Damascus Nights, written by Rafik Schami, combines several stories as part of one novel, reflecting the book’s proximity to Arab oral storytelling tradition. Damascus Nights include fairy tales, myths, and realistic descriptions, highlighting the individuality of storytellers and creating a fascinating narrative. Although the book itself and its protagonist do not directly represent the old Arabic oral storytelling traditions, the book is formed under their influence and reflects the traditions’ transformation.
The plot is built around the main character – coachman Salim. To succeed in his profession and attract more customers, he presents stories to his passengers and asks them to tell anecdotes in response to use them in the future. The good fairy who helps him in this matter is going to retire and leaves Salim only 21 words to say. The main character needs to receive seven gifts to find a new fairy for help and have his voice back. Salim uses the remaining words to ask friends for help, and after some failed ideas, they realize they need to tell him seven stories. As a result, a locksmith, a retired teacher, a former finance minister, a barber, a friend who lived abroad, and a former prisoner present stories ranging from fairy tales to their own experiences.
The book’s structure allows readers to get acquainted with the stories within the story. The frame-narrative technique reflects the oral traditions of Arabic storytelling, demonstrating the importance of stories in culture. The same narrative is used in the famous The Arabian Nights (also called The Thousand and One Nights), which significantly influenced world literature. Such a narrative structure provides the writer with an opportunity to strengthen the impression and contributes to the development of the piece’s metafictional features (Jweid 14). The book Damascus Nights having an echoing name and the similar narrative structure, represents a continuation of cultural traditions.
The chosen structure of Schami’s book allows the narrator to involve readers in the story. Each anecdote conveys the experience or thoughts of the characters and leads one to the other (Nurtsch). For example, Schami presents the personality of Salim’s friends in Damascus Nights through their stories and how they tell them. Musa, the barber, cuts Salim’s hair; Ali, the locksmith, cannot present the story, and his wife does. Apart from individuality, stories also concern some social issues important for characters. Tuma, who returned from America, spoke about the country’s customs and the confidence of its citizens that “all Arabs are Muslims” (Schami 102). The writer demonstrates what matters to his characters, what they are interested in, and what surprises them.
At the same time, realism in the narrations alternates with fairy tales. For example, Mehdi tells a story about a man who chained his voice in exchange for wealth (Schami 40). According to Jweid’s research, Oriental tales have become depictions of human life and reflect the Oriental world (13). Tales using such motifs, even in the context of European narratives, make it possible to embody the depth of Arab culture (Jweid 13). Consequently, Damascus Nights, in its unique structure, interweaves not just different stories but reflects the present and past of culture in its profundity.
The features of the Arabic oral narrative influenced not only the construction of the book but also its content. Traditionally, stories were transmitted by a person of the Hakawati profession, whose name comes from two words, hekaye – history, and haki – to speak (The Tradition). Although it is not manifested in the same form, and Hakawati is not the narrator, storytelling is still an essential part of Arab culture today. Traditions have changed, and stories are presented in literature, cinema, television shows, and even everyday communication now (The Tradition). Damascus Nights reflects the transformed traditions of Hakawati while making its characters storytellers and being a mediator for their stories.
The influence of Hakawati traditions is distinguished in Salim’s character and his life. Although he is not representative of the profession in its traditional sense, Salim is an engaging narrator. He is very talented since “the old coachman could charm his listeners for hours on end” (Schami 11). His abilities and way of living are close to traditional Hakawati. At the same time, the plot twist of the story makes Salim silent and introduces other narrators. Such a feature demonstrates the transformation of traditions when almost anyone can share the stories they wish. For example, Salim’s circle of friends includes people of diverse professions and backgrounds – from the minister to the prisoner, and their narrations are very different. The frame-narrative technique allowed Salim, usually a speaking narrator, to become a listener to other storytellers. Moreover, the book itself transmits the stories to its readers in written form, indicating a change in traditions.
Thus, Schami’s Damascus Nights are stories told within the story, as the author used frame-narrative. The included narrations range in genre from realistic to fairy-tale. The latter genre, used in such a structure, allows the author to enhance the impression of the book and convey the depth of Arab culture. Arab oral storytelling tradition influenced the creation of the novel as the transmission of narratives is an integral part of the culture. The main character, his life, and his abilities remind readers of the profession of Hakawati – narrators that existed a long time ago. The old traditions of telling stories by Hakawati have transformed, and now everyone can present the story they want, which is also reflected in Damascus Nights.
Jweid, Abdalhadi Nimer Abu. “The Reception of The Arabian Nights in World Literature.” Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 22, no. 1, 2021, pp. 10-15. Web.
Nurtsch, Ceyda. “The story-teller from Damascus.” Qantara, 2021, Web.
Schami, Rafik. Damascus Nights. Translated by Philip Boehm. Interlink Books, 2011.
“The Tradition of Hakawati and Modern Storytelling.” The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra). Web.