The Story of the Damascus Drum is a fabulous adventure story, scented with magical realism and resonating with a talking goatskin drum, that is set among the historical monuments of Syria, so that the reader gets to explore the island of the shipbuilders (Arwad), the cavernous vaults of the ruinous Krak des Chevaliers, the nunnery of Seydnaya and the old khans and mountainous hinterland of Damascus during the course of the tale. Although located in the late 19th century, it takes place in a timeless Levant, a crossroads of faiths still dominated by loyal servants of the sultan-caliph, not yet the 20th-century Baathist fortress of Arab nationalism.
Indeed the real landscape of the Damascus Drum is not of this world. Rather, it is shaped by Tales from the Thousand and One Nights and by the interior world of itinerant storytellers working their magic in the cafés, courtyards and festival gatherings of the past. So we can hiss at the vile machinations of the brigands, scheming villains, paid assassins and evil masterminds, as we fall further and further in love with both hero and heroine.
The Story of the Damascus Drum is also consciously part of that ancient Near Eastern tradition that buried valued spiritual teachings within a fast-paced plot or a comic short story. So running within the body of the tale is the everyday story of two individuals working to increase their self-discipline as a tool in the lifelong struggle first to understand, then make better use of themselves. Adepts might identify the teachings of ancient prophets and some modern and medieval saints among the book’s characters and sacred landscapes. Fortunately, there is also enough bawdy laughter and Midsummer Night’s Dream humanism to enchant a wider audience and perhaps also get them drumming.
Barnaby Rogerson is the author of ‘The Last Crusaders: The Hundred-Year Battle for the Centre of the World’ (Little, Brown £20)
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