With war-torn Baghdad so much on everyone’s minds these days, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at a different Baghdad: a city of caliphs and flying carpets. I’m talking about the Baghdad of the Arabian Nights, as depicted in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #50, “Ramadan.”
The Baghdad of “Ramadan” is rich, ornate, and magnificent, and at its center is the marvelous palace of caliph Haroun Al-Raschid. In this comic book’s delightfully lush introduction, we discover the palace’s hidden treasures and dark secrets, and read about such wonders as the winged horse of glass and the other egg of the phoenix. But even the streets of Baghdad are rich in wonders, and in its marketplace we find apes, exotic birds, and half-human slaves.
The story is about how Haroun Al-Raschid summons up the Lord of Dreams and convinces him to take the Golden Age of Baghdad “into dreams” where it shall last forever. But more than that, “Ramadan” is a story about storytelling. Hints of stories upon stories can be found in nearly every panel of the comic, from the throw-away mention of a doomed hunchback to a pair of plums that is accompanied by a tale left untold. The very last page reveals that the whole tale was being told by an old beggar to a lame little boy, who then limps away through a Baghdad of bombed-out rubble, but with his mind filled with “towers and jewels and djinn, carpets and rings and wild afreets, kings and princes and cities of brass.”
And so we are confronted with the question: which is the true Baghdad? The fantastical paradise of the beggar’s tale? Or the real-world city torn asunder by war? From there we must then ask, what is the purpose of storytelling anyway? Is it merely an escape from reality? Or does fantasy have an intrinsic value, simply as art? Could it even have insidous uses? (It is possible to view Haroun Al-Raschid as a tyrant who promotes a lavish fantasy of his city to hide the cruelty of his reign hinted at by its dungeons and executions — though I doubt that was Gaiman’s intention.)
There are no clear answers… but there is a hint. At one point, Haroun Al-Raschid threatens to destroy a crystal globe full of demons, which upon escaping would destroy the minds and dreams of humankind. Fortunately, the Lord of Dreams prevents the disaster. It seems that Gaiman is making the point that the end of dreams — and of stories — would as great a tragedy as any war, if not greater. After all, it is our ability to dream and to re-imagine the world through storytelling that makes us human. A world of purely matter-of-fact, objective reality would not be a world worth living in.
Yet to this day the world’s storytellers and “imagineers” remain insecure about their contribution to the world. It’s not enough just to be a actor or musician anymore — one must be associated with a cause like world hunger or AIDS. And celebrities are boycotting the Oscars because they think a whole show devoted to cinema is something “frivolous” in a time of war. Perhaps they haven’t watched best picture nominee The Pianist, which is about the Holocaust.
And perhaps they don’t realize that without the culture and arts that express the dreams and yearnings of a people, there wouldn’t be anything worth fighting for.