‘It is 1959, Damascus. The most famous storyteller in Damascus, Salim, the coachman, has mysteriously lost his voice. For seven nights, his seven old friends gather to break the spell with their seven different, unique stories — some personal, some modern, some borrowed from the past. Against the backdrop of shifting Middle Eastern politics, Schami’s eight characters, lost to the Arabian nights, weave in and out of tales of wizards and princesses, of New York skyscrapers and America. With spellbinding power, Schami imparts a luscious vision of storytelling as food for thought and salve for the soul, as the glue which holds our lives together.’
Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami
(Translated by Philip Boehm)
Published: August 1st 1995 by Touchstone Books
Source: My bookshelf
The premise of Damascus Nights is whimsical – seven old friends come together to each tell a story in the hope of breaking the spell that binds the storyteller Salim to silence. Some are reluctant to tell stories and others are eager. A few end up sharing just as much about life through omission as well as the magical tales they weave to entertain and help each other.
‘Writing is not the voice’s shadow but the tracks of its steps.’
Different parts of the Middle-East are reflected in the stories and represented by the friends who come together from different towns and religions to help Salim. Fairies, demons, and stars also appear in this impromptu collection of tales, questions, and interruptions. Though I will talk around a few stories without spoilers here.
‘How one person’s true story was not believed, whereas his most blatant lie was.’
What is left unsaid sings just as much as the stories themselves. Tuma’s story is one such tale with many layers and appears in the middle of the book. It starts when his friends quiz him on his life as an immigrant in America. He shares a few humorous anecdotes but also the micro-aggressions and ethnocentric assumptions he encountered while living abroad.
In particular, Tuma recounts his experience of Americans automatically assuming he is Muslim and erasing the presence of many different religions in Arab countries. However, Tuma’s friends disregard some of his other immigrant experiences with disbelief, so Tuma ends up pulling back from sharing these personal stories. He compromises by sharing a distanced one to help Salim. Though his internal debate around sharing stories highlights the importance of trust in storytelling.
Throughout this collection of tales, the act and privilege around storytelling in different contexts is subtly hinted at. My favourite story was the final one for this reason. Fatma calls out Salim’s friends for talking over her right to share a story too. Fatma gets to weave the powerful story of Leila, another famous storyteller and how she came to lead an independent life.
It’s one I’ll always remember as both Fatma and Leila would make Scherezade proud.
Despite women appearing with in the tales themselves, I would have enjoyed hearing multiple perspectives from the women as storytellers (aside from just Fatma and Leila). On that note, I would love to read more tales both featuring and written by older women. (Feel free to recommend any relevant books or stories!) Though this was still a magical collection of tales and I look forward to picking up more translated works in the future.
*Thanks to a dear friend for recommending Damascus Nights.