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The Hakawatiby Rabih Alameddine
Synopses & Reviews
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."
"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-Khattar, a Los Angeles software engineer, returns in 2003 for the feast of Eid al-Hada. 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-Khattar 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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Reality never meets our wants, and adjusting both is why we tell stories," observes a character in Rabih Alameddine's absolutely original novel "The Hakawati." 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. Perhaps the major difference between a storyteller... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) and a hakawati is that in English, the emphasis is on the story; in Arabic, it is on the delivery. "No matter how good a story is," says a connoisseur in Alameddine's novel, "there is more at stake in the telling." We come across many hakawatis: the grandfather, who was one by trade; Uncle Jihad, a car salesman ("modern-day storyteller"); and 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 opens with the tale of an emir who has been married for 20 years and has all he wants in life, except for a son. He consults his vizier, whose advice begins one of the major sagas of the book, which is intertwined with Osama's return to Beirut and the history of his family there. These two threads, tied in later with a third — the epic story of Baybars, a 13th-century sultan — run throughout, 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 and, while much of it feels playful and rich like Arabic — the kind of writing you savor and read aloud — 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. One of my favorite lines comes at the end of a traditional tale that the grandfather has told the young Osama, who then asks what happened to the nasty vizier who had tried to undermine all of the good characters. "He went to France," the grandfather answers, "where all the jealous people are." In his acknowledgments, the author states that "this is a work of fiction," which ought to be obvious, considering we've met not only magical imps named Abraham, Isaac, Isaiah, Noah and Job, but also demons, jinn and the master of the underworld himself, Afreet Jahanem. Moreover, the disclaimer brings to mind a jibe that appears throughout the book: "Stories are for entertainment only. They never mean anything." Which is true and yet isn't, because in addition to being a collection of tall tales, "The Hakawati" is a treatise on stories and storytelling, on the narratives (religious, political, familial) that make us up. "Why do people always believe liars?" asks Osama. "We all need to believe," replies his grandfather. "It's human nature." At this time in history, when we are constantly told stories but 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. Is it to remind us that nothing is new? To help us put it all in perspective? Or is it simply, in the tradition of all hakawatis, to tell a good story? Whatever his intention, the result is 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. Reviewed by Laila Halaby, who is the author of 'Once in a Promised Land' and 'West of the Jordan', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Here is absolute beauty. One of the finest novels I've read in years. To explain why this book is so wonderful and why Alameddine is so important would take a book. Fortunately you have that very book in your hands." Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
"Opulent and picaresque...[A] grand saga....Alameddine, himself a brilliant hakawati, exuberantly reclaims and celebrates the art of wisdom of the war-torn Middle East in this stupendous, ameliorating, many-chambered palace of a novel." Booklist (Starred Review)
"[A] one-of-a-kind novel....No one interested in boundary-defying fiction will want to miss Alameddine's high-wire act. A dizzying, prodigal display of storytelling overabundance." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"[A] tour de force that interweaves at least five separate narratives into an exquisite tapestry....This magical novel is epic in proportion and will enchant readers everywhere. Recommended." Library Journal (Starred Review)
"Alameddine should be commended for the chances he takes, and he certainly has prodigious skills that should not be discounted. But The Hakawati could have used some editorial tightening." The San Francisco Chronicle
"[A] wildly imaginative patchwork of tales....Though reading such a chaotic book proves exhausting — blame the author's desultory technique and dizzying array of characters — several stories both charm and amuse." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"This book covers ambitious terrain, and the author succeeds in doing what he has proposed. In the process, Alameddine proves that he's the hakawati for our times." Rocky Mountain News
Alameddine's astonishingly inventive, wonderfully exuberant novel takes readers from the shimmering dunes of ancient Egypt to the war-torn streets of 21-century Lebanon. The Hakawati is a modern Arabian Nights — a funny, captivating novel that enchants and dazzles.
About the Author
Rabih Alameddine is the author of Koolaids, The Perv, and I, the Divine. He divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut.
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