An astonishingly inventive, wonderfully exuberant novel that takes us from the shimmering dunes of ancient Egypt to the war-torn streets of twenty-first-century Lebanon.
In 2003, Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed. The city is a shell of the Beirut Osama remembers, but he and his friends and family take solace in the things that have always sustained them: gossip, laughter, and, above all, stories.
Osama’s grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his bewitching stories—of his arrival in Lebanon, an orphan of the Turkish wars, and of how he earned the name al-Kharrat, the fibster—are interwoven with classic tales of the Middle East, stunningly reimagined. Here are Abraham and Isaac; Ishmael, father of the Arab tribes; the ancient, fabled Fatima; and Baybars, the slave prince who vanquished the Crusaders. Here, too, are contemporary Lebanese whose stories tell a larger, heartbreaking tale of seemingly endless war—and of survival.
Like a true hakawati, Rabih Alameddine has given us an Arabian Nights for this century—a funny, captivating novel that enchants and dazzles from its very first lines: “Listen. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.”
Read a Q&A with Rabih on The Hakawati
Q: Okay, let’s begin at the beginning. Do you remember when the idea for The Hakawati came to you? In your mind’s eye, what did you see?
A: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away—oh, never mind.
The idea for The Hakawati had many beginnings, as is the case for many a novel, I presume. Which beginning would one consider to be the true one, the original?
Let’s see, in 1999 I wrote a long piece that was later trimmed and published as a short story in Zoetrope. That was chapter 10 from the novel—which goes back and forth between my main character Osama al-Kharrat’s visit to the UCLA campus as a teenager and his vigil at his father’s hospital bed years later—in a different form. I wrote a couple more stories, one successful, the other not. The latter ended up as a part of the book. I had begun to see the al-Kharrat family in my head. It still wasn’t a novel, so should these stories be considered the original idea? I was floundering, though. I had different novels in my head and none of them seemed to make much sense.
I was teaching in Beirut 2003—annus horribilis, as the Queen would say—when my father was dying in the hospital. I couldn’t follow through on any of the novels I had in my head, so I began to write something completely different: the first grandfather chapter. I can’t tell you why I did that; I hadn’t considered the subject before. I placed the man in Urfa because I had read a memoir based there. I discovered that Urfa was the birthplace of Abraham, so I began to reread Old Testament stories. Then I found out that the city was a hotbed of pigeon wars. Who knew?
Yet all this was simply material. I didn’t have a novel. I didn’t have a structure, and I had stories raging and clawing in my chest. I wanted to write about a family around a deathbed; I wanted to write a novel about parents and offspring; I wanted to write a novel about the grandfather and how a family begins, how it forms (Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac?); I wanted to tell stories. (I’d been wanting to write a story referencing the descent of Inana for about 15 years.)
It was a year later, in 2004, that it finally occurred to me that it was one novel, that everything fit together because the grandfather was a hakawati, and so was the entire family. Once I had that, I had the structure. I had my novel. Was that when the idea for The Hakawati came to me?
What? You expected a clear, concise answer?
Q: Part of the book takes place in 2003, when our narrator, Osama al-Kharrat, visits Beirut from California. Why did you decide on 2003 for the setting, rather than earlier or present-day?
A: There are two reasons for the date, February of 2003. The main one is that I didn’t want to deal with the invasion of Iraq directly. There are enough crusades in the novel. The other is that in February of 2003 my own father died. This makes some things easier: what the weather was like, what was happening in Beirut when the family was in the hospital, etc. The Iraq war is the main reason, though. I felt that setting the novel after that date would overwhelm it, that the war might make for too easy a metaphor.
Q: Osama left home twenty-some years before the novel opens, and when we meet him he is living in California and is traveling to Beirut to visit his family. You grew up in Beirut, you moved to California, you visit home often, you’re about the same age as Osama. Is there anything else you and Osama share? Basically, I’m asking you the requisite is-this-autobiography-in-disguise question!
A: I don’t believe in auto-plagiarism (a Nabokovian term). There are many things that Osama and I share, but we’re very different, and the novel isn’t really autobiographical. What we have in common: I’m actually a little older than my character, but we both went to UCLA for undergrad. Our fathers died at the same time. Almost everything else is different: personality, family, education. I don’t play the oud (or the guitar) though I love the instrument with a passion. I’m much more the center of my own drama that Osama is of his. I spend more time in Beirut, and I have a much more troubling career.
I probably have more in common with a couple of the imps than I do with Osama.
Q: Woven in with Osama’s narration are stories, and stories within stories. They are Biblical tales, Arabian myths re-imagined, legends of al-Kharrats from generations past. Can you talk about the range of sources and influences for those?
A: I’ve always been influenced by my reading. For this novel it was books, books, and more books: Calvino, Homer, Ovid; Koran, Bible, Bhagavad Gita; literary, commercial, and pulp fiction; Arabic poetry and folktales, a hakawati’s book, German studies of Arabic tales; Marvel comics, D.C. comics, Asterix and Obelix, Tintin; Nabokov, Borges, Nooteboom. Shakespeare’s plays. Memoirs written by family members now long gone.
Everything I’ve ever read became story fodder.
But then I’ve always considered myself fortunate to be Lebanese. Once I understood what kind of book I was writing, I spread the word among family and friends that I was looking for stories. I received hundreds of calls from acquaintances, long-lost relatives, strangers who swore they were relatives, talkers all, wanting to tell me their stories. My grandfather’s first cousin told me stories of growing up in the mountains of Lebanon. My grandfather’s ninety-eight year-old second cousin told tales of the English missionaries and their songs. A destitute cage cleaner in the employ of a pigeoneer told me pigeon stories, muezzin stories, and even a couple of fairy tales I had never heard. The best Druze stories I heard were told to me by a Shiite psychiatrist. The best/worst seduction tale of a Lebanese woman was told to me by my mother’s deliciously foul-mouthed first cousin. (“Yes,” she said, luring me into her tale, “it did involve an asclepiad.”)
As to stories within stories, I remember wanting to do something like that years and years ago while watching a rereleased print of a convoluted Polish movie in the Castro Theater in San Francisco. The Saragossa Manuscript took my breath away.
Stories flit about us all the time. We just forget to listen. Our butterfly nets gather dust.
Q: How do the two strains of this novel—the modern-day narrative and all the ancient stories—speak to each other?
A: They interweave, they aid and abet each other. They also reflect each other, back and forth they go. In some ways, they are the same story, or the continuation of the same story. Sometimes an “ancient” story will elucidate a “modern-day” one; other times, the narrator’s family story presents a different take on the mythical story.
I have always been intrigued with the question of whether, when we tell a story about ourselves, we get closer to the listener or distance ourselves. Are we becoming vulnerable or more protected? Osama tells stories to communicate, to express feelings. It’s his way of relating to people, and to the reader.
Q: One of the epigraphs to Book 2 reads, in part, “Once a story has been told, it’s anyone’s, it becomes common currency, it gets twisted and distorted.” That philosophy is borne out in your telling of all stories in this book. What are our obligations to stories—especially stories that have been passed through the generations, like family stories, or shared cultural stories, or stories from the Bible or Koran—and what are their obligations to us?
A: The epigraph is by Javier Marías, who could probably discuss this subject much better, since I consider this a difficult question. Once I hear the word obligation, my lips purse, my shoulders start to shrug, and my wrists tense preparing to break imaginary shackles. My first reaction, my instinctive response, would be that a storyteller has no obligations to anyone or anything, none. To talk about a hakawati’s obligations, or a writer’s, chafes and grates and itches. A storyteller’s obligation is to tell a good story; a story’s obligation is to be great. Now, what makes a story great, or a great storyteller, can be argued ad infinitum.
A writer can do whatever she wishes to a story, and of course, a reader has the right to not read that story. Stories get distorted by the mere fact of being told; I never understood the need to be true to them, be they biblical, historical stories, or whatnot.
Man is by nature a congenitally unreliable narrator.
Q: While you were growing up in Beirut, were there still active hakawatis in the city? How about today? Did you speak with any of them, or go listen to them perform, while researching or writing this novel?
A: I didn’t know of any while growing up. Had I known of one I certainly wouldn’t have gone to listen. I grew up on Bewitched and Monty Python, on the flirting between Matt Dillon and Kitty Russell, between Mr. Steed and Mrs. Peel, on Dr. No, The Sound of Music, and Bruce Lee. Mine was a relatively modern household. My friends and I pooh-pooed anything that Arabic culture offered, specially the few things that our parents enjoyed. We pitied them for enjoying Fairuz and Umm Kalthoum. I dreamed of seeing Genesis (with Peter Gabriel, of course) and Queen in concert, not of listening to a storyteller. If hakawatis existed in Beirut when I was young, my generation probably killed them.
There are none today, at least not in Lebanon. I know of one in Damascus, in a café called the Nafoura (fountain), but he plies his trade for tourists, a facsimile of a real hakawati. I heard of a couple of retired old coots in northern Syria, both Kurds. There is a theater troupe in Cairo that is trying to revive the art, but I don’t know much about them. So, no, I didn’t talk to a hakawati or hear one perform, not a professional. Like most things in the novel, the details of the hakawati’s performances are invented.
Q: As Osama describes it, life during the civil war in Lebanon bred a particular kind of roll-with-it attitude, and deadpan humor, in Beirutis. Air raid sirens may have gone off, and bombs may have dropped, but people weren’t about to put life on hold. Do you see that attitude as part of Beirutis’ cultural identity in real life, and how would you characterize it? Has it lingered even though things are more stable now?
A: Yes, it has lingered. I think it’s part of the Beirutis’ innate character, an inherited abnormality.
The situation in Beirut right now (early 2008) is horrible and tense. We have no president because the political sides can’t seem to come to an agreement. The economy has been at a complete standstill since the Israeli bombings in July 2006. Everyone is utterly depressed, and hope has left the country.
Yet, you can rarely get a reservation at any restaurant or club on Gemmaizeh Street. I have a friend who once crossed a demonstration in which the opposing sides were about to kill each other because she needed to pick up the perfect pair of jeans, which were being altered. I was told that once, when a car bomb exploded not too far from a café in Aisha Bakkar, the owner was upset with two of his customers because they stood up to investigate before having finished their cups of coffees. He assumed they didn’t like his coffee and was mollified only when the other customers convinced him that the offenders were probably out-of-towners.
Q: You paint such a vivid portrait of Fatima, Osama’s emerald-festooned Jewish-Italian-Iraqi best friend, that I had to wonder if she is based on a real person. Is there a real-life Fatima?
A: No, there is no real-life Fatima. She’s made up. When I was a child in Kuwait, there was a girl in school, a couple of years older than I was, who sucker-punched an older, blubber–bellied bully at recess. She must have been seven or eight, and I don’t remember much of what she looked like other than that she had mixed Arab parentage. The Fatima in my book is probably who I imagined that girl would grow up to be.
Not surprisingly, every Lebanese woman who has read the book so far has insisted that Fatima was based on her, my agent being the first (and since I’m not dumb, if my agent insists that she was based on her, then surely she was).
Q: Did you live in Lebanon while the civil war was going on? How did that experience influence you as a writer?
A: Not exactly. I left for England when the war started and then came to the U.S. I did, however, travel back and forth constantly since my family was always there, even during the most horrific times of the war. The exception was during the Israeli invasion of 1982. I was on the last flight out (I know, every Lebanese will tell you they were on the last plane out) and didn’t return till 1984. Otherwise I was there for a good chunk of every year. Unlike many Lebanese, though, I was able to leave whenever I wished and never had to suffer the horrors of the worst days, months, years.
How it influenced me as a writer? I’m not sure that can be quantified. I’m sure there is some correlation between my writing style and the civil war but I doubt causality can be inferred. I used to think that the war sharpened my wit, but I no longer do. Most Lebanese have a different sense of humor.
Q: Do you want this novel to teach readers about Middle Eastern culture, Lebanese culture specifically? Put another way, did you feel any responsibilities or pressures writing about your homeland for an American audience?
A: No, no, and definitely not. I don’t presume to be able to teach a reader, nor do I wish to. That’s a slippery slope. I’m not fond of didactic fiction, nor do I believe that anyone can learn about Middle Eastern culture by reading one novel. Middle Eastern culture is diverse, so is Lebanese culture. In this novel, the al-Kharrat family is of a certain class, lives in a certain area, has a specific background. To assume that one is able to learn something about the Middle East from that doesn’t make sense to me. No novel can do that, nor should it. Hell, War and Peace might have given me an idea of how some Russians may have seen the Napoleonic War, but I’d be naïve to think that it taught me about Russian culture or the Napoleonic War. Novels offer one perspective, the writer’s. Some writers have a wider perspective than others, but no one can teach about an entire culture, or worse, presume to speak for it. I can barely speak for myself; I can’t for Lebanese culture.
But I will say this: maybe the novel can break through a reader’s biases and preconceived ideas about what the Middle East is. I guess that would be a kind of illumination, to rattle misconceptions.
The question suggests that I write for an American audience. I don’t. I don’t write for a Lebanese audience either. I’m part of various subdivisions of humans, but I have never felt that I’ve belonged to any. I write and desperately hope that someday a reader will read what I’ve written, but I never presume that my reader is an American, an Arab, a lesbian, a soccer player, a Quaker, a left handed Inuit basket weaver, an Argentine gigolo, or whatever. Why restrict oneself to silly boundaries? I write for a human audience.
Q: There are so many funny lines in this book. My favorite: “Sarah decided to sharpen the cutlery” in one scene with Sarah and Hagar, and I love it because of the way you use contemporary vernacular to tell a Biblical story—and you do that throughout the book. Are you conscious of “writing funny” and do you that you have to hone and refine the funny lines? Or does funny just sort of happen when you write? How important is humor in this book?
A: Funny sort of happens when I write. I’m not conscious of it. If I try to write funny, it comes out forced and clunky. I don’t hone and refine the funny lines. I’m not a comic in that sense. If a line or scene doesn’t sound funny in the first draft, it gets thrown out. Again, refining it sometimes makes it sound forced.
Humor is essential in this book. I can’t imagine a novel on storytelling not being funny. Someday I might write a novel that isn’t funny, or at least amusing, but it hasn’t happened so far. Some of my stories might rely on humor more than others but it’s always there. I tend to prefer a light touch when dealing with a serious subject, and tend to prefer those writers with a sense of humor. I grew up on Dostoyevsky, and I still think he’s amazing but a bit too earnest. Now, if he had Gogol’s lighter touch . . .
Humor tends to sharpen the blunt edges of earnestness.
Q: You quote Hannah Arendt quoting Isak Dinesen, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” Do you agree?
A: Of course I agree. Who am I to argue with Isak Dinesen, or Hannah Arendt, for heaven’s sake?
Since I’ve been known to change my mind every ten minutes, I try my best, not always successfully, to not posit theories on the human condition, not publicly at least. I can’t say that the above quote is the case for everyone. It is for me. Telling stories about what happened eases the pain of what happened. It isn’t necessarily therapeutic, but a way of coping. As in, I may still be a mess, but telling a story makes me a functioning mess.
When I tell a story about my sorrow, whether I’m telling another person or just myself, I reengage with life.
Q: You are a successful painter in addition to being a writer. You also have your MBA and an engineering degree. When people meet you and ask you “what do you do,” how do you answer? Is one profession more central than any other? And what else do we not know about you? (Do you throw the discus in your spare time?)
A: I write. That’s how I answer. I guess that’s more central than any other. I’ve wanted to write for as long as I can remember, so once I began to do so, it was easy to say, “I’m a writer.” Also, calling myself a painter doesn’t feel true right now. I haven’t seriously painted in a long time. My last exhibit was in Norway in 1997, quite a while ago.
I don’t throw the discus in my spare time. I play soccer. It’s my one true love, my one uncomplicated intimate relationship. I’ve been playing for 38 years and should have retired a long time ago. (Some have suggested that I should have retired 38 years ago.) I can’t, though. I still schlep my creaky joints and aged knees to the field twice a week. I’ve played on the same teams for decades. It’s been a pleasure watching my teammates age and observing their declining skills. Since I’ve never had that much skill to begin with, my fall from my peak playing days has been less dramatic. They all still play much better than I do, but I think that in a few years they’ll get so bad that I’ll catch up.
I don’t watch soccer/football as much as I used to though, so one can say I’m finally beginning to grow up. But then I’m obsessed with UCLA basketball, have been since I was a freshman there. Everyday when I first wake up, I turn the computer on so I can scan the web for any tidbit on the UCLA basketball team. My obsession embarrasses me and makes no sense, yet I refuse to give it up.
That’s about as interesting as I can make myself sound. I wish I could say that I’m a brilliant pianist or a great chef—I can’t cook but last year I learned to how to wash dishes. Does that help?
Read Reviews of The Hakawati
The Washington Post
“Absolutely original . . . Hakawati comes from the Arabic verb ‘haka,’ meaning to tell, relate, report, give an account of; to imitate, copy; to resemble. A hakawati is someone who does all those things. . . . We come across many hakawatis [in Alameddine’s novel, including] Osama al-Kharrat, the main character, who has been living in the United States for years and is returning to Beirut to visit his dying father. The ultimate hakawati, however, is the author himself, who has managed to convey, while writing in English, the art of Arabic oral storytelling.
The novel’s . . . threads [are] stitched together with tales, fables and anecdotes, all nestled in a modern novel full of family dysfunction, politics and teeth-clenching drama. The Hakawati offers a smorgasbord—no, make that a Lebanese meze—of characters and tales: from modern to Koranic/biblical/Tanakhic, from historical to traditional a la The Thousand and One Nights.
The language in the novel is delightful . . . playful and rich like Arabic—the kind of writing you savor and read aloud [and] the book is also filled with some very American slang and concepts. Alameddine clearly had fun with the telling and does a marvelous job whizzing back and forth between modern and ancient, West and East (from Baybars the ‘marketing hero’ to ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’), often hovering hilariously in between. . . . At this time in history, when we are constantly told stories but are seldom well entertained, Alameddine juxtaposes truth and fiction, contemporary lust and bawdy tales of the past, today’s grief and sorrow in the ancient world. . . . A delightful book that should be savored, perhaps over a small cup of very thick coffee, thrice boiled with sugar and a pinch of cardamom.”
“Dazzling . . . The Hakawati follows Osama al-Kharrat as he returns from his adopted Los Angeles to his native Beirut, where his father is dying. As the family holds vigil at the invalid’s bedside, they tell beguiling stories of identity and belonging. . . . Alameddine’s borrowings from the folk traditions of both east and west are abundant but he is more than just a hakawati, or storyteller. As Osama’s grandfather says: ‘No matter how good a story is, there is more at stake in the telling.’”
Sunday Business Post (Dublin)
“A massively ambitious book which is likely to become a modern classic.”
The Times Literary Supplement
“Extraordinary . . . Threading its way through the epically proportioned tapestry of tales that is The Hakawati is the self-told story of Osama, an Americanized, foreign-feeling expat who returns to the war-torn land of his birth to await his father’s death in a dilapidated hospital in the heart of Beirut. . . . These tales have some of the biblical brutality of the Old Testament, tempered with the subtlety and magic of Shakespeare, and the wisdom and guile of Scheherazade. For this is a novel about the tradition and art of storytelling itself . . . Carried on Alameddine’s carpet of myths, the reader is taken from the dark and distant machinations of a jealous emir’s wife, to the heroic feats in distant lands of the warriors of the slave-king, Baybars, to the great pigeon wars of twentieth-century Urfa, recalled in colourful detail . . . Alameddine’s is a crafted work that—like the master storyteller—works its magic by stealth. . . . Playful reworkings of fictions both familiar and strange display the talents of a consummate hakawati, who can simultaneously spin multiple strands then suddenly draw the heartstrings tightly together. Like the careworn Osama himself, they find themselves crossing into the realm of that eternal, entangling phantom: grief. Perhaps the most poignant message buried deep in The Hakawati is that stories, and in particular the stories we tell today may function as palliatives: helping if not healing, knitting families together through the affectionate, impious retelling of their impossibly embellished pasts. . . . In this composite of stories, Osama’s final tale, told to ease the heart of his dying father, as well as to unburden his own, is the most touching of all.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Stunning . . . If any work of fiction might be powerful enough to transcend the mountain of polemic, historical inquiry, policy analysis and reportage that stands between the Western reader and the Arab soul, it’s this wonder of a book—a book not about a jihadi but a hakawati (Arabic for storyteller). . . .
The Hakawati concerns a young man’s trip from Los Angeles to his father’s deathbed in Beirut. There he and his relatives exchange jokes, tear-jerking tales, cliffhangers and legends during the weeks of their vigil. Some of their stories are contemporary—an impetuous sister’s wedding, troubles at the family’s car dealership, a great-grandfather falling in love. But their wellspring is ancient and varied: Alameddine has poached from and transformed parables from the Old Testament, Homer, Ovid, the Koran, the uncensored Thousand and One Nights, and many other sources. . . .
The result might have been experimental folderol, but Alameddine has a genius for the emotional hinges on which novels turn. We learn this during the earliest stages of the book, as the narrator worries about his [dying] father . . . In a more predictable novel, the next tale might have been about the ailments of a venerable king. Instead we hear of a slave, her hand cut off by a demon, who embarks on a journey through the underworld. [Thus] the suffering of the narrator’s father has been transmogrified into a slave’s retrieval of her dignity. It suggests, without actually mentioning either, the journeys of Aeneas and Odysseus to the realms of the dead.
Both the old yarns and the new ones are shaped by Alameddine’s strong comedic instinct. The Hakawati draws on ancient tradition to make an old form authentically new . . . In this book, where searing political upheavals like the Lebanese civil war figure but don’t dominate, and in an era when almost all we seem to see of the Middle East is terrorism, it’s bracing to come upon a work—and a world—that expands our narrow vision, transforming it to one of multiplicity, enchanting it with hope.”
The Seattle Times
“Rabih Alameddine’s intoxicating, ambitious, multi-layered new novel is a marvel of storytelling bravado . . . Alameddine interweaves Osama [al-Kharrat]’s painful hospital vigil with classic Arab fables, re-imagined with wicked contemporary humor. The al-Kharrat story unfolds in parallel with the tale of Baybars the slave king and the saga of the shrewd, resourceful slave Fatima, who fights her way into and back out of the jaws of hell. All the stories are thematically linked, with aching motifs of separation—children from parents, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers. Alameddine creates a compelling portrait of the underpinnings of Arab culture—riddled, like every culture, with contradictions. The Hakawati is wonderfully bittersweet and complex, and the sweeping tales of Baybars and Fatima create a real resonance with the smaller human story of the maddening, irresistible al-Kharrats. . . . This tale left me wanting more—the true mark of a good storyteller.”
Time Out Chicago
“Four stars. Astonishingly inventive . . . Stunningly retold stories [that] reintroduce readers to familiar characters like Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael and the fabled Fatima [and] also the stories of contemporary Lebanese who have suffered the torments of war for decades and how they carry on with their daily lives in spite of all that insanity. . . . Alameddine’s enchanting language [has] a fascinating, lyrical quality . . . He juggles his many narratives effortlessly, enhancing each with small details from the world they inhabit—caring for pigeons on a rooftop, the way a cold beer tastes after a desert trek. The real hakawati, here, is Alameddine.”
Santa Cruz Sentinel
“Be thankful for Rabih Alameddine’s new novel, The Hakawati. In one of the most delightful books of the year, Alameddine relates many of the stories that unite the people living in the Middle East. The narrator’s family are Druze living in Lebanon, but the stories we hear come from Cairo, Damascus and Turkey as well as from the Bible and the Quran. Modern readers have nothing to fear from Alameddine as the novel is contemporary as well as ancient. David Bowie and Santa Claus can be found in these stories as well as Abraham, Orpheus, jinnis, sultans, crusaders, magic carpets, virgins, houris and, of course, evil viziers. The story of why Aladdin is Chinese is superb. The Hakawati is a book to be read and read again.”
All Things Considered
“A fantastic tapestry . . . After reading [The Hakawati,] I didn’t want to return to the mundane world. [Osama al-Kharrat] returns to his native Beirut after long years spent in Los Angeles to visit the bedside of his dying father. That’s the brightest thread of this tale. But this is the story of a thousand threads interweaving legends, fables and parable. There are the mythic wars of Arab lore, and the real civil war in Lebanon. . . . A story that ranges from the seven gates of the underworld to a deathbed in Beirut could only be told by a real storyteller, a hakawati—a spellbinder. . . . We meet many, many other characters here: Fatima, who appears to be a goddess, we meet Baybars, the slave king, we meet imps, djinn, witches and horses with magical powers. They’re the atmosphere, and the real people feel like mortals walking around in this fairytale atmosphere. . . . In this book, people are often entering the world of legend when the real world is painful. And that is, after all, one of the places that the imagination springs from. In other words, when [Osama’s] fictive family is suffering the real pains of the Lebanese civil war, the mother in this book will say, tell me a story, distract me, enchant me, and the imagination serves that function too. . . . I really liked that very gentle image, that Osama, even as his father is breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out, is going to begin a new tale.”
—Jacki Lyden, senior correspondent
San Jose Mercury News
“Exhilarating . . . In Alameddine’s world there are magic carpets, but they can misbehave in midair. There are imps, but they can end up in an imp stew or be transformed into colorful squawking parrots. And there are Kama-Sutra topping tales of sex and seduction. Alameddine has great fun telling this story, and it’s infectious. . . . Both dazzling and dizzying. [The Hakawati] meanders, doubles back, moves back and forward in time, takes off on tangents and then eats its own tail. There are stories within stories within stories. . . . It’s an audacious all-you-can-eat buffet . . . Alameddine’s talent is that each of these tales is as picaresque as the next, each feels just as real, just as contemporary. In some ways the stories leak into each other, full of the same ingredients of love, family, betrayal and sex. . . . Alameddine is a wonderful raconteur and teller of tales, as effortless in conjuring up a war in ancient times as a garden party in Los Angeles. He can be serious and poignant, [and he] also refuses to be awed by the sweep of history—at one point producing a prophet who announces he’s not going to eat any more broccoli.”
Entertainment Weekly online
“A riot of stories concerning the rise of the eccentric al-Kharrat family. Osama [al-Kharrat]’s waggish grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his classic tales of princes, genies, and wise-cracking seductresses are worthy of Scheherazade. Rabih Alameddine has a deft, winsome touch.”,
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Captivating . . . A wildly imaginative patchwork of tales improbably threading together Greek mythology, biblical parables, Arab-Islamic lore, and even modern Lebanese politics [that] charm and amuse. . . . Most of these tales originate with narrator Osama’s late paternal grandfather, whose fascinating childhood and multiple identities forged a masterful hakawati, the Levantine Arabic word for ‘storyteller.’ While Osama’s rather stodgy father had no time for the old man’s colorful, moving and grotesque yarns, Osama imbibed them with gusto. As a result, he has become a walking treasure-trove of fables and historical legends. . . . Somewhere between bitter reality and escapist fantasy, the ever-humorous author provides the stoically optimistic view of the sputtering Lebanese experiment: ‘You take different groups, put them on top of each other, simmer for a thousand years, keep adding more and more strange tribes, simmer for another few thousand years, salt and pepper with religion, and what you get is a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it.’”
“A big, giant treat of a book . . . Rabih Alameddine shines as a storyteller and a novelist, and nowhere are the distinctions between the two vocations more evident than in this lovely, captivating tome. As a storyteller, Alameddine dazzles us with bejeweled adventure stories of lust and love, murder, scandal, and war. As a novelist, he crafts a complex structure, shaping subtle mirrors between the flights of fancy and the central story of a family in war-torn Beirut, gently shifting the perspective until, like a mosaic, the tiny pieces begin to take shape, and the real picture of the novel emerges. Like a merry-making band of magic carpets, the folk tales and adventure stories woven into the central story of a Lebanese family whisk the reader away again and again, acting as both mischievous troublemakers and sage guides. Part of the great joy of reading The Hakawati is the escapist pleasure found in these fanciful digressions . . . Bewitched by Alameddine’s fine prose and addictive tales . . . I lost myself in tales of Fatima and her jinnis, sultans and their great battles, Abraham, Sarah and Hagar reinvented and made real, and watched as they sent echoes into the deeper, bleaker story of a family and their own stories, ancient legacies and culture rent by war. . . . My advice to potential readers is this: Surrender to the hakawati. Get on this magic carpet, and let him tell you a story. In fact, let him tell you one thousand stories. He’ll handle all the details, and you can sit back and enjoy the ride.”
The Wall Street Journal
“Alameddine is an embellisher extraordinaire. His new novel, The Hakawati, is a big book, both literally (513 pages) and figuratively, and it’s attracting critical attention for its scope and ingenuity. In the novel, scores of stories are woven through the life of a Lebanese family, the al-Kharrats. It is told mostly through the eyes of Osama, the young son. Osama is a good listener, and everyone likes to tell him stories. Some of them are true, —or true enough. Some are folk tales. Some are about daily life in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. Some are about Baybars, a 13th-century warrior and sultan of Egypt and Syria. And some come directly from Mr. Alameddine’s Technicolor imagination.”
East Bay Express
“Not just a story within a story but hundreds of stories within a story, a 513-page macramé with myriad threads.”
“Rabih Alameddine may be one of the most brilliant Middle Eastern authors writing in English today. The Hakawati masterfully interweaves the contemporary story of Osama al-Kharrat, a Maronite/Druze Lebanese who has settled in Los Angeles and returns to his father’s deathbed in Beirut, with re-imagined classic tales of the Middle East [that] are all brought to life in this wildly exuberant and wickedly humorous novel. . . . Alameddine manages to describe the absurd reality of politics, society and religion that his characters inhabit, with humor, yes, and even affection.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Bravely ambitious . . . This is the stuff of the day-to-day becoming extraordinary, the work of the hakawati, the storyteller: merging the mundane and the fabulous. The Hakawati is made up of many stories, and like Scheherazade’s famous nights, it is intended to keep death at bay, while in serpentine fashion resurrecting the world in words with each day’s dawn. At the center of the novel is the family saga of Osama al-Kharrat, who after 26 years in Los Angeles has returned to his roots in Lebanon to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed . . . Family tales are shared, and passionate descriptions bring to full realization characters such as Osama’s sophisticated and headstrong mother or his humorous and warmly affectionate Uncle Jihad. . . . A skillfully wrought, emotional story . . . Alameddine should be commended for the chances he takes, and [his] prodigious skills . . . He deserves credit for telling a story the West should pay attention to, and evoking the diversity of the Arab world (Christian, Muslim, Jew and even Druze, they are all here) that is often taken for granted in our ever narrowing perspective of righteousness.”
Rocky Mountain News
“Prepare yourself for takeoff on a fantastic magic carpet ride. Rabih Alameddine’s new novel is an Arabian Nights for the 21st century. Bewitching readers with tales of spellbinding genies and shape-shifting demons, Alameddine gives classic tales a modern twist, borrowing from the best of his sources, which include A Thousand and One Nights, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Old Testament and the Koran, to name a few. The Hakawati is one story, and in it, Alameddine tells the stories of all times. . . . Like A Thousand and One Nights, The Hakawati embeds stories within a story to create an intricately woven tapestry of tales. . . . A narrative whose parts come together with a richness that gives this book its cultural, historical and literary worth. . . . Alameddine proves that he’s the hakawati for our times.”
Traci J. Macnamara
Publishers Weekly (Starred, boxed review)
Stories descend from stories as families descend from families in the magical third novel from Alameddine (I, the Divine), telling tales of contemporary Lebanon that converge, ingeniously, with timeless Arabic fables. With his father dying in a Beirut hospital, Osama al-Kharrat, a Los Angeles software engineer, returns in 2003 for the feast of Eid al-Adha. As he keeps watch with his sister, Lina, and extended family, Osama narrates the family history, going back to his great-grandparents, and including his grandfather, a hakawati, or storyteller. Their stories are crosscut with two sinuous Arabian tales: one of Fatima, a slave girl who torments hell and conquers the heart of Afreet Jehanam, a genie; another of Baybars, the slave prince, and his clever servant, Othman.
Osama's family story generates a Proustian density of gossip: their Beirut is luxuriant as only a hopelessly insular world on the cusp of dissolution can be; its interruption by the savagery that takes hold of the city in the '70s is shocking. The old, tolerant Beirut is symbolized by Uncle Jihad: a gay, intensely lively storyteller, sexually at odds with a society he loves. Uncle Jihad's death marks a symbolic break in the chain of stories and traditions-unless Osama assumes his place in the al-Kharrat line. Almost as alluring is the subplot involving a contemporary Fatima as a femme fatale whose charms stupefy and lure jewelry from a whole set of Saudi moneymen, and her sexy sister Mariella, whose beauty queen career (helped by the votes of judges cowed by her militia leader lovers) is tragically, and luridly, aborted.
Alameddine's own storytelling ingenuity seems infinite: out of it he has fashioned a novel on a royal scale, as reflective of past empires as present. (Apr.)
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The Library Journal (Starred review)
Alameddine (Koolaids; The Perv) assumes the role of a hakawati, a Middle Eastern storyteller, in a tour de force that interweaves at least five separate narratives into an exquisite tapestry in the denouement. He spins the story of Osama al-Kharrat, a Lebanese American returning to Beirut to sit at his dying father's bedside; the al-Kharrat family's rise to prominence, from its beginnings in a Lebanese Druze village and a Turkish Armenian village; the Mameluk warrior Baybars, known for his victory over the Mongols; the mythic Fatima, who became the consort of the jinni Afrit-Jehanam; and, above all, the disintegration of a tolerant, civilized Lebanon into a battleground for competing religions, ethnicities, and ideologies. Each narrative is further enhanced by smaller stories about raising pigeons and playing traditional melodies as well as tales drawn from the Koran, the Bible, The Arabian Nights, Ovid, Shakespeare, and every person who ever spoke to the author. This magical novel is epic in proportion and will enchant readers everywhere. Recommended for all libraries.
Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information - School Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews (Starred review)
Alameddine (I, the Divine, 2001, etc.) mingles a four-generation family saga with a cornucopia of Arabian tales and historical dramas to create a one-of-a-kind novel. Osama al-Kharrat returns in 2003 to Beirut, where his family once owned a prosperous car dealership, to visit his dying father Farid. Their relationship has always been uneasy, as was Farid's with his own father. Osama's grandfather was a hakawati: "a teller of tales, myths, and fables . . . someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns." Farid, ashamed of a progenitor dependent on the favor of the local bey, was none too happy that Osama loved his grandfather's stories, nor did he want the boy to play the oud, a traditional Middle Eastern instrument. Farid's generation were modern Lebanese, not particularly religious or invested in their heritage. Right up to the moment they had to flee war-torn Beirut in 1977, Osama's family remained convinced their country would not be directly affected by the Arab world's endless battle with Israel. Osama, who has lived most of his adult life in California, speedily sinks back into the excitable embrace of his extended family (including numerous strongminded women) as they take turns at his father's hospital bedside. The history of the al-Kharrats and of Lebanon unfolds side by side with multiple strands of Arabian folklore creatively reimagined by Alameddine, who mischievously informs us at one point that his surname is a variant of Aladdin. Not content to let a single jinni out of a bottle, the author summons up a vast array of imps, demons, witches, warriors, slave kings and fierce females to embed his contemporary characters in the splendor of Middle Eastern culture.Chief among these mythic figures are Fatima and Baybars, plucked from legend to serve the author's art as he entwines their odysseys with the al-Kharrats' throughout the book. There's so much going on here that readers will occasionally feel overwhelmed, and the multilayered narrative sags slightly under its own weight in the middle section. But no one interested in boundary-defying fiction will want to miss Alameddine's high-wire act. A dizzying, prodigal display of storytelling overabundance.
Booklist (Starred review)
A hakawati is a storyteller in the Arab world, and so opulent and picaresque is Alameddine’s novel, it can serve as a great fake book for aspiring Scheherazades. In this grand saga of a Beirut family with Armenian, English, and Druze roots, Alameddine, the author of three previous works of fiction, constructs stories within stories that encompass the world of the jinni, the tales of Abraham and Hagar, the legendary pigeon wars of Urfa, Lebanon’s brutal civil war, and post-9/11 Beirut and L.A. At the center of this matrix is Osama al-Kharrat (his last name means exaggerator), grandson of a hakawati and son of a wealthy car dealer and a glamorous, sharp-tongued mother, one of many resplendently witty and wily women characters. After living in L.A. for 26 years, Osama has finally returned to Beirut in 2003 because his father is dying. His arrival sets off a cascade of memories and launches 1,001 stories. The most thrilling involve the legendary Fatima, the hero Baybars, Osama’s bon vivant uncle Jihad, and the hakawati himself, not to neglect the many diverting parables. Alameddine, himself a brilliant hakawati, exuberantly reclaims and celebrates the art and wisdom of the war-torn Middle East in this stupendous, ameliorating, many-chambered palace of a novel.