Posted by: koolwine | May 16, 2011

Lebanon: The Hakawati

An inveterate storyteller, Osama al-Kharrat interweaves the narration of his return to Beirut with family history and Arabian Nights-like tales.

Country Focus: Lebanon (Lubnan in Arabic)

The Hakawati: A Story
by Rabih Alameddine (Lebanese-American)
Originally published: Random House, 2008.
My edition: Anchor Books, 2009.  513 pgs.

Acclaim: Winner of the Rome Prize for Best International Book of the Year 2009

Early in his multi-layered novel, author Rabih Alameddine explains to the reader that “A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths and fables (hekayat).  A storyteller, an entertainer.  A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns.”

Osama al-Kharrat, a middle-aged Lebanese man, is The Hakawati‘s hakawati.  Planning to spend the Eid al-Adha holiday with his family, he has just arrived in Beirut in 2003 after a 26 year absence.  Shocked to find out that his father is deathly ill, his mood turns somber and reflective.  As narrator, al-Kharrat bounces around between a multitude of storylines: his past and that of his father’s, grandfather’s, great-grandfather’s and his beloved Uncle Jihad’s, a fairy tale starring a feisty woman named Fatima, and the fictionalized heroic exploits of Prince Baybars.  The alternating threads of these stories stretch the length of the novel, which means there is a confusing array of characters, settings and time periods.  Keeping track of them all isn’t easy, especially since these stories are interrupted by additional (albeit brief) fables.

Although several Lebanese characters in The Hakawati consider America an enemy for supporting Israel at the expense of Palestinians – 100,000 of whom were displaced to Lebanon – al-Kharrat and his family are decidedly non-political, follow the Druze faith and are accepting of American culture.  al-Kharrat grew up speaking English and strums Beatles songs on his guitar, so when his homeland erupts into civil war it is no stretch for his wealthy family to send him to UCLA.  Alameddine divides his time between Beirut and San Francisco; I imagine that al-Kharrat’s awkwardness in both cultures derive from feelings and experiences that Alameddine has personally experienced.  A scene of being strip-searched at LAX is particularly palpable.  Since The Hakawati was published post-9/11, I had to wonder at Alameddine’s choice of names  – Osama and Jihad – for two main characters. No other Arab names come more loaded.

The Hakawati certainly gives the reader a taste of life in Lebanon, past, present and fictional.  The October War, oud playing, pigeoneering, Druze faith, hakawati tradition, the Fatima’s Hand amulet, weddings and funerals are just a few of the many facets of Lebanese culture that Alameddine weaves into his lengthy, far-reaching novel.

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Responses

  1. I am 153 pages into this book and it has been more effort than pleasure. Going to give it a rest and move on to “When The Elephants Dance”. Something about the narrative is not grabbing me. I think the multiple story lines are too difficult for me to follow right now. I might try it again later when I have longer blocks of reading time to devote to the book. That may help.

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    • It wasn’t a casual read for me either. Complete silence, caffeine and note-taking helped. Elephants has multiple story lines also but they are far fewer and less convoluted than Hakawati.

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