The Hakawati

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The opening paragraph of Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati ends with the words “Let me tell you a story.” Thus the narrator and, implicitly, the author state the book’s purpose. To the Lebanese, a “hakawati” is a highly skilled storyteller, such as Ismail al-Kharrat, the narrator’s paternal grandfather, to whom the title specifically refers. However, though they might not have Ismail’s spellbinding powers, many of the other characters in the novel also like telling stories. Moreover, Osama al-Kharrat, who as the narrator has collected and retold all of the stories in the book, might well be considered a twenty-first century hakawati. His purpose, and thus the purpose of the author, is not only to tell stories but also, in the words used in the introductory paragraph, to take readers “on a journey beyond imagining.”

The hakawati tradition also explains the novel’s seemingly random structure. Storytellers are not bound by the demands of reason or even by a disciplined imagination. They wander where their fancy takes them. Thus, though the primary setting of The Hakawati is Beirut, Lebanon, the book begins in an unspecified place, where a nameless emir is deeply troubled because his wife has not been able to give him a son. Fatima, their slave, offers to travel to Alexandria, consult a healer who lives there, and return with a remedy. The emir and his wife are delighted, and Fatima leaves with their good wishes.

With this subplot underway, Osama introduces himself. He has just returned to Beirut after twenty-six years in the United States, where, after completing his schooling, he made his home in Los Angeles, working as a computer programmer. With Fatima Farouk, his best friend since childhood, Osama heads for the hospital to see his father Farid. Though presumably Osama has come home to spend the feast of Eid al-Adha with his family, in fact he has been informed that though his father has been ill before, this time he is not expected to survive. Before the two arrive at the hospital, however, the narrator returns to the story of the legendary Fatima. He describes how she persuades a band of brigands to kill each other, leaving her with two traveling companions: the stable boy Jawad and the one remaining brigand, Khayal, who transfers his loyalties to her in part to save his life and in part because he is in love with the boy. Leaving the three asleep in the desert, the narrator moves to Farid’s hospital room, where Osama and his sister Lina al-Kharrat are sitting with their father.

As the novel proceeds, Osama’s memories of his earlier years and of the stories his grandfather Ismail told him are interrupted periodically for accounts of the adventures of Fatima. Her triumphant return to the emir’s court prompts the introduction of a second major subplot. When his wife asks the emir for a story of heroic deeds, he begins his account of the legendary hero Baybars. At that point in the story, the author moves back and forth among the three major narrative lines. In the hands of a less gifted writer, this approach would lead only to confusion, but Alameddine seems to sense instinctively just how long he can leave a narrative in progress before his readers forget the details of the plot.

Osama’s story is by far the most complex of the three. Inevitably, his return to Beirut prompts him to recall his early years, when his father was building up an automotive empire. He also remembers his father’s younger brother Jihad, who was a mainstay in the business until his untimely death. Though Uncle Jihad insisted that car dealers such as him were the new hakawati, in fact, unlike Farid, Jihad appreciated his father’s skill and was himself a spellbinding storyteller. When Osama’s grandfather, Ismail, decided that it was time for his ten-year-old grandson to see a professional hakawati in action, it was Jihad who accompanied Ismail, Osama, and Lina to the seedy café where what turned out to be an inferior performance took place.

Some of Osama’s most treasured memories involve his mother, Layla, originally Layla Khoury. As a child, he particularly liked hearing the story of his parents’ courtship. Long before he was introduced to her, Farid had decided that he had to make her his wife. When she became engaged to another man, Farid was crushed. However, Jihad encouraged him by pointing out that in stories, an angel always appeared to...

(The entire section is 1810 words.)

The Hakawati Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, no. 14 (March 15, 2008): 27.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 3 (February 1, 2008): 103-104.

Lambda Book Report 16, no. 3 (Fall, 2008): 25.

Library Journal 133, no. 4 (March 1, 2008): 73.

The New York Times Book Review, May 18, 2008, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 8 (February 25, 2008): 48.

The San Francisco Chronicle, April 20, 2008, p. M1.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 11, 2008, p. 21.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 98 (April 26, 2008): W1-W7.