By Adrienne Resha
British writer Neil Gaiman and American artist P. Craig Russell’s Sandman #50 sees Baghdad bottled like a djinn at the behest of its king. Haroun al Raschid is both a historical figure (an Abbasid caliph) and one of fantasy, often appearing in One Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights or, as the four-volume, Arabic to French to English translation recommended by Gaiman is titled, The Book of the Thousand and One Nights). The stories of the thousand and one nights, oral storytelling originally sourced from Asia and Africa, are traditionally told by Shahrazad, the heroine of their frame story. Sandman #50 is, like One Thousand and One Nights, a story about stories, using Shahrazad’s stories but not their narrator.
The character from One Thousand and One Nights with whom one would think storytellers would most identify is (like so many other women from her stories) absent. Rather than frame their story with the words of a woman, Gaiman and Russell’s “Ramadan,” the comic’s title and setting, is narrated by a man. “Men,” Kelly Kanayama writes about another issue of Sandman, “are creators, you see. Women are sex objects, inspirations, wives and daughters to be pushed aside, not creators in their own right.” Shahrazad is the antithesis of that argument: she defies her father, marrying a king against his wishes, then tells her husband stories to save not just her own life but also the lives of countless other women.
Whenever anyone tells the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, they become Shahrazad, but there is no place for her in Gaiman and Russell’s Sandman. A brown woman who neither wants nor needs to be saved by white men does not fit neatly into their conservative narrative, and she cannot, it seems, be their avatar. That would be Dream, although he is not the story’s narrator. Shahrazad is erased from her own stories in favor of a narrator who serves the imperialist imaginations of the comic’s creators.
Their narrator tells “a tale of Baghdad” amid “the bomb sites and the rubble of Baghdad” circa Ramadan 1993: two years after the Gulf War, six decades after the British mandate over Iraq ended and the country became independent, and more than a thousand years after the real Al Raschid split the caliphate between his sons. However, like Shahrazad specifically and women generally (only one is given voice in the comic), the bulk of Baghdad’s history is absent from Sandman #50.
With the reveal of their narrator on the comic’s final page, Gaiman and Russell draw a line of causality from the Baghdad of their present to a Baghdad that has only ever existed in the panels of Sandman: a beautiful, wonderful, Orientalist dream, with open air markets and onion-domed towers colored in warm ruby reds and cool sapphire blues courtesy of Digital Chameleon. This Baghdad belongs to the fictional Al Raschid, the protagonist of “Ramadan.” Despite ostensibly being the hero of the story, Gaiman and Russell’s Al Raschid cannot imagine a future for this Baghdad or its people that is better than his present, and he cannot imagine a better custodian for either than the (snow white) Dream, to whom the caliph (whose beady eyes sit under bushy eyebrows and over his big nose on his brown face) sells his city in exchange for its immortality.
It follows that Gaiman and Russell cannot imagine that there may be better custodians for these stories than themselves, white men working in the Western tradition of comic books for English-reading audiences, and they do not imagine a better present or future for Iraq. The question of who might be able to tell the stories of One Thousand and One Nights better than them (in their chosen medium or any other) is too easy to answer, and it would be inconvenient to acknowledge the roles that England and the United States have played in making Iraq the country that it was in 1993 (or would become after 2003). It would not serve their narrative about stories to tell the truth.
Moreover, it would not serve their narrative about dreams to predict the future. If, when left in the hands of its own people, Baghdad (or Iraq or West Asia or South Asia or North Africa or any other place outside of the West) could be better than it is in an idealized past imagined by white men, why take it into dreams? If instead of magic carpets they could have pictured hoverboards, high rises, rocket ships – modernity rather than (or even in addition to) magic – they would not have been able to tell this story about stories, which says fantasy and futurism (namely Arabfuturism) are incompatible (they are not). If Gaiman and Russell could have imagined themselves as Shahrazad, they might have told a better one. They could have told a story about Baghdad a thousand years after 1993, a technological marvel unlike anything the city was then or had been before, but their Baghdad has no future, Al Raschid sold it to Dream, and their Sandman has no room for Shahrazad.
Sandman is a story about dreams, and “Ramadan” is a story within that story about stories divorced from their context.
Sandman #50 “Ramadan”
Written by Neil Gaiman
Drawn by P. Craig Russell
Coloured by Digital Chameleon
Lettered by Todd Klein
Adrienne Resha is an academic and comics critic whose work has been seen in Eisner-winning publications like WomenWriteAboutComics and INKS. You can find her on Twitter here!
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!