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Rafik Schami: Erzähler der Nacht (Damascus Nights)

While many nations may lay claim to a great story-telling tradition, there is no doubt that the Arabs can claim a certain superiority, not least because of the Thousand One Nights. This novel is about that tradition.

Salim was a coachman and a very good one. During the 1930s, he drove between Damascus and Beirut, a two day journey. The problem in those days was that coaches were likely to be attacked by brigands but Salim was smart. He left gifts for the brigands so that they did not attack his coach. Then the other coach drivers tried the same tactic. So, to outsmart the competition, Salim turned to telling stories. Salim insisted that his good fairy enabled him to be a good storyteller.

His technique was to tell a story and then encourage his passengers to tell a story. There was always someone ready to do so. He then stole this story and embellished it for future passengers. He worked as a coachman for thirty years. His son left for the United States and his daughter married a wealthy man elsewhere in the country, leaving Salim and his wife alone. There was no pension. His daughter (but not his son) helped him out.

Every evening seven friends came round: Ali the locksmith, Mehdi, the retired geography teacher, Musa, the barber, Faris, the former minister of finance, Tuma, who had returned from the United States, Junis, the café owner and Isam who had served twenty-four years in prison for a terrible murder he did not commit. By chance, the true murderer was caught one year before Isam was to be released. Our narrator, still a child, is also there but more as an errand boy though, of course, he listened in.

One day, Salim received a visit. It was his fairy who had come to say goodbye. She was retiring. Salim has twenty-one more words to use and then he will become mute. However . . . if you receive seven unique gifts within three months, then a young fairy will take my place and stand by your side.

With his twenty-one words, he manages to tell his friends. They are determined to find what are the gifts that are acceptable and come up with a host of ideas. The first suggestion is that he has invited to the house of each of them, one by one, to taste the fine cooking of their respective wives. That does not work so various other possibilities are mooted. Seven wines (it only gives him a hangover) and seven shirts and seven trousers are equally unsuccessful. Faris does manage to help him get his pension (with a bit of bribery) but while he is very pleased about that, he remains mute.

He has to travel over seven mountains, through seven valleys, and across seven plains. He has to sleep under seven foreign skies in seven foreign cities is another suggestion. He does. It doesn’t work nor do the various nature healers.

Finally, Mehdi comes up with the solution that we have suspected all along – seven stories. While, initially, not all agree, eventually it is decided and they draw cards to see who will go first. This book is about stories and their stories now entertain us, starting with Mehdi and his story about his father’s apprentice and a farmer who exchanges his beautiful voice for riches.

While we do hear the stories, there are complications, such as the man who cannot speak and has his wife tell the tale, or the man who goes on digressions all the time or the barber who cuts Salim’s hair while telling his story. One of the most interesting involves Tuma who explains how strange the Americans are in their customs (no haggling and the assumption that all Arabs are Muslims) and how the Americans cannot understand some of the Syrian customs.

In-between the stories we follow the daily life of Salim and the others, their dealings with others and even the occasional stories they pick up. There is is also a lot of discussion about life, including the current political situation (the books is set in 1959 when Syria and Egypt formed (briefly) one country, the United Arab Republic), an apparent cholera epidemic which the government is hushing up and the secret police, who are mocked.

The novel is great fun, as it all done somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Most of the stories are Arabian-Nights style fantasies, though some are more grounded in reality, with the former émigré and former prisoner touching on their own experiences. Some are even stories within stories. All the men are different and have different experiences and all have their individual characters, to add to the heady mixture. Above all, this is a book to read for fun.

Publishing history

First published 1989 by Beltz & Gelberg
First published in English by Arabia Books in 1993
Translated by Philip Boehm.