The Hakawati

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Overview

“Here is absolute beauty. One of the finest novels I’ve read in years.” —Junot Diaz

An astonishingly inventive, wonderfully exuberant novel that takes us from the shimmering dunes of ancient Egypt to the war-torn streets of twenty-first-century Lebanon.

In 2003, Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed. The city is a shell of the Beirut Osama remembers, but he and his friends and family take solace in the things that ...

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Hakawati

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Overview

“Here is absolute beauty. One of the finest novels I’ve read in years.” —Junot Diaz

An astonishingly inventive, wonderfully exuberant novel that takes us from the shimmering dunes of ancient Egypt to the war-torn streets of twenty-first-century Lebanon.

In 2003, Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed. The city is a shell of the Beirut Osama remembers, but he and his friends and family take solace in the things that have always sustained them: gossip, laughter, and, above all, stories.

Osama’s grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his bewitching stories—of his arrival in Lebanon, an orphan of the Turkish wars, and of how he earned the name al-Kharrat, the fibster—are interwoven with classic tales of the Middle East, stunningly reimagined. Here are Abraham and Isaac; Ishmael, father of the Arab tribes; the ancient, fabled Fatima; and Baybars, the slave prince who vanquished the Crusaders. Here, too, are contemporary Lebanese whose stories tell a larger, heartbreaking tale of seemingly endless war—and of survival.

Like a true hakawati, Rabih Alameddine has given us an Arabian Nights for this century—a funny, captivating novel that enchants and dazzles from its very first lines: “Listen. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.”

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Stunning . . . If any work of fiction might be powerful enough to transcend the mountain of polemic, historical inquiry, policy analysis and reportage that stands between the Western reader and the Arab soul, it’s this wonder of a book–a book not about a jihadi but a hakawati (Arabic for storyteller). . . .
The Hakawati concerns a young man’s trip from Los Angeles to his father’s deathbed in Beirut. There he and his relatives exchange jokes, tear-jerking tales, cliffhangers and legends during the weeks of their vigil. Some of their stories are contemporary–an impetuous sister’s wedding, troubles at the family’s car dealership, a great-grandfather falling in love. But their wellspring is ancient and varied: Alameddine has poached from and transformed parables from the Old Testament, Homer, Ovid, the Koran, the uncensored Thousand and One Nights, and many other sources. . . .
The result might have been experimental folderol, but Alameddine has a genius for the emotional hinges on which novels turn. We learn this during the earliest stages of the book, as the narrator worries about his [dying] father . . . In a more predictable novel, the next tale might have been about the ailments of a venerable king. Instead we hear of a slave, her hand cut off by a demon, who embarks on a journey through the underworld. [Thus] the suffering of the narrator’s father has been transmogrified into a slave’s retrieval of her dignity. It suggests, without actually mentioning either, the journeys of Aeneas and Odysseus to the realms of the dead.
Both the old yarns and the new ones are shaped by Alameddine’s strong comedic instinct. The Hakawati draws on ancient tradition to make an old form authentically new . . . In this book, where searing political upheavals like the Lebanese civil war figure but don’t dominate, and in an era when almost all we seem to see of the Middle East is terrorism, it’s bracing to come upon a work–and a world–that expands our narrow vision, transforming it to one of multiplicity, enchanting it with hope.”

–Lorraine Adams, The New York Times Book Review

“Rabih Alameddine’s intoxicating, ambitious, multi-layered new novel is a marvel of storytelling bravado . . . Alameddine interweaves Osama [al-Kharrat]’s painful hospital vigil with classic Arab fables, re-imagined with wicked contemporary humor. The al-Kharrat story unfolds in parallel with the tale of Baybars the slave king and the saga of the shrewd, resourceful slave Fatima, who fights her way into and back out of the jaws of hell. All the stories are thematically linked, with aching motifs of separation–children from parents, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers. Alameddine creates a compelling portrait of the underpinnings of Arab culture–riddled, like every culture, with contradictions. The Hakawati is wonderfully bittersweet and complex, and the sweeping tales of Baybars and Fatima create a real resonance with the smaller human story of the maddening, irresistible al-Kharrats. . . . This tale left me wanting more–the true mark of a good storyteller.”

–Mary Brennan, The Seattle Times

“A fantastic tapestry . . . After reading [The Hakawati,] I didn’t want to return to the mundane world. [Osama al-Kharrat] returns to his native Beirut after long years spent in Los Angeles to visit the bedside of his dying father. That’s the brightest thread of this tale. But this is the story of a thousand threads interweaving legends, fables and parable. There are the mythic wars of Arab lore, and the real civil war in Lebanon. . . . A story that ranges from the seven gates of the underworld to a deathbed in Beirut could only be told by a real storyteller, a hakawati–a spellbinder. . . . We meet many, many other characters here: Fatima, who appears to be a goddess, we meet Baybars, the slave king, we meet imps, djinn, witches and horses with magical powers. They’re the atmosphere, and the real people feel like mortals walking around in this fairytale atmosphere. . . . In this book, people are often entering the world of legend when the real world is painful. And that is, after all, one of the places that the imagination springs from. In other words, when [Osama’s] fictive family is suffering the real pains of the Lebanese civil war, the mother in this book will say, tell me a story, distract me, enchant me, and the imagination serves that function too. . . . I really liked that very gentle image, that Osama, even as his father is breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out, is going to begin a new tale.”

–Jacki Lyden, senior correspondent, All Things Considered

“Exhilarating . . . In Alameddine’s world there are magic carpets, but they can misbehave in midair. There are imps, but they can end up in an imp stew or be transformed into colorful squawking parrots. And there are Kama-Sutra topping tales of sex and seduction. Alameddine has great fun telling this story, and it’s infectious. . . . Both dazzling and dizzying. [The Hakawati] meanders, doubles back, moves back and forward in time, takes off on tangents and then eats its own tail. There are stories within stories within stories. . . . It’s an audacious all-you-can-eat buffet . . . Alameddine’s talent is that each of these tales is as picaresque as the next, each feels just as real, just as contemporary. In some ways the stories leak into each other, full of the same ingredients of love, family, betrayal and sex. . . . Alameddine is a wonderful raconteur and teller of tales, as effortless in conjuring up a war in ancient times as a garden party in Los Angeles. He can be serious and poignant, [and he] also refuses to be awed by the sweep of history–at one point producing a prophet who announces he’s not going to eat any more broccoli.”

–Sandip Roy, San Jose Mercury News

“A riot of stories concerning the rise of the eccentric al-Kharrat family. Osama [al-Kharrat]’s waggish grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his classic tales of princes, genies, and wise-cracking seductresses are worthy of Scheherazade. Rabih Alameddine has a deft, winsome touch.”

–Karen Karbo, Entertainment Weekly online

“Bravely ambitious . . . This is the stuff of the day-to-day becoming extraordinary, the work of the hakawati, the storyteller: merging the mundane and the fabulous. The Hakawati is made up of many stories, and like Scheherazade’s famous nights, it is intended to keep death at bay, while in serpentine fashion resurrecting the world in words with each day’s dawn. At the center of the novel is the family saga of Osama al-Kharrat, who after 26 years in Los Angeles has returned to his roots in Lebanon to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed . . . Family tales are shared, and passionate descriptions bring to full realization characters such as Osama’s sophisticated and headstrong mother or his humorous and warmly affectionate Uncle Jihad. . . . A skillfully wrought, emotional story . . . Alameddine should be commended for the chances he takes, and [his] prodigious skills . . . He deserves credit for telling a story the West should pay attention to, and evoking the diversity of the Arab world (Christian, Muslim, Jew and even Druze, they are all here) that is often taken for granted in our ever narrowing perspective of righteousness.”

–David Hellman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Captivating . . . A wildly imaginative patchwork of tales improbably threading together Greek mythology, biblical parables, Arab-Islamic lore, and even modern Lebanese politics [that] charm and amuse. . . . Most of these tales originate with narrator Osama’s late paternal grandfather, whose fascinating childhood and multiple identities forged a masterful hakawati, the Levantine Arabic word for ‘storyteller.’ While Osama’s rather stodgy father had no time for the old man’s colorful, moving and grotesque yarns, Osama imbibed them with gusto. As a result, he has become a walking treasure-trove of fables and historical legends. . . . Somewhere between bitter reality and escapist fantasy, the ever-humorous author provides the stoically optimistic view of the sputtering Lebanese experiment: ‘You take different groups, put them on top of each other, simmer for a thousand years, keep adding more and more strange tribes, simmer for another few thousand years, salt and pepper with religion, and what you get is a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it.’”

–Rayyan Al-Shawaf, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Alameddine is an embellisher extraordinaire. His new novel, The Hakawati, is a big book, both literally (513 pages) and figuratively, and it’s attracting critical attention for its scope and ingenuity. In the novel, scores of stories are woven through the life of a Lebanese family, the al-Kharrats. It is told mostly through the eyes of Osama, the young son. Osama is a good listener, and everyone likes to tell him stories. Some of them are true–or true enough. Some are folk tales. Some are about daily life in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. Some are about Baybars, a 13th-century warrior and sultan of Egypt and Syria. And some come directly from Mr. Alameddine’s Technicolor imagination.”

–Cynthia Crossen, The Wall Street Journal

“Four stars. Astonishingly inventive . . . Stunningly retold stories [that] reintroduce readers to familiar characters like Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael and the fabled Fatima [and] also the stories of contemporary Lebanese who have suffered the torments of war for decades and how they carry on with their daily lives in spite of all that insanity. . . . Alameddine’s enchanting language [has] a fascinating, lyrical quality . . . He juggles his many narratives effortlessly, enhancing each with small details from the world they inhabit–caring for pigeons on a rooftop, the way a cold beer tastes after a desert trek. The real hakawati, here, is Alameddine.”

–Beth Dugan, Time Out Chicago

“Be thankful for Rabih Alameddine’s new novel, The Hakawati. In one of the most delightful books of the year, Alameddine relates many of the stories that unite the people living in the Middle East. The narrator’s family are Druze living in Lebanon, but the stories we hear come from Cairo, Damascus and Turkey as well as from the Bible and the Quran. Modern readers have nothing to fear from Alameddine as the novel is contemporary as well as ancient. David Bowie and Santa Claus can be found in these stories as well as Abraham, Orpheus, jinnis, sultans, crusaders, magic carpets, virgins, houris and, of course, evil viziers. The story of why Aladdin is Chinese is superb. The Hakawati is a book to be read and read again.”

–Chris Watson, Santa Cruz Sentinel

“Mesmerizing . . . Alameddine’s book is sui generis . . . like a magic carpet transporting you to a place where fables and history, weddings and funerals, murder and sacrifice, people so real you can almost touch them, and jinnis and witches and beys and imps and prophets who take the form of parrots coexist . . . More than any book in recent memory, The Hakawati, is–at its very big heart–all about the importance of telling stories . . . Funny and heartbreaking, with an ending that turns the novel on its head, transforming the central character and giving new provenance to every detail. . . . Pure genius.”

–Elizabeth Dewberry, Paste Magazine

“If you like The Arabian Nights, check out The Hakawati. . . . Fables, both old and new, reinterpreted by Alameddine, weave throughout a modern-day story: Lebanese narrator Osama al-Kharrat’s arrival in Beirut from Los Angeles to visit his ailing father, himself the son of a hakawati, or storyteller. In the end, the tales create an intricate tapestry that displays the complexities of a family and a culture.”

–Don George, National Geographic Traveler

“In this entertaining, kaleidoscopic novel, a young Lebanese-American returns to Beirut to visit his dying father. Taking a cue from The Arabian Nights, Alameddine intertwines this story with myriad others, drawing on the history and legends of the Middle East, from Abraham and Fatima to the Crusades.”

Details

“Dazzling . . . weaves together spellbinding reimaginings of two of the Arab world’s most bewitching tales–that of Fatima and Baybars, the famous slave king, and of Osama al-Kharrat, a Lebanese expat who returns to Beirut to be at his dying father’s bedside.”

Condé Nast Traveler

“A big, giant treat of a book . . . Rabih Alameddine shines as a storyteller and a novelist, and nowhere are the distinctions between the two vocations more evident than in this lovely, captivating tome. As a storyteller, Alameddine dazzles us with bejeweled adventure stories of lust and love, murder, scandal, and war. As a novelist, he crafts a complex structure, shaping subtle mirrors between the flights of fancy and the central story of a family in war-torn Beirut, gently shifting the perspective until, like a mosaic, the tiny pieces begin to take shape, and the real picture of the novel emerges. Like a merry-making band of magic carpets, the folk tales and adventure stories woven into the central story of a Lebanese family whisk the reader away again and again, acting as both mischievous troublemakers and sage guides. Part of the great joy of reading The Hakawati is the escapist pleasure found in these fanciful digressions . . . Bewitched by Alameddine’s fine prose and addictive tales . . . I lost myself in tales of Fatima and her jinnis, sultans and their great battles, Abraham, Sarah and Hagar reinvented and made real, and watched as they sent echoes into the deeper, bleaker story of a family and their own stories, ancient legacies and culture rent by war. . . . My advice to potential readers is ths: Surrender to the hakawati. Get on this magic carpet, and let him tell you a story. In fact, let him tell you one thousand stories. He’ll handle all the details, and you can sit back and enjoy the ride.”

–Lucia Silva, Bookbrowse Recommends

“Not just a story within a story but hundreds of stories within a story, a 513-page macramé with myriad threads.”

–Anneli Rufus, East Bay Express

“Rabih Alameddine may be one of the most brilliant Middle Eastern authors writing in English today. The Hakawati masterfully interweaves the contemporary story of Osama al-Kharrat, a Maronite/Druze Lebanese who has settled in Los Angeles and returns to his father’s deathbed in Beirut, with re-imagined classic tales of the Middle East [that] are all brought to life in this wildly exuberant and wickedly humorous novel. . . . Alameddine manages to describe the absurd reality of politics, society and religion that his characters inhabit, with humor, yes, and even affection.”

Alef Magazine

“Alameddine assumes the role of a hakawati . . . in a tour de force that interweaves at least five separate narratives into an exquisite tapestry in the denouement. He spins the story of Osama al-Kharrat, a Lebanese American returning to Beirut to sit at his dying father’s bedside; the al-Kharrat family’s rise to prominence . . . the Mameluk warrior Baybars . . . the mythic Fatima, who became the consort of the jinni Afrit-Jehanam; and, above all, the disintegration of a tolerant, civilized Lebanon into a battleground for competing religions, ethnicities, and ideologies. Each narrative is further enhanced by smaller stories about raising pigeons and playing traditional melodies as well as tales drawn from the Koran, the Bible, The Arabian Nights, Ovid, Shakespeare, and every person who ever spoke to the author. This magical novel is epic in proportion and will enchant readers everywhere. Recommended for all libraries.”

–Andrea Kempf, Library Journal (starred)

“Opulent and picaresque . . . In this grand saga of a Beirut family with Armenian, English, and Druze roots, Alameddine constructs stories within stories that encompass the world of the jinni, the tales of Abraham and Hagar, the legendary pigeon wars of Urfa, Lebanon’s brutal civil war, and post-9/11 Beirut and L.A. At the center of this matrix is Osama al-Kharrat (his last name means exaggerator), grandson of a hakawati and son of a wealthy car dealer and a glamorous, sharp-tongued mother, one of many resplendently witty and wily women characters. . . . [Osama’s] arrival [in Beirut] sets off a cascade of memories and launches 1,001 stories. The most thrilling involve the legendary Fatima, the hero Baybars, Osama’s bon vivant uncle Jihad, and the hakawati himself, not to neglect the many diverting parables. Alameddine, himself a brilliant hakawati, exuberantly reclaims and celebrates the art of wisdom of the war-torn Middle East in this stupendous, ameliorating, many-chambered palace of a novel.”

–Donna Seamans, Booklist (starred)

“Magical . . . Stories descend from stories as families descend from families . . . telling tales of contemporary Lebanon that converge, ingeniously, with timeless Arabic fables. With his father dying in a Beirut hospital, Osama al-Kharrat, a Los Angeles software engineer, returns in 2003 for the feast of Eid al-Hada. As he keeps watch with his sister and extended family, Osama narrates the family history, going back to his great-grandparents, and including his grandfather, a hakawati, or storyteller. Their stories are crosscut with two sinuous Arabian tales: one of Fatima, a slave girl who torments hell and conquers the heart of Afreet Jehanam, a genie; another of Baybars, the slave prince . . .
Osama’s family story generates a Proustian density of gossip: their Beirut is luxuriant as only a hopelessly insular world on the cusp of dissolution can be; its interruption by the savagery that takes hold of the city in the ’70s is shocking. . . . Almost as alluring is the subplot involving a contemporary Fatima as a femme fatale whose charms stupefy and lure jewelry from a whole set of Saudi moneymen, and her sexy sister Mariella, whose beauty queen career (helped by the votes of judges cowed by her militia leader lovers) is tragically, and luridly, aborted.
Alameddine’s own storytelling ingenuity seems infinite: out of it he has fashioned a novel on a royal scale, as reflective of past empires as present.”

Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)

“Here is absolute beauty.  One of the finest novels I’ve read in years. To explain why this book is so wonderful and why Alameddine is so important would take a book. Fortunately you have that very book in your hands.”

–Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“Alameddine mingles a four-generation family saga with a cornucopia of Arabian tales and historical dramas to create a one-of-a-kind novel. Osama al-Kharrat returns in 2003 to Beirut, where his family once owned a prosperous car dealership, to visit his dying father Farid. . . . Osama, who has lived most of his adult life in California, speedily sinks back into the excitable embrace of his extended family (including numerous strongminded women) as they take turns at his father’s hospital bedside. The history of the al-Kharrats and of Lebanon unfolds side by side with multiple strands of Arabian folklore creatively reimagined by Alameddine, who mischievously informs us at one point that his surname is a variant of Aladdin. Not content to let a single jinni out of a bottle, the author summons up a vast array of imps, demons, witches, warriors, slave kings and fierce females to embed his contemporary characters in the splendor of Middle Eastern culture . . . No one interested in boundary-defying fiction will want to miss Alameddine’s high-wire act. A dizzying, prodigal display of storytelling overabundance.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“An epic in the oldest and newest senses, careening from the Koran to the Old Testament, Homer to Scheherazade. It’s hard to imagine the person who wouldn’t get carried away.”

–Jonathan Safran Foer

“Here it comes, the book of the year, on its own magic carpet. No book this bewitching has ever felt so important; no book this important has ever been so lovingly enchanted. The Hakawati is both a snapshot of our current crisis, and a story for the ages. What else can we ask the djinn of literature for?”

–Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Confessions of Max Tivoli

The Hakawati is both genius and genie out of the ink bottle, a glorious, gorgeous masterpiece of pure storytelling and fable making. It promises to pay homage to the Great Story, to recount the great tests of loyalty and love, and the proof shown by the brave and the true. But Alameddine’s storyteller is afflicted with tics and twitches, for the tests turn out to be violent and insane, while the proof requires nepotism and bargain prices. What’s more, the djinn are pouring tea for the hakawati’s aunt, as missiles and wit illuminate the landscape before searing it to bits.  In spite of our horror, we’re laughing uproariously, realizing that what is timeless about this story makes it very timely indeed. 
If you read stories to be entertained, read The Hakawati. If you enjoy stories of true love, read The Hakawati. If you prefer family sagas, read The Hakawati. If you like adventure tales, read The Hakawati.  If you read to stay informed, read The Hakawati. If you read to escape, read The Hakawati. If you read only literary classics, read The Hakawati. If you love fables, watch the news first, then read The Hakawati. 
Rabih Alameddine is the Hakawati, and in the very near future, everyone will know how to pronounce his name.” 

–Amy Tan

The Hakawati is astonishing: a triumph of storytelling. Lesser writers might write a book based on only one of the dozens of stories Alameddine delivers in just a few pages of this novel. There is a delightful cheekiness in telling so many tales all at the same time. It is a page-turner–not only because you want to find out what happens at the end, but because of the ever-flowing stories that take you forward. It is pure genius. I love this novel.”

–Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man

The Hakawati is not only a dazzlingly funny book, not only a heart-breakingly beautiful book, it is a downright necessary book in this deeply troubled new century.  Rabih Alameddine has the comprehensive soul of a great artist, and that he also holds within him the more immediate souls of both Americans and Arabs makes his words even more important for us to hear.  This vast novel roils with the complexity of history and myth and moment-to-moment existence, and through Alameddine’s prodigious skills as a novelist it does so with absolute clarity.  This is a great and enduring book.”

–Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from Strange Mountain

“Wonderful.The Hakawati fed me, like a good nourishing soup spooned into a hungry mouth: I was hungry for all of its rich, delicious narratives. A terrific novel.” 
   
             –Dorothy Allison 

Lorraine Adams
If any work of fiction might be powerful enough to transcend the mountain of polemic, historical inquiry, policy analysis and reportage that stands between the Western reader and the Arab soul, it's this wonder of a book—a book not about a jihadi but a hakawati (Arabic for storyteller)…In this book, where searing political upheavals like the Lebanese civil war figure but don't dominate, and in an era when almost all we seem to see of the Middle East is terrorism, it's bracing to come upon a work—and a world—that expands our narrow vision, transforming it to one of multiplicity, enchanting it with hope.
—The New York Times
Laila Halaby
We come across many hakawatis: the grandfather, who was one by trade; Uncle Jihad, a car salesman ("modern-day storyteller"); and Osama al-Kharrat, the main character, who has been living in the United States for years and is returning to Beirut to visit his dying father. The ultimate hakawati, however, is the author himself, who has managed to convey, while writing in English, the art of Arabic oral storytelling…At this time in history, when we are constantly told stories but seldom well entertained, Alameddine juxtaposes truth and fiction, contemporary lust and bawdy tales of the past, today's grief and sorrow in the ancient world. Is it to remind us that nothing is new? To help us put it all in perspective? Or is it simply, in the tradition of all hakawatis, to tell a good story? Whatever his intention, the result is a delightful book that should be savored, perhaps over a small cup of very thick coffee, thrice boiled with sugar and a pinch of cardamom.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Stories descend from stories as families descend from families in the magical third novel from Alameddine (I, the Divine), telling tales of contemporary Lebanon that converge, ingeniously, with timeless Arabic fables. With his father dying in a Beirut hospital, Osama al-Khattar, a Los Angeles software engineer, returns in 2003 for the feast of Eid al-Hada. As he keeps watch with his sister, Lina, and extended family, Osama narrates the family history, going back to his great-grandparents, and including his grandfather, a hakawati, or storyteller. Their stories are crosscut with two sinuous Arabian tales: one of Fatima, a slave girl who torments hell and conquers the heart of Afreet Jehanam, a genie; another of Baybars, the slave prince, and his clever servant, Othman.

Osama's family story generates a Proustian density of gossip: their Beirut is luxuriant as only a hopelessly insular world on the cusp of dissolution can be; its interruption by the savagery that takes hold of the city in the '70s is shocking. The old, tolerant Beirut is symbolized by Uncle Jihad: a gay, intensely lively storyteller, sexually at odds with a society he loves. Uncle Jihad's death marks a symbolic break in the chain of stories and traditions-unless Osama assumes his place in the al-Khattar line. Almost as alluring is the subplot involving a contemporary Fatima as a femme fatale whose charms stupefy and lure jewelry from a whole set of Saudi moneymen, and her sexy sister Mariella, whose beauty queen career (helped by the votes of judges cowed by her militia leader lovers) is tragically, and luridly, aborted.

Alameddine's own storytelling ingenuity seems infinite: out of it he hasfashioned a novel on a royal scale, as reflective of past empires as present. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal

Alameddine (Koolaids; The Perv) assumes the role of a hakawati, a Middle Eastern storyteller, in a tour de force that interweaves at least five separate narratives into an exquisite tapestry in the denouement. He spins the story of Osama al-Kharrat, a Lebanese American returning to Beirut to sit at his dying father's bedside; the al-Kharrat family's rise to prominence, from its beginnings in a Lebanese Druze village and a Turkish Armenian village; the Mameluk warrior Baybars, known for his victory over the Mongols; the mythic Fatima, who became the consort of the jinni Afrit-Jehanam; and, above all, the disintegration of a tolerant, civilized Lebanon into a battleground for competing religions, ethnicities, and ideologies. Each narrative is further enhanced by smaller stories about raising pigeons and playing traditional melodies as well as tales drawn from the Koran, the Bible, The Arabian Nights, Ovid, Shakespeare, and every person who ever spoke to the author. This magical novel is epic in proportion and will enchant readers everywhere. Recommended for all libraries.
—Andrea Kempf Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Kirkus Reviews
Alameddine (I, the Divine, 2001, etc.) mingles a four-generation family saga with a cornucopia of Arabian tales and historical dramas to create a one-of-a-kind novel. Osama al-Kharrat returns in 2003 to Beirut, where his family once owned a prosperous car dealership, to visit his dying father Farid. Their relationship has always been uneasy, as was Farid's with his own father. Osama's grandfather was a hakawati: "a teller of tales, myths, and fables . . . someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns." Farid, ashamed of a progenitor dependent on the favor of the local bey, was none too happy that Osama loved his grandfather's stories, nor did he want the boy to play the oud, a traditional Middle Eastern instrument. Farid's generation were modern Lebanese, not particularly religious or invested in their heritage. Right up to the moment they had to flee war-torn Beirut in 1977, Osama's family remained convinced their country would not be directly affected by the Arab world's endless battle with Israel. Osama, who has lived most of his adult life in California, speedily sinks back into the excitable embrace of his extended family (including numerous strongminded women) as they take turns at his father's hospital bedside. The history of the al-Kharrats and of Lebanon unfolds side by side with multiple strands of Arabian folklore creatively reimagined by Alameddine, who mischievously informs us at one point that his surname is a variant of Aladdin. Not content to let a single jinni out of a bottle, the author summons up a vast array of imps, demons, witches, warriors, slave kings and fierce females to embed his contemporary characters in the splendor of Middle Eastern culture.Chief among these mythic figures are Fatima and Baybars, plucked from legend to serve the author's art as he entwines their odysseys with the al-Kharrats' throughout the book. There's so much going on here that readers will occasionally feel overwhelmed, and the multilayered narrative sags slightly under its own weight in the middle section. But no one interested in boundary-defying fiction will want to miss Alameddine's high-wire act. A dizzying, prodigal display of storytelling overabundance. First printing of 40,000
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Barbara Spindel

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307266798
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/22/2008
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 6.64 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Rabih Alameddine is the author of Koolaids, The Perv, and I, the Divine. He divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut.

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Read an Excerpt

Listen. Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.A long, long time ago, an emir lived in a distant land, in a beautiful city, a green city with many trees and exquisite gurgling fountains whose sound lulled the citizens to sleep at night. Now, the emir had everything, except for the one thing his heart desired, a son. He had wealth, earned and inherited. He had health and good teeth. He had status, charm, respect. His beautiful wife loved him. His clan looked up to him. He had a good pedicurist. Twenty years he had been married, twelve lovely girls, but no son. What to do? He called his vizier. “Wise vizier,” he said. “I need your help. My lovely wife has been unable to deliver me a son, as you know. Each of my twelve girls is more beautiful than the other. They have milk-white skin as smooth as the finest silk from China. The glistening pearls from the Arabian Gulf pale next to their eyes. The luster of their hair outshines the black dyes from the land of Sind. The oldest has seventeen poets singing her praises. My daughters have given me much pleasure, much to be proud of. Yet I yearn to see an offspring with a little penis run around my courtyard, a boy to carry my name and my honor, a future leader of our clan. I am at a loss. My wife says we should try once more, but I cannot put her through all this again for another girl. Tell me, what can I do to ensure a boy?” The vizier, for the thousandth upon thousandth time, suggested his master take a second wife. “Before it is too late, my lord. It is obvious that your wife will not produce a boy. We must find someone who will. My liege is the only man within these borders who has only one wife.”The emir had rejected the suggestion countless times, and that day would be no different. He looked wistfully out onto his garden. “I cannot marry another, my dear vizier. I am terribly in love with my wife. She can be ornery now and then, vain for sure, petulant and impetuous, silly at times, ill-disposed toward the help, even malicious and malevolent when angry, but still, she has always been the one for me.”“Then produce a son with one of your slaves. Fatima the Egyptian would be an excellent candidate. Her hips are more than adequate; her breasts have been measured. A tremendous nominee, if I may say so myself.”“But I have no wish to be with another.”“Sarah offered her Egyptian slave to her husband to produce a boy. If it was good enough for our prophet, it can be good enough for us.”That night, in their bedroom, the emir and his wife discussed their problem. His wife agreed with the vizier. “I know you want a son,” she said, “but I believe it has gone beyond your desires. The situation is dire. Our people talk. All wonder what will happen when you ascend to heaven. Who will lead our tribes? I believe some may wish to ask the question sooner.”“I will kill them,” the emir yelled. “I will destroy them. Who dares question how I choose to live my life?”“Settle down and be reasonable. You can have intercourse with Fatima until she conceives. She is pretty, available, and amenable. We can have our boy through her.”“But I do not think I can.”His wife smiled as she stood. “Worry not, husband. I will attend and I will do that thing you enjoy. I will call Fatima and we can inform her of what we want. We will set an appointment for Wednesday night, a full moon.”When Fatima was told of their intentions, she did not hesitate. “I am always at your service,” she said. “However, if the emir wishes to have a son with his own wife, there is another way. In my hometown of Alexandria, I know of a woman whose powers are unmatched. She is directly descended, female line, from Ankhara herself, Cleopatra’s healer and keeper of the asps. If she is given a lock of my mistress’s hair, she will be able to see why my mistress has not produced a boy and will give out the appropriate remedy. She never fails.” “But that is astounding,” the emir exclaimed. “You are heaven sent, my dear Fatima. We must fetch this healer right away.”Fatima shook her head. “Oh, no, my lord. A healer can never leave her home. It is where her magic comes from. She would be helpless and useless if she were uprooted. A healer might travel, begin quests, but in the end, to come into her full powers, she can never stray too far from home. I can travel with a lock of my mistress’s hair and return with the remedy.”“Then go you must,” the emir’s wife said.The emir added, “And may God guide you and light your way.” *****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 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.There were not many people around. An old man sat dejectedly on a stool with a seat of interlocking softened twine. His white hair was naturally spiked, almost as if he had rested his hands on a static ball. He fit the place, one of the few neighborhoods in Beirut still wartorn. “This was our building,” I told him because I needed to say something. I nodded my head toward the lobby, cavernous, fountain-free, now perfectly open-air. I realized he wasn’t looking at me but at my car, my father’s black BMW sedan.The street had turned into a muddy pathway. The neighborhood was off the main roads. Few cars drove this street then; fewer now, it seemed. A cement mixer hobbled by. There were two buildings going up. The old ones were falling apart, with little hope of resuscitation. My building looked abandoned. I knew it wasn’t–squatters and refugees had made it their home since we left during the early stages of the civil war–but I didn’t see how anyone could live there now. Listen. I lived here twenty-six years ago. Across the street from our building, our old home, there used to be a large enclosed garden with a gate of intricate spears. It was no longer a garden, and it certainly wasn’t gated anymore. Shards of metal, twisted rubble, strips of tile, and broken glass were scattered across piles of dirt. A giant white rhododendron bloomed in the middle of the debris. Two begonias, one white and the other red, flourished in front of a recently erected three-story. That building looked odd: no crater, no bullet holes, no tree growing out of it. The begonias, glorious begonias, seemed to burst from every branch, no unopened buds. Burgeoning life, but subdued color. The red–the red was off. Paler than I would want. The reds of my Beirut, the home city I remember, were wilder, primary. The colors were better then, more vivid, more alive. A Syrian laborer walked by, trying to steer clear of the puddles under his feet, and his eyes avoided mine. February 2003, more than twelve years since the civil war ended, yet construction still lagged in the neighborhood. Most of Beirut had been rebuilt, but this plot remained damaged and decrepit. There was Mary in a lock box. A windowed box stood at the front of our building, locked in its own separate altar of cement and brick, topped with A-shaped slabs of Italian marble, a Catholic Joseph Cornell. Inside stood a benevolent Mary, a questioning St. Anthony, a coral rosary, three finger candles, stray dahlia and rose petals, and a picture of Santa Claus push-pinned to a white foam backboard. When did this peculiarity spring to life? Was the Virgin there when I was a boy? I shouldn’t have come here. I was supposed to pick Fatima up before going to the hospital to see my father but found myself driving to the old neighborhood as if I were in a toy truck being pulled by a willful child. I had planned this trip to Beirut to spend Eid al-Adha with my family and was shocked to find out that my father was hospitalized. Yet, I wasn’t with family, but was standing distracted and bewildered before my old home, dwelling in the past. A young woman in tight jeans and a skimpy white sweater walked out of our building. She carried notebooks and a textbook. I wanted to ask her which floor she and her family lived on. Obviously not the second; a fig tree had taken root on that one. That must have been Uncle Halim’s apartment. The family, my father and his siblings, owned the building and lived in five of its eleven apartments. My aunt Samia and her family lived in the sixth-floor penthouse. My father had one of the fourth-floor flats, and Uncle Jihad had the other. An apartment on the fifth belonged to Uncle Wajih, and Uncle Halim had one on the second floor–fig tree, I presumed. The apartment on the ground floor belonged to the concierge, whose son Elie, became a militia leader as a teenager and killed quite a few people during the civil war.Our car dealership, al-Kharrat Corporation, the family fountain of fortune, was walking distance from the building, on the main street. The Lebanese lacked a sense of irony. No one paid attention to the little things. No one thought it strange that a car dealership, and the family that ran it, had a name that meant exaggerator, teller of tall tales, liar.The girl strolled past, indifferently, seductively, her eyes hidden by cheap sunglasses. The old man sat up when the girl passed him. “Don’t you think your pants are too tight?” he asked.“Kiss my ass, Uncle,” she replied.He leaned forward. She kept going. “No one listens anymore,” he said quietly.I couldn’t tell you when last I had seen the neighborhood, but I could pinpoint the last day we lived there because we left in a flurry of bedlam, all atop each other, and that day my father proved to be a hero of sorts. February 1977, and the war that had been going on for almost two years had finally reached our neighborhood. Earlier, during those violent twenty-one months, the building’s underground garage, like its counterparts across the city, proved to be a more than adequate shelter. But then militias began to set up camp much too close. The family, those of us who hadn’t left already, had to find safety in the mountains. My mother, who always took charge in emergencies, divided us into four cars: I was in her car, my sister in my father’s, Uncle Halim and two of his daughters with Uncle Jihad, and Uncle Halim’s wife, Aunt Nazek drove her car with her third daughter May. The belongings of three households were shoved into the cars. We drove separately, five minutes apart, so that we wouldn’t be in a convoy and get annihilated by a stray missile or an intentional bomb. The regathering point was a church just ten minutes up the mountain from Beirut. My mother and I reached it first. Even though I’d gotten somewhat inured to the sounds of shelling, by the time we stopped my seat was sopping. Within a few minutes, as if announcing Uncle Jihad’s arrival, Beirut exploded into a raging cacophony once more. We watched the insanity below us and waited warily for the other two cars. My mother was strangling the steering wheel. My father arrived next, and since he was supposed to be the last to leave, it meant that Aunt Nazek didn’t make it somehow.My father didn’t get out of his car, didn’t talk to us. He kicked my sister out, turned the car around, and drove downhill into the lunacy. Aghast and eyes ablaze, my sister stood on the curb, watched him disappear into the fires of Beirut. My mother wanted to follow him, but I was in her car. She yelled at me. “Get out. I need to go after him. I’m the better driver.” I was too paralyzed to move. Then my sister got into the car next to me, and it was too late to follow. We were lucky. Aunt Nazek’s car had died as soon as it hit the first hill. Always a good citizen, she parked the car on the side even though there were no other cars on the road. My father had driven past and hadn’t noticed. He found them, and my cousin May jumped into his car, but he had to wait for Aunt Nazek as she tried to remember where she put all her valuables. He returned them to us safely, and while driving back, a bomb fell about fifty meters away from them and a metal shrapnel hit the car’s windshield and got stuck there. No one was hurt, though both Aunt Nazek and May lost their voices for a while, having shrieked their throats dry. My cousin May said that my father shrieked as well when the shrapnel hit, an operatic high note. However, both my father and Aunt Nazek deny that. “He was a hero,” my aunt would say. “A real life hero.” “It wasn’t heroic,” my father would say, “but cowardly. I’d have been too afraid to show my face to my brother if I hadn’t gone back after his wife.”That day was twenty-six years ago.Fatima was waiting outside her building, which was covered head to toe in black marble, one of the newer effronteries that have risen in modern Beirut. As if to compensate for the few neighborhoods that had not been upgraded since the war, Beirut dressed itself in new concrete. All over the city, upscale highrises were being built in every corner, nouveau riche and bétonné.“Sorry I’m late,” I said, grinning. I could usually predict her reaction since she was an old friend and confidante. I was about to get a pretend tonguelashing no matter what I said. “Get out of the goddamn car.” She didn’t move to the passenger side, stood with arms akimbo, her blue-green purse dangling from her wrist almost to her knees. She was dressed to dazzle, everything about her flashed, and the ring on her left hand screamed–a hexagonal mother of an emerald surrounded by her six offspring. “You haven’t seen me in four months, and this is how you greet me?” I got out of the car and she smothered me, covered me in her perfume and kisses. “Much better,” she added. “Now let’s get going.” At the first sign of traffic, she slid open the visor mirror and interviewed her face. “You have to help me with Lina.” Her words sounded odd, her mouth distorted as she redecorated her lips’ outline. “She’s spending the nights sleeping on the chair in his room. As ever, your sister won’t listen to reason. I want to relieve her, but she won’t let me.”I didn’t reply and I doubted that she expected me to. Both of us understood that my father wouldn’t allow anyone other than my sister to take care of him and was terrified of spending a night by himself. He had nightmares about dying alone and uncared for in a hospital room.“When we arrive,” she said, “kiss everybody and go directly to his room. I don’t think there will be a lot of people, but don’t allow the rest of the family to delay you. I’ll stay with the visitors, not you. He’ll be offended if you don’t rush in to see him.”“You don’t have to tell me, my dear,” I said. “He’s my father, not yours.” *****Fatima left the green city in a small caravan with a retinue of five of the emir’s bravest soldiers and Jawad, one of the stable boys. She understood the need for Jawad–the horses and camels had to be cared for–but she wondered whether the soldiers would be of any use. “Do you not think we need protection?” Jawad asked as they started their journey.“I do not,” she said. “I can deal with a few brigands, and if we are attacked by a large band, five men will be of no use anyway. On the contrary, their presence may be a magnet for that large group of bandits.” She felt the emir’s fifty gold dinars she had hidden in her bosom. “If it were just you and me, we would invite much less attention. Well, nothing we can do now. We are in the hand of God.”On the fourth evening, in the middle of the Sinai Desert, before the sun had completely set, the party was attacked just as Fatima had predicted. Twenty Bedouins dispatched the city soldiers. Finding little of value among the belongings, the captors decided to divide the spoils evenly. Ten would have Fatima and ten would get to use Jawad. Fatima laughed. “Are you men or boys?” She stepped forward, leaving a visibly nervous Jawad behind. “You have a chance to receive pleasure from me and you choose this stripling?”“Be quiet, woman,” said the leader. “We must divide you evenly. We cannot risk a fight over the booty. Be thankful. You would not be able to deal with more than ten of us.”Fatima laughed and turned back to Jawad. “These desert rats have not heard of me.” She took off her headdress; her abundant black hair tumbled around her face. “These children of the barren lands have not sung my tales.” She unhooked the chain of gold coins encircling her forehead. “They believe that twenty infants would be too much for me.” She took off her abayeh showing her seductress figure, stood before the Bedouins in her dress of blue silk and gold. “Behold,” she said. “I am Fatima, charmer of men, bewitcher of the heavens. Look how the moon calls his clouds; see how he crawls behind his curtains; watch him hide in shame, for he refuses to reveal himself when I show my face. You think you peons will be too much for me, Fatima?” She raised her hands to the vanishing moon. “Think whether twenty of you would satisfy me, Fatima, tamer of Afreet-Jehanam.” She glared at the men. “Tremble.”“Afreet-Jehanam?” the leader cried. “You conquered the mighty jinni?”“Afreet-Jehanam is my lover. He is no more than my plaything. He does my bidding.”“I want her. I refuse to have the boy. We have to redivide the spoils. This will not do.”“No,” the leader said. “We cannot have everyone get what they want. That is not the Arab way. It has already been decided.”“I want the woman as well,” cried another man. “You cannot keep her to yourself and give us this waif of a boy.”An argument ensued. Everyone wanted Fatima, except for one man, Khayal, who kept insisting, “I really want the boy,” to anyone who would listen. But no one listened. The nine men who wanted Fatima instead of the boy grew livid. Rules or no rules, they had been cheated. They had no idea Fatima was so talented. They had been deceived and wanted their appropriate share. The goods, as any idiot could see, had not been divided equally. Battle lines were drawn, swords unsheathed. Quickly, the ten killed the nine. “I think the boy is winsome,” said Khayal.Twenty lustful eyes stared at Fatima. “Now, now, boys,” she said coyly. “Was that really necessary?”“It is time, Sitt Fatima,” the leader said. “We are ready.”“Well, I am not. I must choose who goes first. The first lover is very important. He will help me set the stage for what is to come. Should I go with the one who has the biggest penis? I like that, but sometimes he who has the biggest is the worst lover, and that will force me to work harder. This should be amusement not labor. Which of you has the smallest penis? A man with a small member would be more eager to please me, but then, as hard as it is, it is not as satisfying. Choosing the first lover should not be taken lightly. I have much to consider.”The leader huffed and puffed. “There is nothing to consider. I go first. I am the best lover and the rest can take turns after I am sated.”“You are not the best lover,” another brigand said. “If you were, your wife would not be leaving her house in the middle of the night.” Those were the last words that man uttered. The leader unsheathed his sword once more and cut off his head. “You should not have killed him,” another cried. “It is not right that you go first. We should let Sitt Fatima decide. She is the expert, not you. She should decide on the order. Since I have the biggest penis, I believe I should go first.”“You do not have the biggest,” argued another. “I do.” He lifted his desert robe. “Look here, Sitt Fatima. I have the biggest, and I promise you I am not a bad lover. You must pick me.”“Put that tiny thing away,” the leader said. “I am the leader and I go first.”“It is thickness that matters, not length.”“I still want the boy. I just want the boy.”“Your member is no bigger than a thimble.”“You take that back. Admit that mine is bigger than yours or prepare to die.”And the men fought till death. The leader was left standing–the leader and the boy lover, who had remained out of the fray. “The best of all men awaits you, your ladyship.” The leader puffed up like a pigeon. “Let us begin.”“Let us,” she said. “Undress and show me my prize.”“Come to me,” he said once he was nude. “Look. I really have the biggest one.”“No,” Fatima said. “Mine is bigger.” From under her dress, she took out her knife and cut his penis off and slit his throat. “Pack everything back into the caravan,” Fatima told Jawad. “We have some ways to go before we settle for the night. Gather these dead men’s horses. I will go through their things. We will leave this arid wilderness richer than we arrived.”“But what shall we do with this man?” Jawad gestured toward his admirer.“By your leave, I would like to invite the boy into my tent,” Khayal said.“The boy is neither captured nor a slave,” Fatima said. “Since he has free will, you must convince him, charm him into your tent. We have seven nights before we reach my home city, Alexandria. You have seven nights to seduce him. You may begin tomorrow.”And Fatima looked up at the sky and its stars and thanked the moon for his help.And Fatima, Jawad, Khayal, led their numerous horses, camels, and mules into the night.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The novel opens with the tale of an emir and his wife who have twelve daughters and seek the aid of their slave, Fatima the Egyptian, to help them have a son. This family tale runs parallel, for much of the book, to the story of Osama and his family. What links, if any, do you see between these major plotlines?

2. When Osama returns to his ruined former home in Beirut, he hasn't lived there for twenty-six years. He feels out of place and alienated. How has the war changed life for his family? Do any of the ensuing events, the family and friends he sees, or the memories called up by his visit, help to create a renewed sense of belonging for him, or does his sense of alienation continue throughout?

3. Fatima tells Khayal that his desire for Jawad can only be fulfilled if his stories are seductive enough: “Please . . . favor us with your seduction. We sit here, parched earth awaiting its promised thunderstorm. Quench our thirst, we beg you” [p. 21]. What are some other instances of how stories are shown to be both seductive and life-giving?

4. In Turkey, under the Ottoman Empire, the British doctor Simon Twining and his Armenian maid produce Osama's grandfather, the hakawati. Osama's family, eventually Lebanese, is Maronite Christian on his mother's side and Druze on his father's side. While this primary story is set in Beirut, the other tales are set in many different countries and time periods. Does the Middle East seem to be just as much a melting pot as the United States? How does the novel give a sense of the many cultures and histories mingled under the term “Arab”?

5. How is The Hakawati like others novels you have read, and how is it not? What is its structure? What demands does it place upon you as a reader, and what are its pleasures?

6. The Hakawati presents the reader with a wide array of smart, funny, sexy, strong women: the two Fatimas, Lina, Osama's mother, and many others. Given cultural stereotypes about Islam's repression of women, does this come as a welcome surprise? Who are some of the most enjoyable female characters in the novel, and why?

7. How many people in the primary plot of Osama and his family would you consider to be storytellers (hakawatis)? Which of these characters is the most important storyteller, and why?

8. Fatima meets the djinn Afreet-Jehanam when he comes to take revenge for her claim to highwaymen that he was her lover: “He is no more than my plaything”, she boasted [p. 12]. As a result, he cuts off her hand [p. 70]. When she goes to the underworld to recover her hand, the two become lovers and she conceives the child who will become Shams. What are the most surprising twists in the long, intermittent story of Fatima, and why is she a great character? What, if anything, does this Fatima have to do with the other one, Osama's friend who lives in Rome?

9. Shams means “sun” in Arabic; Layl means night. Shams Tabrizi is an important figure in the Divan of the Sufi poet and mystic, Rumi. The story of Shams and Layl may also be based on the ancient tale of the lovers Layla and Majnoun. While Alameddine improvises freely upon ancient sources, what interpretations might be drawn from the love between Layl and Shams?

10. Fatima's struggle with the magician King Kade, “the master of light,” is full of astonishing events as she tries to find a way to bring Afreet-Jehanam back to life. King Kade is finally defeated when she throws mud onto his gleaming white robe. How does this episode—Fatima going on a journey to the upper world to find King Kade—work with the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, which Uncle Jihad tells Osama in an interlude of the Fatima tale [pp. 171-179]?

11. Osama asks Uncle Jihad if he will come for him to the underworld, if he, Osama, were to die young like Eurydice [p. 178]. Since all of the stories in The Hakawati are told in the context of the fact that Osama's father is dying, why is this exchange particularly relevant? What is puzzling about Uncle Jihad's death?

12. Soon after his grandfather's funeral, Osama is having an oud lesson with his teacher, Istez Camil, who points out that he is playing without feeling [p. 209]. What has happened to Osama, and why does he give up the oud for the guitar shortly after this? What does the oud represent, and why is the surprise gift of another oud, from his niece, so moving [pp. 395-97]?

13. How would you describe the style in which Alameddine has reimagined and retold the ancient stories in this book? How does he shift the language and humor in the traditional tales into a register that a contemporary audiences can relate to?

14. One of the epigraphs to Book Four is from Fernando Pessoa: “Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life” [p. 403]. Another is from Eric Hoffer: “Man is eminently a storyteller. His search for a purpose, a cause, an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a pattern in the development of his life story-a story that is basically without meaning or pattern” [p. 403]. How do these ideas relate to the many plots, and possible patterns, in The Hakawati?

15. The central story is that of Osama and his family gathered in the hospital room of his dying father. Is the proliferation of stories a vast diversion from the inevitable, approaching death of Osama's father? Do the stories have the effect of stopping time? What is the novel's perspective on time?

16. When Uncle Jihad tells Osama, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale” [p. 206], the saying is funny in the context of the family name, al-Kharrat, which means fibster. Are stories lies, or are they more true than reality in certain ways? What is Osama like as a narrator of the main story?

17. What picture do Osama's various recollections conjure of his relationship with his father? Why does his father not remember the same things he remembers, like the incident of the falcon hurting Osama's arm? Is Uncle Jihad right when he says, “Events matter little, only stories of those events affect us” [p. 450]?

18. What is the effect of the final scene, in which Osama begins to tell his father the stories his grandfather told him, including stories of his father as a boy? What kind of ending does this create? Why does Alameddine end with the word “Listen”?

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 12 of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2008

    Incredible

    As a good Hakawati should, Alameddine thoroughly bewitches his readers in this novel that is both epic and intimate. It navigates easily from tales of heros, villians, magic, jinnis, and treachery to the equally interesting story of one family's life together. One finds oneself easily relating to some of its characters, longing to be like others, but either way, living amongst them throughout this masterful work. Absolutely brilliant. Certainly one of the best I've EVER read. Bravo!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2008

    Talk about novel!

    Rabih Alameddine¿s new novel, 'The Hakawati,' is a sprawling, delicious panoply of over-the-top tales of love, sex, murder, heroism, magic, loss, triumph, skulduggery, noblesse, repentance, lies, redemption, loyalty, curses, and just about everything else, all plaited into a set of parallel narratives which augment and illuminate each other. It is a masterful and startling accomplishment, a sort of literary maqam that twists and turns on recurrent themes and characters. The reader initially wonders how to relate all these seemingly unrelated stories, but quickly notices with growing awareness how they are really jazz riffs on single themes, embellishments that sear those themes into our consciousness so that we can¿t get them out of our heads. This is not the first time that Alameddine has used such literary structure. His first novel, Koolaids, interlaced two parallel narratives, the worst years of the AIDS crisis and the civil war in Lebanon. There, as in 'The Hakawati,' the narratives resonated one with the other. And his second novel, 'I, the Divine,' an ingenious work all in first chapters of his narrator¿s never-to-be-completed memoir, managed to give us multiple perspectives on events told by a single character, much as 'The Hakawati' gives us multiple views of universal themes that echo through very different tales. But whereas the two earlier works had some rough edges and unpolished facets, 'The Hakawati' is a perfect gem, burnished, intricate, complex, and with every feature serving to magnify its brilliance and dazzle. Here is a writer who has grown into his initial promise, perhaps beyond it. It is easy to fall in love with the tales themselves they are both currently relevant and timeless as well as entirely engrossing. The more discerning reader will also delight in the language of this book. Like other writers using English as a second language for their literary medium 'Conrad and Nabokov come to mind', Alameddine is almost preternaturally aware of its sound and cadence, its semantic subtleties, its echos and reverberations of meanings. He is clearly besotted with English, and we follow him in a vertiginous trance like a whirling dervish, lost in the ecstasy of the moment. Alameddine is nothing short, it seems, of a literary magician, pulling our emotions out of his hat, our dreams from out his sleeve, and showing them to us in a way that forces us to see them anew. This novel is a masterpiece, unlike anything I¿ve ever read before or ever hope to read again.

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