Tamer’s stories are full of wit and cryptic comedy, which works partly because they stem from a traditional context, but then make a nonsense of it. Thus we laugh at Sindbad, the famous sailor, who in Tamer’s story suffers a shipwreck and washes up on a desert island inhabited only by donkeys. However, these donkeys have not only mastered human speech, they are also mentally superior to Sindbad. With no human contact on the island, Sindbad is unable to prove to the donkeys the dominance of human culture to the donkeys. As a result, once Sindbad he has realised that he can’t escape from the island, he starts walking on all fours, eating grass, and emitting donkey noises.
In the title story, “The Execution of Death”, Harun al-Rashid demands something impossible of his vizier Abu Nuwas, who is actually a poet: he must bring al-Rashid’s dead son back to life. The way in which the cunning Abu Nuwas deals with this demand, and the strategies he develops to placate the caliph, are wonderfully comical. Finally, Abu Nuwas promises to execute death himself, in order to give the caliph back his son. But this promise only leads to more absurd complications. What is the intention behind this parodic storytelling concept? The Afterword to the German edition says that Tamer “subordinates the characters he uses . . . entirely to the goals that govern his writing: the unmasking of oppression, the exposure of tyranny, the scourging of the rulers of man . . .” Tamer himself underlines this decidedly political tendency in his writing, when he says: “I write for a life worth living for Arabs.”
But his moral and political position does not seduce Tamer into painting things in black and white, or creating a clearly ordered world of good and evil. In his stories, you never know who will emerge victorious from the adventures, battles and verbal duels. Not every court jester is good, and not every vizier is an inhuman
BANIPAL 53 – SUMMER 2015 111