Monday, April 4, 2011

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

Title: The Hakawati
Author: Rabih Alameddine
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (2008)

This is one of those books that, when I am finished, I hardly know how to describe it or what I thought of it. The short, short summary would be: Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut to be with his family and severely-ill father. During this time he remembers many stories that were told to him and many stories about his family, especially his grandfather who was a hakawati - a professional storyteller. This book is full of stories within stories within stories; at times super engaging and, at times, a bit boring. I'm not sorry I read it but I can only think of one person I know for sure would like it. Many others would probably like it but I'm only guessing at that point.

The publisher describes the book: In 2003, Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father's deathbed. As the family gathers, stories begin to unfold: Osama's grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his bewitching tales are interwoven with classic stories of the Middle East. Here are Abraham and Isaac; Ishmael, father of the Arab tribes; the beautiful Fatima; Baybars, the slave prince who vanquished the Crusaders; and a host of mischievous imps. Through Osama, we also enter the world of the contemporary Lebanese men and women whose stories tell a larger, heartbreaking tale of seemingly endless war, conflicted identity, and survival. With The Hakawati, Rabih Alameddine has given us an Arabian Nights for this century.

My copy of Arabian Nights remains unread on my shelf so I can't attest to that but it certainly can be bewitching. But, as I said, it can also be boring. I would imagine that a book filled with so many stories will rarely fully satisfy one person. I do think the book has the ability to appeal to a wide audience... I just can't quite figure who that audience is specifically. So, I liked it for the most part and I think there is a lot of beauty and interesting bits to be found within the pages. Alameddine includes quotes between the sections of the book and I'm going to share a few of my favorites here (in lieu of an actual review apparently).

...stories do not belong only to those who were present or to those who invent them, once a story has been told, it's anyone's, it becomes common currency, it gets twisted and distorted, no story is told the same way twice or in quite the same words, not even if the same person tells the story twice, not even if there is only ever one storyteller...  --Javier Marias

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.   --Eric Hoffer

Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.   --Fernando Pessoa

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