Reverse Crossover: Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami


Paperback, 272 pages
Published August 1st 1995 by Touchstone Books
Source: Personal copy

Lies and spices are brothers and sisters. Lies turn any bland fare into a piquant delicacy. The truth and nothing but the truth is something only a judge wants to hear.

This book was recommended to me by a friend whom I have since lost contact with (hi Haroon!) and I cannot stress how grateful I am that he urged me to read this Damascus Nights. I was about 18 (how young) when I read this and I reckon that the book is a good fit for anyone who enjoys stories and storytelling.

Damascus Nights is about Salim, a coachman and also the most famous storyteller in all of Damascus. When he tells stories, people from all over Damascus gather to hear them. He spends his evenings with seven of his closest friends. They tell each other stories, they argue, and they laugh. One night, Salim loses his voice and the only way he can regain it is if he is given seven wondrous gifts. Salim’s seven friends try to give him different things to see if his voice comes back but they fail consecutively. Until one of them realizes that the ‘gift’ in question is a story. Each of Salim’s friends must tell Salim (and the gathering of friends) a story. Seven friends equal seven stories equal seven wondrous gifts. It’s the only way to save Salim’s voice.

With some misgivings and a whole lot of reluctance, the friends agree to share their stories and so begins Damascus Nights. The novel is Arabian Nights without Scheherazade and the rapacious king. Damascus comes to glorious life in Schami’s book; his imagery is so concrete that you will be able to hear the vegetable-seller’s call, or the muezzin saying the azaan. You will feel the heat of the coffee in the cup Salim holds and you will hear the voice of the chosen storyteller of the night. The narrator of the story is a shadowy character in the book whose presence the readers will see once or twice but never in any detail.

Each story offers something new, something wondrous. There are flying carpets, lost love, abandoned children, demons, masks, fairies. Some tales are sly, some twist and twirl and every tale matches the teller. I really admired the way Schami differentiated between all his characters; he individuated each character so thoroughly that it is possible to know who is speaking simply by the way they speak. This is not easy to do as any writer will tell you.

The friendship between the old men is a wonderful part of the novel: the way they tease each other, the way they argue, the way they offer understanding and help. Sometimes, the way the story is told (with the frequent interruptions) is as wonderful as the story itself. There is political commentary woven throughout the stories and a more aware reader will be able to extrapolate these opinions and perhaps write a wonderful essay on it. (I’m just saying.) But the novel itself offers a unique glimpse of a culture foreign to us who live in North America. Damascus Nights allows us to walk on terrain that would otherwise be impossible for us to traverse.

Syria has a long tradition of storytellers and a quick search on the internet will reveal the storyteller of Damascus who passed away recently. Damascus Nights pays homage to the tradition of storytelling and points at the importance of storytelling in human lives. Who we are is largely the stories we tell. I believe that children are often the ones who lost themselves the most in stories, and as such may be able to empathize the most with the Salim the storyteller and his quest to regain his voice and his ability to tell stories. I recommend it for teenage audiences but I dare say that if a parent were to read this one out loud to their children, both the parent and the child would enjoy it thorougly.

Note: My copy was translated wonderfully by Philip Boehm.

About the author: Born in Damascus, Syria in 1946, Rafik Schami (Arabic: رفيق شامي) is the son of a baker from an Arab-Christian (originally Aramaic) family. His schooling and university studies (diploma in chemistry) took place in Damascus. From 1965, Schami wrote stories in Arabic. From 1964-70 he was the co-founder and editor of the wall news-sheet Al-Muntalak (The Starting-Point) in the old quarter of the city. In 1971 Schami moved to Heidelberg and financed further studies by typical guest worker jobs (factories, building sites, restaurants). He earned his doctorate in chemistry in 1979 and began career in the chemical industry. In his spare time, he co-founded the literary group Südwind in 1980 and was part of the PoLiKunst movement. Schami became a full time author in 1982. He lives in Kirchheimbolanden with his Bavarian wife and son and he holds dual citizenship. Schami’s books have been translated into 20 languages. (source)

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