The Beating Drum

A novel as fun, profound and – at times – as bizarre as it sounds

The Story of the Damascus Drum, by Christopher Ryan
Online review by Michael Hornsby

Cut throat bandits ambush a camel caravan at night, leaving only one survivor: Daud al-Arwadi, a Syrian merchant now bereft of his entire fortune and 40 good men. The shadowy underworld of 19th century Syria springs into the hunt for Daud when the robbers’ gruesome headcount reveals a shortfall of victims. But the villains’ efforts are fated to fail. Daud has since taken up the guise of a lonely desert goatherd and one by one the would-be assassins meet their maker by almost natural causes, before the whole web of corruption and criminality is smashed by a spy of the Sublime Porte.

Yet revolve as they may about Daud al-Arwadi, such intrigues are not his primary concern. For in his pastoral meanderings Daud has embarked upon a remarkable inner journey, traversing the limits of time and space, joining his being with that of the universe Itself. This is a work of what you might call Sufi Realism, whose key character is arguably Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, a 12th -century mystic with his shrine in Damascus. Although he doesn’t feature in person here, Christopher Ryan does not hide influence of the Great Sheikh on his story, and even Shams, the billy goat whose skin becomes the drum of the title, has his life-force extinguished during a heroic bout of procreating – surely the bestial equivalent of a Sufi’s fana, or annihilation, in union with the beloved. And the role of neither goat nor mystic ends there. Shams becomes a sort of totem, speaking through the drum to guide Daud through the strange states encountered on his new life as a hermit come herdsman.

It is as fun, profound and - at times - as bizarre as it sounds. There is a love story at the heart of the novel, between Daud and Takla, a beautiful young servant at the monastery of Seydnaya. After one fleeting meeting, their paths correlate without crossing for years, fate determining that the annual visit to the she-goats of Seydnaya by Daud and Sham’s successors falls at Easter - the only week when Takla returns to her family (routine being no match for true love in the end, of course).

Itself a labour of love (the author owns a small café in the Scottish Borders town of Hawick also called the Damascus Drum), this novel has been in the works for years, emerging with almost as much serendipity as the events within its pages. On a recent visit to Istanbul, Christopher Ryan told me how he stumbled upon a book of engravings by Edward Whymper in a local charity shop. These now illustrate the book beautifully, matching not only the scenes of the story with uncanny accuracy, but the intricacy of the prose and the mood of wonder at a strange and far-away land.

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