Rafik Schami: Damascus Nights

“Writing is not the voice’s shadow but the track of its steps… only writing has the power to move a voice through time, and make it as immortal as the gods.”

In an attempt to read something that would get my mind off Philippine politics, I sought asylum at my Silk Route | Fertile Crescent shelf. This is one of the books from a hefty stack that a bookseller set aside for me because he knows of my current preferred literary flavors and reading project. And sure enough, I could hardly put this one down as soon as I started!

It is about a storyteller who loses his voice and the stories that allowed him to retrieve it.

As much as it is a wonderful reflection on writing and storytelling, Damascus Nights is, as you may have already guessed, a play on the Arabian Nights. But Rafik Schami makes the Arabian Nights what I would have preferred it to be! The fantastical quality of the original is still there, but he allows you to feel, smell, and hear the Syria before the humanitarian disaster, the lively early to mid-20th century Damascus, while weaving a social commentary on Damascene life, exploring identity and exile, foreign affairs, corruption, and a none too subtle criticism of its rulers! This turned out to be excessively political — without losing its humor and lightness!

Nevertheless, page 108 made me stop in my reading tracks. It is where an old man is insulted by an official, but his son who owns a teahouse begs him to refrain from retaliating: “‘That would ruin me,’ he said, ‘they’d shut down the place within hours.’ Someone would plant a handful of hashish somewhere, you see, or else a book by Lenin. The police would show up an hour later, and they’d find the hashish and the Lenin exactly where the man from the secret police had stashed them. The place would be closed and its proprietor thrown in prison for ten or twenty years.” Red-tagging and this so-called drug war abused to punish political or personal critics are some of the oldest tricks in the book, my friends. I will not write anything else on the matter. Even in reading, you cannot escape from something you care about.

Rafik Schami is another proof of the claim that we are missing so much as readers if we cease from exploring the literary wonders of this region. And isn’t his About the Author section the most charming you’ve ever encountered?

“…is an award-winning author who used to be a baker but didn’t like the flour and early hours. Since giving up baking, he has tried his hand at chemistry to discover the formula for immortality. What he found was that he could only do that through writing, because only literature lives forever.”

Excuse me as I go hunt for more books by Rafik Schami…