In the fiftieth issue of The Sandman, Harun al-Rashid conjures Dream in a moment of panic when he worries that his great city will be forgotten by time. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Sandman.
You know, even without the twist framing device at the end of this issue, I think this is just some of Gaiman’s finest work. (And major props to P. Craig Russell, Lovern Kindzierski, and Todd Klein for the artwork and lettering, because that’s just as much a part of this story as the words are.) Again, it reinforces the idea that stories can live forever as long as they are told. It’s interesting that this comes after the last issue in this volume because it’s almost like a companion story. How do we fight against the endless march of time? Will we pass into nothingness after we die because we are completely forgotten? What about our creations? Our good deeds? Our friends and family? Our cities, our cultures, our societies, our beliefs? What gives certain things permanence? Hell, does that even exist anymore? Who’s to say that Shakespeare will still be read in three thousand years? Who’s to say we will even be around in three thousand years?
Those aren’t the exact thoughts of Caliph Harun al-Rashid, but it’s easy to see that the weight on his chest concerns the mortality of people, their creations, and their ideas. Baghdad is gorgeous, and I was so happy to read a text that posited an Arab city was the greatest in the world. So often, academia attaches significance to Eurocentric history, telling us that the most brilliant minds were all in Europe and that they all were white. The Arab world was leagues beyond most of the world, and this story just makes me so excited because of this. “Ramadan” really does feel like a celebration of Baghdad to me.
As we see the palace of the Caliph and get insight into what life is like on the streets of this magnificent city, the story focuses on Harun al-Rashid’s internal doubt. The things that normally bring him joy do not. He turns away his wife’s affection; he rejects time spent with his vizier, Jafar the Barmakid; he denies the poet Ishak, knowing that poets will not help him. And then we get to see Harun’s gorgeous journey beneath the palace through a surreal, dream-like world to retrieve the Globe of Sulaiman Ben Daoud. I actually thought that Harun had access to the Dreaming below his palace. Instead, he uses the Globe of Sulaiman to conjure up Dream in order to make a bargain.
That bargain is his attempt to prevent the impermanence of his city:
“I have ridden through the deserts, and seen the rocks and old walls and statues breathed up by the desert wind in the empty wastes of sand; and then the wind and the sand come up once more and the remnants of cities and palaces and gods vanish for another age of man, forgotten and unremembered….”
So Caliph Harun al-Rashid gives the entirety of Baghdad at that very moment to Dream, to be preserved in its state of glory “as long as mankind lasts.” But it’s not just in that state that it exists. The brilliant twist at the end of this issue is that the entire story was narrated by a beggar in modern-day, war torn Baghdad. A young boy, Hassun, keeps the city of Baghdad alive in his dreams, and it’s the power of storytelling that helps this happen.
And he prays as he walks (cursing his one weak leg the while), prays to Allah (who made all things) that somewhere, in the darkness of dreams, abides the other Baghdad (that can never die), and the other egg of the phoenix.
Just beautiful. It’s a fantastic end issue to this volume, and I’m extremely pleased that I did not read The Sandman by publication order. Grouping all of these stories into Fables & Reflections was a great way to give this story a narrative and emotional continuity that I might not have picked up on had I read the issues in numerical order. It makes for a good story, too, and I’m excited to see where Dream will go next. Oh god, who the hell is his brother? MORE ON THIS, PLEASE.
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