Having just read Tahir Shah’s In Arabian Nights, I find myself wondering about making it a required text for the general education course that I teach, Good Stories: Teaching Narratives for Peace & Justice. In addition to its explication of “teaching story” (as noted in my previous blog), the book offers several compelling features:
- Modeling the desire for finding “the story in your heart”
- Asserting that no one else can give you that story
- Teaching the journey (not just the destination)
- Attracting by character, both cultural and personal
Modeling the desire for finding “the story in your heart.” To brand oneself with the term “storytelling” in an academic context pretty much says SECOND-CLASS: unworthy of merit, possible entertainment value. It reminds us of the “fool” in the royal court. The wisest rulers valued the role in moral advocacy (e.g., peace & justice), but most everyone just wanted a laugh. Shah’s first pages tell his own real-life hostage crisis, proving this book is not just fun and games; and he reminds us along the way that the place of story in our world is not primarily for entertainment. Shah’s passion for finding his own story marks most forcefully its priority for finding meaning and vitality in life. I want my students to know that’s the way I feel about what we’re doing. It’s so serious we have to be playful, and it’s most serious.
Asserting that no one else can give you the story of your heart. My students, like all of us, would like explicit directions, a recipe, the failsafe formula, capital T truth. Just give me the answer, why don’t you! In his search, Shah repeatedly hears from his guides that it simply doesn’t work that way. No one else knows another person’s heart. Presuming to do so deprives the other of his or her most precious inheritance. Shah shows the trouble and the joy entailed with unique identity and personal freedom.
Teaching the journey (not just the destination). Tahir Shah tells of a treasure chest given to him by his father and of preparing an equally special box for his daughter. The diamond inside is paper with a story inscribed. While Shah doesn’t use the term, one classification I’d use for the treasure is “nonsense tale” because it doesn’t have a single clear moral or thesis and can easily be tossed off because it’s not easily opened. It’s like the peach, having a seed inside that can be trashed as a stone; but when handled with respect, it bears fruit. First there’s the planting, the waiting, and the shaping of the tree. While Shah does reach the story in his heart, the experiences along the way are as much, if not more, exciting and illuminating. Perhaps quantum storytelling suggests it’s both particle and wave; the journey, a wave (zigzag according to Shah); the destination, one particle.
Attracting by character, both cultural and personal. I’m amazed at the texture of relationship displayed In Arabian Nights. Friendship means saying “yes” when asked for a favor without weighing out “what is it” first. Inequities between males and females are not glossed over—that’s mostly left for other treatises, like Beneath the Veil made by Saira Shah, Tahir’s sister. In Arabian Nights tells how friendships embody one of the essential conclusions of another if our Good Stories' required texts, On the Origin of Stories: Cognition, Evolution, & Fiction by Brian Boyd. Our chance for peace and justice may well depend on our enactment of reciprocal altruism. Shah elaborates how the favor system entails a reciprocal link and how the culture depends on it, along with the sense of honor and shame. Morocco and the Arab world are not put on a pedestal, but opportunities for the West to advance toward peace can be found.
In his closing pages, Shah writes of his destiny. “I see the East through one eye, and the West through the other. I understand how they both feel, but I don’t know how to tell one about the other.”
A friend advises him, “There’s a way to teach. It’s so subtle that the student doesn’t realize he’s being taught anything at all. . . [It works] in the way that a teaching story seeps in and sows a grain of wisdom. You don’t see it coming, and don’t know it’s there until it’s working for you.”
Shah concludes, “What if I could start my own kind of College of Storytellers. . .”