Damascus. The name has meant many things to many people over the centuries. The locals call their beautiful city Dimashq or ash-Sham (from which the Turks find their name for it: Şam), and it is nicknamed the City of Jasmin.
Traders over the centuries have dealt in many goods whose names have been inspired by this city.
Beautiful, sweet, plump damson plums originated from Damascus, being brought across Europe by the Romans who called them prunum damascenum (plums of Damascus), from which we get the name damsons. These in themselves have given a name to a rich color.
Medieval warriors fought with swords decorated with highly intricate etchings, known as damascene. The technique, developed in the workshops in the souks of Damascus became popular for cups and bowls, and included inlaying in gold and silver for these precious items.
But perhaps the most famous product named after the city is the damask fabric: silk, wool or linen woven together to form a reversible pattern. Table linens, curtains and soft furnishings use the damask technique even today.
But to some, the name Damascus is irrevocably linked with the spiritual rather than the temporal. A sudden and complete 180 degree reversal of belief is often called a Damascus Road experience, inspired by the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. On his way to imprison or kill Christians in the city, he saw a blinding light and heard Jesus speak to him. From then on he became St. Paul, the great Christian teacher and author of a number of letters in the New Testament.
You may have heard of the damson, the damascene metalware or damask, but I wonder if you have heard of the Damascene goat. This famous goat breed, also called Shami, is raised in Syria and Lebanon. It is a great milk-giver and its cheese is prized throughout the region. Now, as a city dweller, I don’t really know much about goats. I understand very little about what makes one goat plain and another beautiful. But Shami Damascus goats regularly win prizes for “The Most Beautiful Goat” in Middle Eastern livestock shows.
In a period when Damascus tragically appears on our television screens nightly with horrific news coming from the Syrian conflict, a delightful and quirky independent book catapults us directly into the old world of Damascus, far away from rockets and mortar bombs and deaths of civilians. We are led into the world of traders and craftsmen, musicians and story-tellers, but above all, the world of a Damascus goat.
Christopher Ryan’s magnificent Syrian fairytale, “The Story of the Damascus Drum,” is the story of a billy goat, a serving maid and a successful trader. Like all good fairytales, it has a veritable cast of baddies who are bent on stopping our hero and heroine from reaching their respective destinies.
The story captivates from its early pages with its descriptions and evocations of a by-gone age. We first meet resourceful and independent Arwadi trader Daud at the lowest point in his life; his caravan ambushed by bandits, he has been robbed of everything he possesses. All that remains of his vast fortune is a piece of camel-hair cloth.
Taqla has a sunny disposition and fair, rosy cheeks. She works as a servant in a convent. At first she seems just an incidental character in the story, but we soon realize she is to be a key player.
And the goat? Well, Shams is the real hero of the story. The steady and responsible leader of Sa’id bin Adam’s flock of 27 goats, he is now getting old. His “Damascus road experience” occurs one day when he loses the bell round his neck. “Shams suddenly felt light-headed. The bodily ease which he had been feeling all day now culminated in a real sense of rebirth. A hitherto unknown urge entered him, as if a guiding light now overtook his whole being… What remained for Shams as identity was a blank white page, a boundless day and a featherlight feeling of wonder.”
Shams jumps the wall and begins his new career as a goat-errant. Soon after he meets Daud he dies, and Daud has Sham’s skin made into a drum by the best drummaker in the Souk Hamidiyeh, a man who recognizes that this is no ordinary skin from no ordinary goat.
As Taymir al-Bad realizes that the caravan owner avoided his murderous grasp on the night of the ambush he sends his gang of a money-launderer and fence, a loan-shark, a secret gatherer and an assassin to deal with Daud. But they reckon without the drum made from Shams. It has a life of its own, setting the rhythm to which Daud’s fingers can only respond. When he plays it he hears the sound of wise advice, the sound of a whispering to his soul, and he becomes one with the desire to find more from this life.
Of course, all of this takes place with a bunch of deadly assassins on his tail, and a longing for a perfect female soul-mate in his heart. Running from the one sometimes leads him towards the other, sometimes away, but his adventures keep the pages turning, while Edward Whymper’s amazing black and white engravings complement the tale at every turn.
This magical piece of escapism does of course have a lesson to teach the weary 21st century soul. We are all encouraged to consider what bell round our neck is weighing us down, keeping us in the daily routine and grind of “have to” and “must” that accompany the rat-race. We are challenged to live life with the same sense of “the other side of the hill” that overcame Shams on that fateful day.
Ryan’s story of souks, traders, minarets, Arab dhows and daggers is really not so very far away at heart from the writings of the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, whose famous quote about the drum-beat of life it continually reminds us of: “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”
Don’t dismiss a story that features a goat as ridiculous or childish. In the late 1960s, many publishers rejected a story about seagulls. But just as Jonathan Livingston Seagull became a best seller as it challenged its readers to aim higher and seek more from life than meaningless materialism, “The Story of the Damascus Drum” challenges us to step outside of the confines of the four walls.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull reminds us “the gull sees farthest who flies highest.” Daud can only see when he is prepared the jump the wall -- either physical or mental -- that is holding him in the current paradigm. The drum “leads Daud out of the dark cell of his sorry self and onto the threshold of a wider picture.”
If you still can’t bring yourself to read a fairytale, Ryan agrees this story is not for you. In the prologue he even instructs you to put his book down. “Well then, so be it. If that is the extent of your vision, stop reading immediately. Go! Go on! Away and be useful elsewhere, but leave us alone. This story would only be a burden to you.
“But if you feel some irritation of the mind, an unfamiliar stirring among the mysterious sea of cells within the shore of your cranium, then stay. Perhaps you will find some thread which will lead to … who knows?”
“The Story of the Damascus Drum,” by Christopher Ryan, published by Hakawati Press 12.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-095695520-3