We’re back for another episode of Origin Stories, where I—you guessed it—talk about the origins of my stories! And today we’re going to be talking about Book #2 in the Fairytale Series, Arabian Nights.
I suggest checking out the post on Once Upon a One Night Stand, Book #1 in the Fairytale Series, before heading into this one so you have a little more background. And timeline wise, we’ve finally moved fully into the Wattpad days…
Genre(s): YA/NA, Romance, Drama
Series: The Fairytale Series, Book #2
Summary: Blair Bakhtiar always wanted to be royalty. Zayn al-Haydar wanted to be anything but. When one fateful summer brings them together, the two discover that maybe it’s not that much better on the other side… but the journey there is always full of surprises, with love being the biggest surprise of them all.
Arabian Nights was my favorite story to write.
I knew I wanted to write a story about Blair Bakhtiar the second she was introduced in OUAONS. Even though she was one of the antagonists in that story, she immediately became my favorite character. In fact, I started plotting/writing her story before I even finished OUAONS.
I wrote the prologue and first couple chapters of AN back in 2008, and then I put it off to the side while I finished OUAONS, wrote the entire Gold Series, and put a large dent in turnpike. Part of the reason I kept putting off working on it was because I didn’t feel like I was ready to tackle the story. It wasn’t until 2015 that I was able to say to myself, “Okay, let’s do this.”
But first, we need to go back a little bit. Actually, we need to go back a lot.
Welcome to the World of Romance Novels
My introduction to romance books came in the form of those little Harlequin novels. You know, the ones with those fun titles like The Boss’s Convenient Proposal, The Cattle Baron’s Bride, and The Spaniard’s Baby of Revenge. I swear, those are all real books.
But the ones that I found myself drawn to were the ones about sheikhs, like In the Arms of the Sheikh, The Sheikh’s Secret, The Sheikh’s Guarded Heart, Accidentally the Sheikh’s Wife, etc. (there are A LOT)
I’ve always had an interest in the Middle East, which likely has a little bit to do with the fact that I’m Persian and have a vast appreciation for the culture. But in general, the region has such a rich history and reading books set there is a treat. So to see romance novels set there and with Middle Eastern characters? Sign me up!
So I read a few of those little Harlequin books… and ended up realizing how awful and othering and downright racist they can be.
Here’s the thing about those books: most of them invent a little desert nation, populate it with people with vaguely Arabic sounding names, give the MMC the title of “sheikh” and call it a day. That’s it. That’s the extent of the “representation”.
As I read a few, I realized that most of these authors (who are predominantly white women) do not know a single thing about the Middle East or its people. Of course, you could always argue that these countries and regions are fictional, that these stories aren’t really set in the Middle East, so it’s totally okay! They’re not really Middle Eastern characters. And yet, these writers are taking an Arabic honorific title and slapping it on a character who would likely never carry that title in the real world.
Needless to say, that didn’t sit right with me.
Actually, there are a few things that don’t sit right with me when it comes to those books. Allow me to list them:
- It’s almost always a white FMC who is wooed by one of these “sheikhs” and made into his queen. As a brown girl, I wanted to see someone who looked even slightly like me just once.
- These so-called “sheikhs” are always described using the most othering kind of language, including pointing out their “black slanted eyes” (as described in Crowned for the Sheikh’s Baby by Sharon Kendrick). Their deeply tanned skin is constantly being mentioned, contrasted with the FMC’s ~creamy, porcelain complexion~. Not to mention these men were all oh so exotic and dangerous
- Religion is almost never brought up. Sure, it might not be very ~sexy~ but how can you ignore something that has such an incredible impact on the culture/region?
- And speaking of cultures, it appears fine to most of these authors to take and twist Arabic words, and yet very little actual Arab culture ever seems present in the story. It seems most equate the word “sheikh” with “desert king” which is just… One Big Yikes
Essentially, these books were written for and by women who have either no concept or care about the actual Middle East, and all that matters is that they get their hot, vaguely brown, exotic man that the white FMC can tame into being the perfect husband.
And honestly, it’s gross. There, I said it!
Also, check out these articles that go a little more in-depth than I do about why they’re othering and gross. One even features quotes from a woman who writes these “sheikh romances” and what she says is pretty awful: Chicago Tribune & Jezebel
I was 13 when I first started reading romance novels like these. My friends and I would sneakily trade them around and have a giggle. Sleepovers featured whispered dramatic readings of certain passages that left us crying with laughter as we clutched at our stomachs, trying our best to stay quiet so our parents wouldn’t overhear. And yet, even then, hearing these men described as exotic, over-sexed alpha males always made me feel a little uneasy, even if I tried to ignore it.
By 14, I realized that, while I enjoyed reading about these “exotic” men, this wasn’t the content I wanted. Yes, I wanted a romance that had a non-white lead, but I didn’t want to settle for a problematic bastardization of cultures.
It was then that I realized that if I wanted that diverse romance, or even that “sheikh” romance, I was going to have to write it myself.
If You Want to Read It, You’ve Got to Write It
At that age, I was already writing Once Upon a One Night Stand, in which I had a Middle Eastern side character—a Persian girl by the name of Blair Bakhtiar. There was so much to explore with her character, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that she would be the perfect FMC for this future romance I wanted to write, solving my issue with nearly all those romance novels that almost exclusively had white FMCs.
This was going to be a diverse book, that much was obvious. My FMC was Persian, and my MMC was going to be Arab. And in case you’re wondering, those are not the same.
The one thing I will give those romance novels is their ability to create a fictional nation, so I knew I would do the same. But unlike them and their reluctance to actually say where these nations are, I made it very clear that mine was in the Middle East. Enter Malikbahr, the island nation in the Persian Gulf where my “sheikh” would not only hail from, but be crown prince of.
(base map courtesy of Google Maps)
It would be an Arab country with a similar history to the UAE, with a monarchy similar to Saudi Arabia’s and Jordan’s. When I say I did my research… guys, I Did My Research.
That research also included learning about religion—specifically, Islam—which plays a huge role in the region.
The other issue I had with those romances was the lack of acknowledgement of religion. Believe me, I understand why you wouldn’t want religion to be a theme in a super sexy romance novel, but… not even recognizing its existence? Especially when the MMC is a supposed “sheikh”??? Ehhhh, yeah, no. There’s only so much disbelief I can suspend while reading, and, for me, that wasn’t something I could overlook.
Either way, it gave me an idea: why not make my MMC religious? I knew it would be sensitive territory, but considering there are roughly 1.8 billion Muslims in the world it felt important to represent a religious character. My MMC was going to be a pretty devout Muslim.
On the flip side, our FMC is essentially only Muslim in name, a religion passed down to her through the generations, but never something that truly resonated with her enough to make her want to follow it to the letter. It was something I was sure plenty of people could also relate to, especially some of my fellow Persians/Iranians who are familiar with the country’s/culture’s relationship and history with Islam.
Again, when there are 1.8 billion people involved in a religion, not everyone will view or treat their faith the same way. No matter how many people want to try to deny that or argue that those people aren’t “really” part of that religion, it’s the truth.
So with my characters in place, it was time to start thinking of a plot.
Since OUAONS was a Cinderella retelling, it only made sense to make this new story a fairytale retelling as well. Or, well, at least a Disney movie retelling. Considering Aladdin was one of my favorite movies as a child (yes, I realize it has its issues too) it felt like the perfect fit for these characters. But mainly, I drew from the original source material for Aladdin: The 1001 Nights, also known as The Arabian Nights.
I think it’s pretty obvious where I got my title from!
With this material to work with, I began plotting. Heck, I even wrote the prologue and first chapter then! The only problem was… I hadn’t even finished OUAONS yet. Whoops.
So I worked on finishing that one (and rewriting it three more times) and the future Arabian Nights sat patiently, waiting for me to return to it.
Except, every time I opened the document, something in my mind kept telling me you’re not ready to take on this challenge yet. Looking back, I’m glad I listened to that voice, because if I’d attempted to write that story as a teenager, I wouldn’t have done it justice.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2015 that I realized I was ready as I would ever be to write it.
Welcome to Wattpad
At that point, I had already posted OUAONS and All That is Gold on Wattpad, and it was time to start a new project. I brushed off my original prologue and first chapter (fun fact: what you see posted is almost exactly what I wrote at 14/15; only a handful of lines were changed), posted them on Wattpad, and then got to work writing the rest of Blair Bakhtiar and Zayn al-Haydar’s love story.
Also, allow me to point out that Zayn has had his name since 2008 when I first wrote the prologue and first chapter of Arabian Nights. He is not named after or based on any former boy band member. In fact, his namesake was actually a boy I knew in middle school and my main inspiration for his character was Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai.
As I mentioned before, Arabian Nights truly was my favorite story to write. It was the story of my heart. It was a story that included my own ethnicity and culture, and allowed me to explore themes outside of those commonly found in YA and romance, especially on Wattpad. Plus, the site wasn’t exactly known for its diverse stories back then, so it really felt like I was writing something different with my two POC leads.
It took me almost exactly a year from that point to finish Arabian Nights. Excluding the prologue and first chapter, it was the shortest amount of time I’ve ever written a full-length novel in (and the entire story is about 140k words, which is REALLY LONG). But I managed to write it that quickly because I loved the story I was telling. I loved the characters. And more than anything, I loved Blair (later known as Laleh) and Zayn’s relationship.
That relationship is a pretty stark contrast to Sebastian and Taliana’s in OUAONS. While S&T’s started with a one-night stand, Laleh and Zayn shared only one relatively chaste kiss throughout the entire story. It was a romance, yes, but sex wasn’t a factor. In fact, Zayn was a virgin.
Yes, the MMC was a virgin and the FMC was not! Take that, “pure, virginal FMC” romance trope! We’re all about flipping and reversing those clichés!! And while I was at it, I took that “brother’s best friend” trope and, instead of having the brother warn his friend “hey, stay away from my sister!”, the brother warned his sister to back off his friend.
Man, this story brought me so much joy to write. I miss it nearly every day. All I can hope is that, eventually, I’ll find another story that will make me feel that wonderful again.
- Arabian Nights won a Watty Award in 2017 in The Originals category, which kind of blew my mind
- Laleh & Zayn will always be my #1 couple, no matter how many others I write. I can’t see the king and queen of my heart ever being dethroned
- Laleh is pretty much my only shorter/average height FMC at 5’5″. All the rest of them are 5’8″ or taller, mainly because I’m a tall lady and I don’t see enough of us in fiction, especially romance
I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest installment of Origin Stories! I’m still going in chronological order, so the next time I’ll be talking about Boys in Bands.
Is there anything else you’d like to know about Arabian Nights and its origins? Leave a comment below!