“Damascus Nights portrays life in the Arab world today
CAIRO: The New York Times Book Review calls it “timely and timeless at once. Rafik Schami’s “Damascus Nights, while being both timely and timeless, is so much more. “Damascus Nights is a novel that transcends not only time, but borders. Set in Damascus over a half a century ago, the novel concerns the lives of seven old men that meet nightly to discuss the state of affairs in Syria (during the United Arab Republic era with Egypt). Although translated into English 10 years ago, the themes and ideas remain a constant even today.
Salim is a storyteller, one of the most famous hakawatis in all of Damascus. He had been a coachman between Beirut and Damascus for years before his retirement. It was during this period that he lost his voice. A fairy appeared to him, telling him that he needed seven gifts within three months or he would lose his voice forever.
The book can read two ways. First, it is a simple story about an old man and his friends, who live each day monotonously together, grouping in early evening to recount their histories. However, the second, and arguably more intriguing façade, is the social commentary that it attempts to bring forth. “Damascus Nights is a novel that any ardent observer of Middle Eastern politics and history would find appetizing, as it whets the reader’s mind wander and speculate on every passages underlining meaning.
As each member of the cast sits in Salim’s small, room puffing at their shisha without end, sipping steaming hot tea and listening to each other impart story after story, it becomes clear that what they are talking about are not stories of some distant past or ideological future, but instead of friendship and the current state of affairs, which although set in Damascus a half a century ago, can be read as a commentary on the current Arab world.
As opposition and reform movements abound in the region today, one passage sticks out which appeals to the intellect as characteristic of today’s world.
“There are these two assassins hiding right outside the presidential palace. They’re waiting for the president to come out and their fingers are glued to their pistols. Well the whole day goes by and the president never leaves the palace. So the assassins keep waiting. The next day comes and goes with no sign of the president. Then the third day comes and the same thing happens. By now the men are pretty upset.
‘Where the hell can he be?’ asks one.
“The other man turns to his companion, full of concern, and says, ‘God, I hope nothing’s happened to him!
Albeit a sly jab at the establishment, the passage is representative of Arab civil society, today. On almost every street corner café, or taxi, Arabs in the region over-express their discontent with the continued state of affairs of their leaders, their corruption and power. Yet, those same individuals, like the ones in the story above, are so afraid of agents of the state to actually pick up their feet.
The novel, besides the beautiful story of friends coming together in order to reaffirm their friendship and devotion in each other, takes jabs at Arab leaders often thought of as being untouchable. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of Egypt, figures greatly in the novel, as at the historical moment the book is set in, Syria and Egypt are combined into the United Arab Republic.
Faris, the former Foreign Minister, often talks of the agents of the state that are always listening to everyone’s words. He often comments that the spies are everywhere and only Nasser would be so bold as to bring down on the Syrian people the corruption that power brings.
Schami’s keen sense of knowing when and where to push the button makes “Damascus Nights an ideal novel for all types of readers.
If the interest falls into attempting to understand what the average Arab is thinking today, this book would undoubtedly help in that endeavor, for each encounters have a message that can be taken in today’s context. At the same time, however, Schami’s storytelling ability is unsurpassed, even by the most known storytellers of the age.
The knowledge and understanding of the west and the Middle East comes through in the novel that creates a world that very few Arabs and western scholars know.
The most eye-catching message throughout the novel is one of place. The reader, be they Arab or western, must have a solid reference point in order to grasp the full meaning of what Schami is attempting to convey. It is in the knowledge of the region that the book truly comes alive.
However, it transcends location, as it is ultimately a story about friendship and life. Life doesn’t end at a certain age and even if one loses his voice, in any manner, the beauty of what we have here, today, can still be cherished.
Schami seems to have found Yoda (of “Star Wars fame) an inspiration in his writing, as his novel yells for all to read and repeat, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.