The previous installments of Distant Mirrors dealt with the cult of government, prospective rulers at the behest of their citizens, blindly careening through history. Caesar Augustus blazed trails, setting into motion the wheels of modern history, intentionally dooming the legacy of Rome to mediocrity, while Robespierre audaciously rebuffed it in favor of a utopian age of social government. Both were found to be utterly lacking in comparison to the so-called “Emperor” Joshua Norton, the man who had a belief so authentic that he could change the world. This dialectic on government continues in Sandman #50. Distant Mirrors: Ramadan evokes the “lonely ruler” literary motif, a dissatisfied regent who, in the face of his glory and legacy, sees a passing vanity. Envisioned through the eyes of Islam the Ancient Near East (ANE) is preserved, set in a society that champions civic order and prosperity of the regal court of Haroun Al Raschid, Caliph of Baghdad. The atmosphere of the issue employs the arabesque to create the cultural milieu of the 8th century AD, which is coined by scholars as the period in which the original corpus of the One Thousand and One Nights was compiled. While Ramadan primarily concerns the exploits and disenchantment of Al Raschid, the use of the principal imagery of One Thousand and One Nights is somewhat problematic, granted that the stories surrounding Al Raschid were added later in the 9th and 10th centuries. Given this information, the tale before the reader in Sandman #50 is to be taken as the pseudo-historical origination of those tales, thereby implying that Raschid’s bargain with Dream instigates the genesis of the mythos.
Ramadan concerns the paradise lost of the Islamic Golden Age, which is compounded by the end script where it is revealed to be the story of a beggar man, conning a boy out of what little he can scrounge in exchange for his delirious wonders. How many of the feverish details are truthful is pure speculation. (Are these the mad fantasies of a man without, or are they the balm that eases the worldly pain of a starving child?) But the lavish qualities of the story are not entirely impossible, given the scope of the period the issue is set in. By the time the story takes place (ca. 800AD) Al Raschid’s Islamic world stretched from Portugal to the far reaches of Pakistan and Western India, and was marked by mercantile opulence and cultural diversity. Much of the burgeoning Western Civilization owed its expansion to the Arab East for their acts of cultural preservation, as the period was marked with the importance of knowledge, specifically in the fields of science, mathematics, and philosophy. Greek texts, doomed to be lost in time, were translated into Arabic and eventually to western languages when they were rediscovered through the Ottoman Expansion at the height of their power during the 1500s and 1600s. The narrator of Ramadan (the beggar man) makes reference to Al Raschid’s House of Wisdom, a famous library known as Bayt al-Hikma, where scholars both non-Muslim and Muslim gathered to proliferate and collate knowledge from all over the world, forging an Eastern Renaissance that put Florentine, Flemish, English, and German intellectuals to shame.
The issue’s integration of Islamic culture is highly stylized, as each page of the issue employs an inter-textual merging between script and graphic art. The approach cultivates the Islamic attitudes toward order and transcending stability of Allah as revealed in nature. Many artists of the time replicated this perceived order through employing geometric shapes and structures in their work. This is illustrated in the opening spread, which depicts the Shahada, the first of the five pillars of Islam. Each of the pillars represents the basic necessities for cultic faithfulness, but, above all, it is the Shahada that is recognized as the founding creed of Islam. The Shahada is enshrined, in Ramadan, in an Arabesque star, possibly alluding to the desert sun. The graphic representation of Islam that Gaiman employs gives allegiance to the inclusion but ultimate supremacy of Islamic culture over all others. This aspect of the comic is found in the prologue illustrations of a devout orthodox Jew reading from the Torah, or Talmud, placed alongside two Franciscan monks worshiping the feces of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). Each frame is inked in drab, musty colors, which highly contrast against the colorful, unbound image of imams reveling in the words of the prophet Mohammed. The slight polemical imagery should not be construed as offensive, however. Clearly, from the beginning of the issue to the end, the story is being told from the vantage of the victor, the reader taking a travelogue through the eyes of the triumphant and infant Islamic culture. One can not help but feel overwhelmed, not unlike those in Europe at the time, by the sudden, explosive affluence of the people of Islam.
Something can also be said about some of the syncretism that occurs throughout the issue. Islamic culture, along with the teachings of the prophet, while varied and hardly monolithic, historically have demonstrated measures of restraint and temperance. The limited used of alcohol during the fasting season of Ramadan, along with certain injunctions made upon musical instruments and styles of social expression are known inside and outside of Islamic culture. This gives rise, then, to measures of cognitive dissonance as Al Raschid’s Baghdad not only appears to be a cosmopolitan hub for cultural exchange, but also boasts a highly developed sex trade ranging from concubines to exotic hybrids resembling animals. Like Soft Places, from the Convergence series, this is a region where the fantastic dwell, causing this Baghdad to be at odds with its Islamic identity. The marks of Alexander the Great and his Hellenistic empire slowly fade away in the desert sands, but the lasting cultural impact of his rule remains in subtle ways. When Raschid decides to go deep down into the inner sanctum of his palace, he passes through a room filled with exotic eggs of lost creatures. One of them is a pair of eggs from a Phoenix, a legendary bird of Greek origin, and at the time an adopted symbol for the patristic era Christian Church. Nevertheless, the use of this syncretism fosters an environment that effectively conveys the diversity of the era, its revolutionary intellectual ferocity, and ideological dominion of the ANE.
It should be stressed, however, that this is still a Sandman issue, and while much of it details Al Raschid’s inner struggle with the eventual collapse of his cultural legacy, the issue also concerns the interaction between Dream and Al Raschid. What their interaction yields is a startling replication of ANE conceptions of the divine and spiritual. As seen in folk myth and indigenous narrative, the spiritual entities of the Middle East prominently featured in tales such as those found in One Thousand and One Nights, are submissive entities or bound to service. Popularized by Disney’s Aladdin, the genie was a spirit summoned to do the will of its master, or served in the capacity of a steward. This is why Dream is so apprehensive of Al Raschid’s scrupulous summoning. Farther back, when interacting with the cultic tradition of Semitic and Mesopotamian deities, these creatures were wielded to serve the whims of the temple cult or regal cult, serving on behalf of the city (which the state god would rule over). Dream is neither a regional deity nor a servile spirit, but the king of Dreams; hence his palpable ire at being summoned by Al Raschid, who threatens to damn the Dreaming with an onslaught of demons, sealed within a relic of King Solomon. It should be mentioned that Al Raschid also sensibly places Dream as subordinate to Allah, which presents a first time occurrence in the series. Up to this point Dream has always been characterized as existing in tandem with the pluralistic pantheon of gods that inhabit the spirit realms, with the exception of YHWH of Judeo-Christian tradition that rules above Dream and had written Destiny’s book before the beginning of time. Dream, rather than being an aspect of the supernatural, is merged into the spun tapestry of Allah’s cohesive creation, and made one with it in the mind of Al Raschid. This conceptualization is applied to other aspects of ANE thought and motifs, such as Arabizing King Solomon as being apart of the Islamic tradition. Curiously the title, Sulaiman Ben Daoud, is derived from the 17th century text The Lesser Key of Solomon, an authoritative text on Demonology. The added detail is another example of stylized elements orientalizing Islamic culture with exotic and anachronistic devices.
That the narrative takes place immediately after the close of Brief Lives’ emotional and heavy conclusion leaves the reader to wonder if revisiting the Distant Mirrors was a quick reprieve from Dream’s journey and period of maturation. This may be the case, but there is much to be gleaned from this turn, as Gaiman focuses his narrative not on Dream’s weakness but on his eternality and strength. It displays Dream’s power over the created order, taking from Al Raschid upon request the enduring memory of Baghdad, never to be lost to the sands of time. It is a refreshing turn. How it relates to the original cycle of the Distant Mirrors arc is mostly arbitrary, save Al Raschid’s political choices and his struggle to seek right knowledge and insight into how to run his city. All the previous rulers before him that struggled to gain the utopian stability and commerce enjoyed by Al Raschid find their efforts bested by the Caliph of Baghdad, only to find that even success has its downfall. The Greeks, centuries before the Romans, enjoyed a splendor that outshone even the Golden Age of Islam, but succumbed as all civilizations do to the test of time. Nothing but the Endless, are endless, as the motto goes in Sandman. Raschid’s plan to save Baghdad is successful, fueling the dreams of generations after him. Perhaps that is why Dream heard him out. Perhaps that is what he was expecting to happen. But we can never know this. It is a query lost to time.