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“Uncle Jihad used to say that what happens is of little significant compared to the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of those events affect us.”
A funny thing happened on my way to finishing this dazzling novel. I was joyously reading along, gobbling pages like so many delicious chocolates and was just about to start the final chapter — when I stopped. Not that I wasn’t enjoying myself; not that I didn’t wonder how author Rabih Alameddine was possibly going to tie together the various tales within tales, family histories, gossip, and wild compendium of legend, fact and speculation that makes up the book to bring it to a satisfying conclusion. No, I stopped because I didn’t want to leave the book, its world, characters, or their stories. As much as I wondered, as all good stories make you wonder, ‘what happens next’ also I did not want it to end. Pleasures like the ones Alameddine gives readers in The Hakawati are meant to be extended, savored, languished in.
A hakawati is a storyteller; the name al-Kharrat means fibster, making the novel the tale of a tale teller, told by someone known for making things up. The main narrative follows Los Angeles-based software engineer Osama al-Kharrat, as he returns to his native Beirut after many years in America to be at his dying father’s bedside. Both he and the city, once “a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it,” have changed:
“I felt foreign to myself. Doubt, that blind mole, burrowed down my spine. I leaned back on the car, surveyed the neighborhood, felt the blood throb in the veins of my arms. I could hear a soft gurgling, but was unsure whether it came from a fountain or a broken water pipe. There was once, a long time ago, a filigreed marble fountain in the building’s lobby, but it had ceased to exist. Poof.
I was a tourist in a bizarre land. I was home.”
During the vigil at the hospital, Osama recalls the history of his family, going back its mixed Armenian, English, and Druze roots, and including his grandfather, their original hakawati. The al-Kharrat family’s rise to prominence and wealth with a string of luxury automobile dealerships throughout the Middle East is interwoven with two other separate narratives, the tale of the warrior prince Baybars who vanquished the Crusaders, and his clever servant, Othman; and the mythic story of Fatima, a slave girl who torments Hell and conquers the heart of the genie Afreet Jehanam. Inside each story, other stores are told, creating an almost overwhelming swirl of tales within tales, about other storytellers, the pigeon wars of Beirut, and the art of playing traditional instruments, as well as re-imagined stories from such diverse sources as the Koran, the Bible, Ovid, Shakespeare, the collection of medieval gay poetry “The Delight of Hearts,” and the unexpurgated Thousand and One Nights. Each story in its own way mirrors or compliments the overarching tale of the al-Kharrat family and the slow disintegration of the tolerant, civilized country of Lebanon into a battleground for competing religions, ethnicities, and ideologies.
“The best stories always begin with the appearance of a woman”, Alameddine writes, and the women of The Hakawati are among its most resourceful, funny, and wily characters, from Osama’s sister, Lina, his glamorous, quick-witted mother, Layla, and both the mythic and the real Fatima, whose hilarious story of how she came by one of her many jewels practically begs to be read aloud. And what kind of (serious) fun is Alameddine having with readers by naming his narrator Osama, and giving him an Uncle Jihad, of whom Layla says, “I recognized – oh, what shall we call it? – his special ability to be best friends with women, the instant I saw his impish grin from across the room. My God, how could I not, given the way he crossed his legs or what he did with his hands? No one would talk about it, but that didn’t mean anyone was fooled”?
An amazingly talented, writer, Rabih Alameddine’s previous fictions, Koolaids (which mixed AIDS, the Lebanese Civil War, and Tom Cruise fantasies), his Novel in First Chapters” I, The Divine, and the short stories in The Perv (whose titular story is told by a very unreliable, possibly insane, narrator) have shown him to be a first class literary trickster and fabulist. With The Hakawati he proves he has a story — many stories — for us all. This is alive, vibrant, and life-encompassing novel deserves a space on the shelf beside the classic tales it remixes, to be read and reread. The best stories are the ones you can hear told again and again.
by Rabih Alameddine