The Hakawati

Whether you read a sanitized version as a child or a bawdier version later on, the setup of Arabian Nights is well known. In the centuries-old collection of tales, Scheherazade saves her own life by bewitching her husband, a Persian king who marries a virgin each day only to have her executed the following morning, with a series of stories drawn out over 1,001 nights. The Hakawati, the new novel by Rabih Alameddine, is something of a modern-day Arabian Nights, and in this soaring, epic book, stories also serve as lifelines, albeit in a less literal way.

“Listen,” the book begins. “Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.” With that, Alameddine launches into the legend of Fatima, an ancient Egyptian slave who becomes the lover of an underworld jinni and gives birth to a child who is half human, half demon. Fatima?s story unfolds alongside two other primary narratives. One is the story of Baybars, a 13th-century sultan who vanquished Mongols and Crusaders, which Fatima?s master, a prominent emir, tells his pregnant wife in the belief that hearing of rousing adventures will ensure that the child she is carrying is male. The other narrative, the book?s most significant, is the contemporary tale of Osama al-Kharrat, told in the first person. Osama, a Lebanese who leaves home for America during the 1970s to escape his country?s brutal civil war, has returned to Beirut in 2003 to be at his father?s deathbed.

Hakawati is the Arabic word for “storyteller,” and the book does have an actual hakawati, Osama?s grandfather, Ismail, who earns his living by entertaining the local bey (chieftain) with legends and fables. But Osama explains that the term is derived from the Lebanese word haki, which means “talk” or “conversation.” “This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling,” he says. True enough, all of the book?s characters are, in their own way, hakawatis. Everyone has a story to tell, and the book is bursting with them: stories that run parallel to each other, stories within stories, stories that bleed into each other. It would be no surprise if there were 1,001 stories packed into the book, and their sources are as far-ranging as Arabian Nights (natch), the Bible, the Koran, Shakespeare, Ovid, Calvino, and, according to the author?s acknowledgments, “the input of almost every Lebanese I know.”

By the book?s end we have learned a great deal about Osama?s extended family. As relatives enter and exit the hospital where his father is clinging to life, he and his sister gossip and reminisce, revealing the rivalries, resentments, alliances, and affairs that have long animated the clan. Osama?s sections of the book move backward and forward in time, spanning the courtships of his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, their lives and their deaths. While prewar, cosmopolitan Beirut is deftly evoked, the devastating conflict informs much of the family history. Some relatives are described in vivid detail, while others merit only a mention, like the great uncle who helped Osama?s father start what became a successful international car dealership. “My father loved him deeply,” Osama explains. “In the grand scheme of stories, he was nothing, almost an unmentionable, for he was not an odd character or an interesting one. He was a thread, one of many, without which the tapestry would crumble, the yarn fray, and the tale unravel.” In this family, immortality is achieved by those who can tell a story and those worthy of having one told about them.

While the title of the book ostensibly refers to Osama?s grandfather, Alameddine himself, of course, is the hakawati extraordinaire, weaving his magic carpet with formidable skill. The author of a short story collection and two previous novels — which share The Hakawati ?s preoccupation with storytelling and identity and its inclination to defy genre boundaries — he enchants and dazzles while also slyly insisting, through his characters? frequent debates over storytelling, that we grapple with the act?s meaning and power. When he is a boy, Osama?s mother warns him, “Stories are for entertainment only. They never mean anything.” His grandfather rejects didactic and hackneyed tales, insisting, “A story needs to be bewitching.” His uncle Jihad tells him that “what happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of those events affect us.”

Alameddine winks from behind the curtain with his heroic depiction of Baybars. Throughout the book, the reader is regaled with allegorical stories of the sultan?s bravery and his righteous rule, but toward the end of the novel, a young Osama mentions the great warrior to his mother and uncle while the three are waiting out an intense round of shelling in their apartment building?s underground garage. His uncle disparages Baybars, insisting, “His subjects despised him, because he was a ruthless, fork-tongued megalomaniac who rose to power through treachery and murder…. Baybars consolidated his power and created a cult of personality by paying, bribing, and forcing an army of hakawatis to promulgate tales of his valor and piety.” Which Baybars to believe in? And then, of course, the more consequential question: why does it matter?

Scholar Jack Zipes (who happens to have edited a modern edition of Arabian Nights) has written extensively about the power of fairy tales to help societies cope with a changing and baffling world. “No tale is ever new,” he has said. “We are always retelling and building on experience and wisdom to navigate our way through a world not of our making.” At one point, finding himself unable to answer a simple question, Osama says ruefully, “I could tell stories, but explanations always eluded me.” But like many of us, he ultimately understands the world, and explains himself to it, through stories. The final word of this original and important novel is, fittingly, the same as its first: “Listen.” Throughout the book it has been an invitation; it is, at last, an exhortation. As Osama urgently recites family lore to his fading, unresponsive father, one can?t help but hope: maybe a story really can save a life.