Reading “Ramadan”

I have mixed feelings about The Sandman #50.  As a piece of visual art, it’s incredibly spectacular with scads of pages that are all laid out with tons of delightfully detailed images.  If you just wanted to look at from that perspective, you’d be hard pressed to find anything wrong with P. Craig Russell’s turn as an artist for the series.

No, the art is honestly a delight.  The problem is with the story itself.

The premise of “Ramadan” is that Haroun Al Raschid, the Caliph during Baghdad’s golden age, is troubled by the realization that his city’s glory is evanescent from a cosmic perspective, and so he summons Dream to make a deal in order to preserve the city at its best for eternity.  Dream agrees that he can do such a thing, but he doesn’t explain that preserving the city’s age of wonders comes at the cost of taking it into dreams where it will have never existed in the first place.  The Caliph makes the deal anyway, and then awakes in the market, oblivious to the transformation that immediately comes over Baghdad so that it becomes a mundane city.  The final revelation of the story is that the entire tale has been told by an old man to a young boy in 1993 Baghdad where the recent Gulf War has clearly taken a toll.

The first and obvious takeaway is that this ending acts as a commentary on the results of the Gulf War, where the coalition forces that fought against the Iraqi army inflicted significant damage to Iraq’s infrastructure without establishing a clear connection between those actions and the operation’s primary goal of liberating Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion.  Gaiman seems to be making a pretty strong point about the damage that war inflicted on innocent civilians on the Iraqi side.  This is a good point, and a necessary one following a conflict that looked very cut and dry from most Western perspectives (I was in kindergarten when Operation Desert Storm happened, so my understanding of events was extremely simple, but as I’ve gotten older and learned a little more about the Gulf War it’s easy to see how fighting to protect Kuwait from invasion looked like a purely good thing) that tended to overlook the impact of war on people actually living in the affected areas.

But setting aside Gaiman’s critique of the Gulf War, there are some other aspects of the story that are more difficult to contend with.  The first one is the fact that Gaiman is a white Westerner writing a story that’s steeped in mythology and lore from the Arabic world.  I’m not sure that it’s as egregious as the recent History of Magic in North America that J.K. Rowling published on her Pottermore site (that work received scathing comments from much of the speculative fiction community for its clear lack of research and reductive use of cultural stereotypes, and Gaiman’s work on Sandman demonstrates an intense commitment to research and understanding the traditions of the stories that he uses as background), but the fact that Gaiman is telling this particular story raises some eyebrows.  It’s a tricky business telling a story from a culture to which you don’t belong, especially if you happen to also be a white Westerner (I’ve been working through this very problem on a piece of fiction that has been through a few revisions in the last year, and I still don’t know if it’s the kind of story I should tell).  Gaiman’s work here leaves me feeling uneasy about that question all over again.

These guys are not enjoying the “jewel among cities” the same way Haroun Al Raschid is. (Artwork by P. Craig Russell)

A second problem that needs considering is the content of the golden age that Haroun Al Raschid is trying to preserve in the first place.  As the Caliph, Haroun gets to enjoy the best of his Baghdad; in a catalogue of luxuries that takes up the first third of the story, we see that he has access to a harem of concubines made up of women from all corners of the known world, a second harem filled with young boys (perhaps they’re meant simply to be young men, but the text specifically calls them boys and highlights their lack of adult male features as the key point of their attractiveness), a menagerie of oddities, a retinue of scholars and theologians from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, et cetera.  Some of the many wonders that Haroun passes by without second thought when he sets out to gather what he think he will need to summon Dream include a torture chamber where “those who waited on the king’s mercy sat in durance” and a series of oubliettes where “those whom the king’s mercy had forgotten waited in vane, their faces pale, their beards white, their eyes desperate and mad.”  When he and Dream go to the marketplace to cut their deal, no commentary is made regarding a woman with feline features who’s being sold as a slave while they pass by to purchase some grapes from a fruit vendor.  Haroun’s Baghdad is wonderful for a person of privilege like himself, but it’s also filled with people in grossly unjust situations whose stories are mostly just a footnote from the king’s perspective.

All of these small details could be used to make a case for the absurdity of Haroun’s fantasy Baghdad, built to delight a few people at the expense of so many others, but I don’t think that’s really where Gaiman is going in this story.  The ending scene that explains the whole story is being told by the old man to the young boy in the war torn country suggests the value of such unreal dreams in the face of hardship, but again ignores that this vision of comfort and wonder still relies on suffering and subjugation.  I don’t think that’s a peculiarity of the Arabic lore so much as it’s a marker of the patriarchal imagination at play here.  Whether Gaiman is aware of this problem or not eludes me though; while much of his work on The Sandman does demonstrate a feminist sensibility, there are times where I think he’s blind to his own bias and this feels like it might be one of them.

From here we move into the final twenty-five issues of the original Sandman run.  Things are going to get interesting.

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