To represent The Hakawati as a sprawling epic would be limiting; to liken its narrative to a set of nested Russian dolls would be prosaic; to describe the prose as inventive would be an understatement – what then is The Hakawati? The bare facts: It is the third novel of Rabih Alameddine, a Lebanese-American writer, who took eight years crafting its 513 pages. In Arabic the title means storyteller and the novel is a contemporary Arabian Nights. Now, for the juice: a luscious Lebanese meze rustled up from the Quran, the Old Testament, Levantine folk tales, Panchatantra, the Thousand and One Nights and shot through with a narrative of a young émigré returning to his native Lebanon, The Hakawati is storytelling on steroids.
Beginning with the simple instruction – Listen – the novel opens with the story of an emir who has everything he desires except for a son. He consults his vizier and on his advice packs off his slave girl Fatima to Egypt to fetch the miracle cure. This saga intertwines with the story of Osama al-Kharrat who has returned from US to Beirut to his dying father’s hospital bedside. The war-ravaged city has changed beyond Osama’s recognition; childhood friends have grown up into selves as varied as militiaman, sycophant, femme fatale, businesswoman; and the large family has unravelled. But it is Eid-al-Adha, the traditional time for a family feast, and since the patriarch is bedridden an elaborate home-cooked meal is rolled into the hospital room on a gurney amidst gossip, laughter and stories.
As Osama’s feisty sister Lina, pregnant niece Salwa, best friend Fatima, obsequious cousin Hafez, and Aunt Samia hover about the hospital in concern, the narrative bubbles with their individual stories. Mingled with these are Osama’s reminisces of his grandfather Ismail – the original Hakawati of the story, his father Farid and his favourite uncle Jihad. And how, despite his father’s disapproval of the grandfather’s lowly storyteller’s profession – that had earned the family name al-Kharrat, fibster in Arabic – Osama was weaned on stories by the old man. Through the tangled skein of individual idiosyncracies, personal privations and lost loves emerges a microcosm of Lebanon during its independence, civil war and reconstruction.
The Hakawati is Alameddine’s Rushdiesque paean to the place of his birth. His invigorating tales of love, lust and longing juxtapose gentle pigeoneers with the adventurous Mamluk slave King Baybars, nosedive into the Biblical saga of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar and take flight with the fabulist fantasies of demons, imps and magic carpets. “Reality never meets our wants, and adjusting both is why we tell stories," observes a character in the novel, and as the novel proceeds the reader begins to glean the leitmotif coursing through the web of stories. It becomes apparent that sometime in his growing-up years Osama had fallen out with his father Farid, the relationship thereon marked by a stony silence.
Now, as Osama keeps vigil over his prostrate father, the only way he knows to communicate with him is through stories. Like a contemporary Sheherazade, Osama attempts to stave off his father’s death through the narration of myriad tales. Thus the story loops back to the beginning, the first and last word being the same – Listen – and one realizes that all along the Hakawati was none other than Osama.
The book could have done with tighter editing, the buffet table sags under its sumptuousness. That quibble aside, reading The Hakawati is like embarking on a steam engine train to a wondrous terrain – surrender to its meanders, forget the destination, and you will discover, as a character quips, “A great story never ends where it is expected to”.