It's All in the Telling

By Laila Halaby,
who is the author of "Once in a Promised Land" and "West of the Jordan"
Thursday, July 24, 2008


By Rabih Alameddine

Knopf. 513 pp. $25.95

"Reality never meets our wants, and adjusting both is why we tell stories," observes a character in Rabih Alameddine's absolutely original novel "The Hakawati." Hakawati comes from the Arabic verb "haka," meaning to tell, relate, report, give an account of; to imitate, copy; to resemble. A hakawati is someone who does all those things.

Perhaps the major difference between a storyteller and a hakawati is that in English, the emphasis is on the story; in Arabic, it is on the delivery. "No matter how good a story is," says a connoisseur in Alameddine's novel, "there is more at stake in the telling."

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.

The novel opens with the tale of an emir who has been married for 20 years and has all he wants in life, except for a son. He consults his vizier, whose advice begins one of the major sagas of the book, which is intertwined with Osama's return to Beirut and the history of his family there. These two threads, tied in later with a third -- the epic story of Baybars, a 13th-century sultan -- run throughout, stitched together with tales, fables and anecdotes, all nestled in a modern novel full of family dysfunction, politics and teeth-clenching drama. "The Hakawati" offers a smorgasbord -- no, make that a Lebanese meze -- of characters and tales: from modern to Koranic/biblical/Tanakhic, from historical to traditional a la "The Thousand and One Nights."

The language in the novel is delightful and, while much of it feels playful and rich like Arabic -- the kind of writing you savor and read aloud -- the book is also filled with some very American slang and concepts. Alameddine clearly had fun with the telling and does a marvelous job whizzing back and forth between modern and ancient, West and East (from Baybars the "marketing hero" to "Heather Has Two Mommies"), often hovering hilariously in between. One of my favorite lines comes at the end of a traditional tale that the grandfather has told the young Osama, who then asks what happened to the nasty vizier who had tried to undermine all of the good characters. "He went to France," the grandfather answers, "where all the jealous people are."

In his acknowledgments, the author states that "this is a work of fiction," which ought to be obvious, considering we've met not only magical imps named Abraham, Isaac, Isaiah, Noah and Job, but also demons, jinn and the master of the underworld himself, Afreet Jahanem. Moreover, the disclaimer brings to mind a jibe that appears throughout the book: "Stories are for entertainment only. They never mean anything." Which is true and yet isn't, because in addition to being a collection of tall tales, "The Hakawati" is a treatise on stories and storytelling, on the narratives (religious, political, familial) that make us up. "Why do people always believe liars?" asks Osama. "We all need to believe," replies his grandfather. "It's human nature."

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.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company