When I first read the headline for this TED video, I knew I had found what I was searching for: an opportunity to learn something again, something useful, something fulfilling. I decided I was going to follow the same journey as Ann Morgan and read one work of literature from every country in the world. I will not be doing this in only one year, as she did, due to various factors, but mainly because that’s insane and there are 195 countries recognized by the UN plus Taiwan. That would leave me approximately 1.8 days to read an entire book. That’s the kind of shit I could pull off in middle school, when my only responsibility was to cram my brain full of knowledge, with free room and board. Nowadays I have very important adult matters to attend to like training humans how to read insurance documents so my company can more effectively make millions of dollars a year. You know, what I was put on Earth to do. But anyway, like Morgan said in her talk, I make no illusions that reading one book from a culture will make me an expert on that culture. That is impossible. So what is one book? Well, it’s a lot better than complete and utter ignorance, so there’s that.
I had to start with Syria, of course. For my first novel, I chose to stick to Ann Morgan’s path and read Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami, a fictional story about Salim the coachman. I chose Syria first because there’s some serious shit going down over there and I know next to nothing about the culture, the people, or the land. What a shame that war so often happens now between countries whose citizens don’t know anything about each other and don’t desire to either. I’m not sure what the solution to this is. Maybe a memo on the country we’re about to invade? Like a TV special with a brief synopsis of what culture we’re about to horribly and irreparably change. Before diving into the book, I decided to do some research to see what that synopsis would say for Syria.
It was originally part of the Ottoman Empire, a giant swath of land composed of present day Greece, Turkey, North Africa, Iraq, Israel, Egypt, and others. The Ottoman Empire was slowly whittled away, until it was almost completely disintegrated by 1922. The Syrian region of the empire was officially taken over by France after World War 1 (britannica.com, Ottoman Empire). Damascus Nights contains many allusions to this French history. One of the main characters, Ali, was said to have hit a French general after the general insulted the prophet Mohammed and his aversion to alcohol. In retaliation, the general arrested Ali, pumped his stomach full of red wine with a funnel, and tied him to a stake outside in the sun. No one had heard of alcohol poisoning, as most citizens were Muslim, but somehow he was rescued and saved (ch. 2). So…I think we can safely say the French occupation was not a time most Syrians look back on fondly. Syria was granted independence in 1946 and, besides brief periods of peace, it has been racked with several wars, culminating in the current civil war. It was briefly a part of Egypt from 1958-1961 and it lost part of its land to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Currently Syria is facing an awful showdown between the government, different groups of rebels, their various Big Name allies, and Daesh (CIA World Factbook).
According to the CIA World Factbook, in July of 2014 Syria had a population of 17,064,854, but as of December 2015, 4.4 million of those people are refugees in other countries and another 6.4 million have been forced out of their homes into other parts of the country . Sometimes I feel like people underestimate how fucking awful it is to be internally displaced, as though it’s somehow less horrifying to know your past life is over while living in a refugee camp 500 miles from home instead of 5,000. Anyway, a statistic I always find illuminating is literacy rates. In 2015, 91.7% of males over 15 could read and 81% of females over 15 could read. I also found this potentially worrisome fact: “Diplomatic representation in the US. note: Embassy ceased operation on 18 March 2014”. Okay, one last random statistic because I feel like I’m rambling here. In 2014, approximately 26.7% of the population were internet users. In comparison, 86.8% of the US population were Internet users. Let the implications of that sink in. (My source was the goddamn CIA World Factbook)
On to the book! Damascus Nights tells the story of Salim the Coachman who one day loses his voice. This was a catastrophe, for he was also known as Salim the Storyteller, one of the most talented and entertaining storytellers in Damascus. This legacy first began when Salim decided he needed a way to attract more customers, so to help pass the time as he drove passengers to and from Damascus to Beirut, he provided free entertainment in the form of unbelievable stories. The stories could be about fairies, kings, an evil octopus, a ferocious bear, or anything at all really. It wasn’t the plot of the stories that made him so popular. Salim could make people really feel what the characters were experiencing. He was able to inspire anger, fear, and laughter even in the most disinterested listener.
One, day Salim learns why: A fairy comes to him and tells him that it has been her the whole time, whispering in his ear, steering the course of his stories. By now Salim is very old. He has no more passengers to attend to and she too, has aged. The fairy concludes that she must retire, and when she does Salim the Storyteller will lose his voice forever. All hope is not lost however. She also tells him that a new fairy will be summoned if Salim receives seven gifts before the end of the next three months.
Salim and his seven best friends, who in their old age meet every day precisely at 8pm, try out different theories on what the seven gifts could be. Eventually one friend decides all of them must tell Salim one story of their own. So for the rest of the book, we hear seven different stories from seven very different 70 year old, Syrian men: a locksmith, a geography teacher, a barber, a statesmen, an “emigrant” who once lived in America, a cafe owner, and an ex-prisoner. I’m not going to write out what happened in all of the stories, but I will discuss the ones that were especially illuminating.
The stories told by Junis, the cafe owner, contain many of the cultural gems in Damascus Nights. Junis first tells the story of a farmer who farted during a wedding celebration and was so ashamed and ridiculed he fled all the way to Brazil. When he came back over 20 years later, the town not only still remembered the infamous fart, they also tracked time using the event’s date as a marker. As it is in all cultures, shame and embarrassment are powerful influencers that can upend entire lives. Junis then tells his own personal story of how he came to be a cafe owner even though he grew up a farmer’s son. His father originally wanted him to be an imam, a prayer leader in a mosque, similar to a priest. It was a common goal for a Muslim father as “any family that provided the mosque with its imam earned great respect in the village” (ch. 7). Junis failed at his lessons at the age of 12, mostly because the imam would beat the shit out of him and that tends to get in the way of learning. In response, his father stopped talking to him. A couple of years later, Junis’s mom died and his father became even more withdrawn. One day, after harvesting the wheat crop, Junis went to go play with his friends and talk about the dreams they had last night. When he came back, someone had stolen every single hull of wheat. Junis was so frightened of how his father would respond, he fled and never went back home. His shame was too much to bear.
The other part of the book I definitely want to talk about are the stories from Tuma, the emigrant, because his reflections on America are both humorous and enlightening. I’ve been studying anthropology for years now, but there are still times when my entire worldview gets transformed from one tiny piece of information. In Damascus Nights, that piece of information is that it is quite uncommon for Arabs, or at least Syrians, to celebrate birthdays. Tuma explains that “for the Americans, a birthday is more important than Easter.” Isam, the ex-prisoner, quickly denies this possibility and says but “if you know your own birthday, you’ll just get older and older,” which does make a lot of sense to be honest (ch. 8). How childishly giddy I am when I learn something that undermines my ethnocentricity! It’s also important to note that Tuma uses Easter to compare the strength of American’s reverence for birthdays – a very holy, religious day. Mentions of Islam and Christianity abound in many of these stories; religion is an integral part of both daily life and its fictitious accounts. Tuma also riles up his incredulous friends when he reveals that Americans do not barter. If there is a price tag with a price on it, the merchant isn’t going to drop that price no matter how many sweet words or threats you throw their way. In contrast, in Syria, it’s not only common but often expected for customers to haggle with merchants in order to get a fair price. You are viewed as a fool and pitied if you let someone take advantage of you by paying what was originally asked. This is a common cultural trait in non-Western countries. While it can definitely lead to a good deal, I hate bartering with every inch of my shy, self conscious soul. I would rather pay $150 and not have to talk to someone then pay $70 and play a game of who has bigger ovaries.
Damascus Nights was a perfect first book to start my reading journey. I learned a lot about Syria and while I certainly can’t claim to fully understand the country or its people, I can say with near certainty that most Syrians don’t give enough of a shit about America to plot our demise. The main takeaway from this book is that storytelling is instrumental to the lives of Syrians. Stories and the act of telling them provide humor, wisdom, and the tools for creating friendship. Hell, there’s even a career path for professional storytellers. They are called “hakawati” and they are hired by store owners and event organizers to provide entertainment. In the beginning of the book, Salim explains why he is such a good storyteller, and why people who live in the desert in particular are very adept at spinning tales. He says that this talent is a gift from the desert to all of those who choose to settle in its midst and provide it company, for the desert is often lonely. People only ever pass through it and only rarely does someone commit to cultivating the land to make it sustainable. Salim’s ancestors believed “that paradise was simply loneliness that had been overcome” and so in the desert they found paradise.
Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami