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1001 Tales

By Margaret Black

The Hakawati

By Rabih Alameddine

Alfred A. Knopf, 513 pages, $25.95

Listen. Let me tell you a story.” Rabih Alameddine is the real thing: a natural-born hakawati, a storyteller. His novel of the same name is a rollicking succession of stories nested in stories nested in other stories—some real, some imaginary, all true, all fiction. Alameddine puts Scheherazade to shame . . . poor girl.

The book opens with a tale of an emir whose beloved wife has produced a dozen delightful daughters, but no sons. A slave woman, Fatima, has the solution, but it will require her to travel to Egypt to get a special potion. The emir agrees and Fatima sets out only to run into a ferocious band of robbers.

With that story underway, the novel shifts to the year 2001, as 40-year-old Osama al-Kharrat arrives back in Beirut from Los Angeles, where he has lived for 25 years. His father is in the hospital, on his deathbed, surrounded by squads of relatives and others, both loved and unloved. Ostensibly, The Hakawati is about this particular Lebanese family—about the strange events concerning its marriages, occupations, births, and deaths. The family history just happens to coincide with that of modern Lebanon.

But such a flat summary would humiliate even a novice hakawati. As Osama’s grandfather says when he denounces a bad hakawati, “He’s an incompetent dimwit who wouldn’t be able to talk himself out of his execution.” As the grandfather, Osama, his sister and his uncle drive home through Beirut’s now dangerous streets, they are stopped by some thuggish militia men. But Uncle Jihad, brilliant amateur hakawati that he is, talks them all out of possible execution.

The novel leaps and skitters and slips through space and time—“‘Time was much longer then,’ my grandfather said, ‘in the old days’”—never once losing or confusing us readers with whose tale or into which time we’ve just landed. Fatima overcomes the robbers and gets the magic potion, but uses it herself after having spectacular intercourse with Afreet Jehanan, who’s essentially the jinn in charge of Hell. (The reasons for this, and how she arrives in the afreet’s bed of snakes and scorpions, are, of course, tales in themselves.)

The emir’s wife can give birth to a boy if her husband tells her an appropriately masculine story. So he begins the tale of the great Muslim hero, Baybars, the Egyptian Mamluk (slave) king who defeated the last Christian crusade, as well as the Mongols. The story of Baybars just happens to be one of the grandfather’s favorite tales. But it is hard to judge whose history is more remarkable, that of Baybars, or that of the grandfather, born the bastard child of an English doctor and his Armenian servant. Just as the boy is about to be exterminated by the Turks, he flees to Beirut, where, after time spent flying pigeons, he finds himself telling stories in seedy cafes. He is discovered there by a Druze bey, or clan leader, who hires the boy as permanent entertainment. It is the bey who gives the grandfather his name—Ismail al-Kharrat—and, incidentally, his new religion. “I came to Beirut,” the grandfather tells Osama, “and created our story.”

Alameddine conjures the ever-changing complexity of multicultural, multi- religious Lebanon without your even noticing what he’s doing. The al-Kharrats collect Druze, Muslims, and Christians of all stripes—Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Maronite—into the family fold. Not all is sweetness and light, of course, personally or politically. There is, after all, no avoiding Lebanon’s long, horrendous civil war. But the real villains in this novel are people like Sitt Hawwar, an evil gossip who manages to insinuate that teenage Aunt Samia has had an abortion and, as a consequence, no one will marry her. In the Baybars story, the nearly inextinguishable villain is Arbusto, whose name must surely reference the oil company (Arbusto Energy Inc.) founded by George W. Bush.

Nor does our author sideline women and turn them into compliant doormats. Whether it’s Fatima wrecking havoc in Hell, or Osama’s sister Lina taking over the family business, you don’t want to mess with these manic women. In one glorious scene, Osama goes with his Uncle Jihad to a run-down café to hear a radio concert by the famous Egyptian diva Umm Kalthoum. Her power to move her audience—through a radio broadcast, no less—bespeaks a value far above gender, that of art. Here Alameddine slyly instructs his Western audience about some of the greatest poetry in the Muslim world, to say nothing of its music.

The Hakawati contains a zillion folk tales. Someone is always saying, “Listen. Let me tell you a story.” Some of these you’ll recognize (Orpheus, Psyche and Cupid), and some of them are strange, but all are woven into Alameddine’s large tapestry such that they become the richness of its thousand-flowered background.

 


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