The Cowboy or Sindbad - Who Will be the Globalization Winner?" and the second "Is the Satellite Reawakening Sindbad?"Adab, or Allying with the Stranger as the Strategy to Win the Globalized Planet."Erasmus Speech 2004.
8 See the English translation of "The Arabian Nights", by Husain Haddawy, based on the text edited by Musin Mahdi, Norton and Co, New York, 1990, page 10.
9 My English translation of Al Mas'udi"TheMeadows of Gold"(Muruj ad-Dahab), dar Al Ma'rifa,Beyrouth,1983, Volume I.The Arabic quote is from his chapter on "Kings of China" page 10.
10 My English translation of Al Mas'udi"TheMeadows of Gold"(Muruj ad-Dahab), dar Al Ma'rifa,Beyrouth,1983, Volume I.The Arabic quote is from the chapter on "Kings of China" page 146.
11 My English translation of Al Mas'udi"TheMeadows of Gold"(Muruj ad-Dahab), dar Al Ma'rifa,Beyrouth,1983, Volume I.The Arabic quote is from his chapter on "Kings of China" page 146.
12 My English translation of Al Mas'udi"TheMeadows of Gold"(Muruj ad-Dahab), dar Al Ma'rifa,Beyrouth,1983, Volume I.The Arabic quote is from his chapter on "Kings of China" page 146.
13 My English translation of Al Mas'udi"TheMeadows of Gold"(Muruj ad-Dahab), dar Al Ma'rifa,Beyrouth,1983, Volume I.The Arabic quote is from his chapter on "Kings of China" page 146.

© Fatema Merissi
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