UPDATE: A portion of this essay is based on a misreading. Not just a questionable interpretation or one of my more idiosyncratic reveries — no, literally a misreading, and one I did not learn about until after my mistake was already public. Please see the note at the end.
“Ramadan” is the final story in Fables & Reflections and was originally published as the fiftieth issue of Sandman. Appropriately, it’s a stunner. P. Craig Russell’s art is rich and imaginative, given extraordinarily vivid coloring by Digital Chameleon, and the story itself is one that seems simple for much of its length and then, in the last pages, gains new complexity and resonance.
All of the Fables & Reflections stories explore the connections between storytelling and dreaming, fantasy and reality; The Sandman as a whole does this generally, of course, but the theme is especially clear in each of the tales collected in Fables & Reflections. “Ramadan” ends the collection by giving us an especially beautiful fantasy and an especially ugly reality.
“Ramadan” is a wordy Sandman issue, but the words are beautifully woven in and among the art to help reflect the centrality of stories to this story (the large text box on page eight is particularly beautiful, and not only because of the lettering; long and narrow, it echoes the many other vertical lines in the panel). The words are elements of the artwork, inseparable from its balance and texture, and yet they also serve a purpose of their own as symbols for communication, symbols of tale-telling.
The central section of “Ramadan”, though, is not primarily about stories, but rather about Haroun Al Raschid’s attempt to preserve Baghdad for eternity in its best form. Through his peregrinations, we see not only the city and its wonders, but also the wonders that Haroun himself has stocked in his palace. He is a waking-world analogue for some aspects of Dream, the king of the wonders of sleep. His offer to give Baghdad to the Dream King if it can be preserved in this, its best form, forever, presents us with one of the problems of utopia — if it is perfect, then it must never change.
Utopia poses a problem for storytelling, because stories about perfection are seldom interesting. Traditional narratives, at least, thrive on change and conflict. Dystopias are appealing because they promise a struggle for change, a rise toward something better, but utopias can only promise a fall from or corruption of paradise.
Haroun Al Raschid gives Baghdad to the Sandman in exchange for eternal life for himself.* It’s not clear why he wants this, but I assume he thinks he’ll remain a powerful Caliph for eternity. Of course, that’s not what Dream has in mind for him.
I must admit, I do not understand the appeal of immortality. Life without end sounds like punishment, not reward. But then, as friends remind me occasionally, I have what seems to other people a particularly bleak view of life and death, though I just think of my view as pragmatic and unsentimental, not bleak. Even the happiest of people feels pain and anxiety now and then, and since I am utterly without belief in an afterlife, I expect consciousness ends at death, which then means the end of pain and anxiety. That seems more like a reward to me than immortality does. If I’d been Haroun Al Raschid, I would have asked Dream to give me a painless death that caused no suffering or unhappiness to my friends and family.
It’s not like my staunchly anti-spiritual view is grotesquely different from the spiritual version, either — if it were, nobody who thinks their view of things is less bleak than mine would say of the deceased, “Now they’re in a better place,” or “Now they can rest,” or something similar. Of course, if you believe in Hell, there’s a bit of risk in death, but who really and truly believes both that Hell exists and they themselves will be going there? (In the world of The Sandman, as we’ve seen, the denizens of Hell do seem to believe they’re getting what they deserve. In the world we live in, I bet such people are rare. Even flagellants, if they’re not merely masochists, think they’re raising their chances of entering Paradise. For masochists, of course, Hell is Paradise.)
As for Haroun Al Raschid, he certainly isn’t a strict believer; again and again he shows himself willing to violate the tenets of Ramadan. Perhaps this is a symptom of his arrogance or a signal of his hypocrisy.
Ramadan takes on a different weight on the extraordinary last page of this issue. Here, the starving boy Hassan in a bombed-to-rubble Baghdad has no trouble fasting, given how scarce food is. He hopes for (dreams of!) the perfect Baghdad preserved in a bottle, the story he has heard, the story we have just read. It’s a pleasant story, a nice fantasy to help him through the misery of his days.
It’s not a fantasy those of us who live in countries that helped destroy Baghdad should be comfortable indulging in, though. When “Ramadan” was written, Baghdad still had a chance of surviving as something other than rubble. There’s a lot more rubble in the city now, a lot more children like Hassan. The last page of “Ramadan” feels sadly prescient now, making the dream of a perfectly preserved, glittering Baghdad the sort of dream a person wakes up from in tears.
* In the third panel of page 28 of “Ramadan” (page 254 in Fables & Reflections), Haroun says, “In exchange, I want it never to die. To live forever.” I read those words many times, and every time I did, I missed the word “it”. I was certain Haroun said, “I want never to die,” and so I thought he was asking for immortality in exchange for giving the city to Dream. I thought Dream would agree to the deal because it would amuse him in some way to watch Haroun get something he thought he wanted, and discover that it’s not nearly as much fun as he expected. And I then assumed the old man on the last page — the narrator — was really Haroun, making his way slowly through eternity. (As the struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels could tell you, immortality doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t age.)
But that’s not this story. Haroun gets nothing but the preservation of the city. That makes him a rather different character from the one I read him to be.
Why was I blind to the actual words? I don’t know. I would normally say it was the result of hasty reading, but I didn’t read “Ramadan” hastily. I enjoyed it a lot and reread it a few times over two days. But because I had let my idea of the story solidify in my mind, I saw what I thought was there — what I expected to be there — rather than what actually was.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.