Mind Theater

The Sandman: The City of Dreams | Video Essay

June 27, 2022 Ayo Akingbade Episode 69
Mind Theater +
Become a supporter of the show!
Starting at $3/month
Show Notes Transcript
  1. It's hard to understate the true greatness of Neil Gaimain’s The Sandman graphic novel series. I've been reading it for the first time for the past year and his expansive world of Dream, the Endless, and the many intricate side stories and adventures that recontextualize both the mythical and the historical have captured my imagination in ways that very few works do. I still have about 15 or so issues left to read but I recently finished an issue that encapsulates in my mind everything that makes this series so fantastic, and mesmerizing, and well, beautiful. And that’s Issue 50 titled: Ramadan. Set in Baghdad. Not that Baghdad but this one. A city of overwhelming beauty and opulence, wisdom, and pleasure, and wonder, of market city streets bustling with fast talking merchants and skillful thieves, a city of flying carpets and palaces that contain unending mysteries. The Jewel of Arabia, as our storyteller puts it. This Baghdad is the city of legends infused with all the mystique and intrigue that eastern stories often receive, especially when framed by a western lens that overplays the levels of oriental exoticism, relationships to pleasure, and also has a tendency to fall into stereotypes. These criticisms are all somewhat applicable to Ramadan. But there’s no denying how the art direction especially fully cements just how beautiful this setting truly is.
  2. The sandman is known for changing artists and artistic styles between issues and number 50 is no exception, with an attention to intricate detail and color that doesn't go unnoticed. These changes seek to highlight different thematic ideals, in this case capturing the immense beauty of the Baghdad of legends in stark contrast to the Baghdad of our time, torn apart by US imperialism and American military involvement. Just like other Sandman issues it’s infused with mythos and fantastical storytelling that quite brilliantly fuses the worlds of history, mythology, and dreams.
  3. Issue 50 tells the story of a troubled  King, Haroun Al Raschid. King of Kings and Prince of the Faithful. And as I mentioned before he is surrounded by a kingdom of riches and beauty, a fact he contemplates on his balcony from on high, looking down at the city spread out below like a tapestry, with carpets fluttering across the sky, caravans and traders selling silks, perfumes, and spices and sailboats landing in the harbors to sell their goods. And while he looks around and sees his people, his city experiencing an unprecedented time of glory and greatness, He’s concerned, above all else, about the city’s future. It, like all great things, will one day become lost to history. Kingdoms fall and fade into the desert sands, great empires, marvels of technological progress and prowess become but footnotes in history books. To be ruler of a kingdom so splendid, a kingdom that puts all the others to shame and to have its inevitable fleeting mortality weigh so heavily on you is to become vulnerable, almost too caught up in the moment of realization that the greatness that you govern is as ephemeral as you are. And so during the holy month of Ramadan he does the unthinkable.
  4. He retrieves a crystal ball from the depths of his palace. The Globe of Sulaiman Ben Daoud. The King of the Hebrews. That globe containing thousands of imprisoned demons. He then calls out, not to the heavens, not to his God, but to the King of Dreams, the Prince of Stories, The Lord of the Sleeping Marches. When at first he does not appear King Haroun threatens to destroy the crystal ball, unleashing  hordes of demons upon his greatcity and his people. And then Morpheus appears, unamused by the King’s brash display of confidence in an attempt to summon him. In their ensuing conversation, after a carpet ride around the city and a trip to the marketplace, King Al Raschid gives Morpheus a proposition concerning his great city who’s impending mortality has been the main concern of his troubles.
  5. Buy it from me? Take my city into dreams. After a bit of deliberation the King convinces Morpheus to do just this, taking the city of Baghdad and all its greatness and storing it into a bottle. It’s at this point the story zooms out to reveal it’s being told to a little Iraqi boy by an old beggar with an uncanny resemblance. The beggar leaves the boy and we watch as he stumbles through the rubble of bomb sites, mesmerized by the story he’s been told about the mythical Baghdad that never dies.
  6. It was at this point, the end of the issue, that I asked myself the question that I ask of every sandman story. What does this issue have to say about dreams?
  7. Well I think in a fashion it one, speaks pretty plainly to the mortality of humans. To Dream this proposition makes no difference, he swept this realm into his domain and asked nothing of the King but to the King this city is something of value, something that as an object of reality will eventually lose its value, but as an object of dreams can be remembered forever. The king looks out from his palace and sees a city of beauty, yes, but also a city that is as great as it’s ever gonna be. His need to recontextualize Baghdad not as an actual place but the dream of the world’s greatest city speaks to how we as humans often sublant our own hopes and dreams into stories and myths. Not only that but it argues the idea that stories and myths have a longer staying power in the collective consciousness than even history does. History so often is incomplete, or misunderstood, or rewritten by people with dubious motives. For Baghdad to fade naturally as all great empires do, is to allow it to reach a point where the history of it’s greatness may become overshadowed by the history of its decline, one needs to look no further than the fall of rome. Gifting his city to the lord of dreams allows Baghdad to continually remain idealized. Continually exist in the mythos as a great city, that was always great, and never faded into obscurity. 
  8. The problem is after this proposition modern Baghdad still exists in this universe, in our universe. We see it in the final panels. A war torn city, another victim of US imperialism. And I think this detail speaks to the fact that dreams can never completely supplant reality, they instead, often, exist alongside them. Just as tangible and real. And as dreams so often do, they end up not just existing next to reality, but they actively inform it. It’s people with dreams that decide our reality, much to the chagrin of the people who follow or oppose them. History is rewritten by the victors, yes, but dreams can be had by anyone. For people with power dreams serve as the foundational building blocks to reconstructing our reality, for people without power dreams are merely an escape from the horrors of it.
  9. Mind Theater is a solo effort produced and written by me, Ayo Akingbade. For updates on the show as well as my other content follow mindtheaterpod on twitter instagram and tiktok. If you wanna show monetary support the ko-fi link is in the shownotes. Thanks for listening, i’ll catch ya next time.