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from the September 2008 issue

Rabih Alameddine’s “The Hakawati”

Reviewed by Randa Jarrar

Rabih Alameddine has spun a honeycomb of fable, family history, and Lebanese lore in his newest novel, The Hakawati. I was struck initially by the book's title, the Arabic word for "storyteller." It seems to be the first time a novel has come out from a major press with an Arabic title; moreover, the title is practically buoyant on the cover. The Hakawati's beautiful nested stories are rooted in Arabic and Indo-Persian folktales, as well as biblical stories and Western folk traditions. In his acknowledgments, Alameddine mentions the many sources that inspired his retellings, among them The Iliad, Kalila wa Dimna, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, Flowers from a Persian Garden, Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, and, most prominently, A Thousand and One Nights. Like the Nights, The Hakawati is told as stories within stories, and so florid and entangled are the stories that now, looking back, it's sometimes hard for me to disentangle many of them. The main pleasure derived from these snaking, hooked fables is in the very moment of reading them.

More than three quarters of the way into the novel, Alameddine writes, "The best stories always begin with the appearance of a woman." He follows his own advice, opening his novel centuries in the past with Fatima, the Alexandrian. In order to help her emir produce a son, Fatima offers to travel back to Egypt to visit a healer. When the emir asks why the healer can't come to him, Fatima says healers never leave home, because home is the source of their magic. And thus the novel launches its first character on an intricate, sometimes deadly, and always absorbing adventure, and the rest of the cast follows Fatima's example. First to follow is Osama al-Kharrat, the narrator of the book, who has come back to Lebanon after a long self-imposed exile in L.A. to stand vigil at his father's hospital bedside. Osama feels foreign to himself in Lebanon. "I was a tourist in a bizarre land," he says, "I was home." In the first three pages of his novel, Alameddine mentions the magic, foreignness, and pull of home—and the idea of belonging. Exile becomes a central theme for the rest of the book.

Osama tells stories to keep his father, his patriarch, alive; the book's 513 pages take place over a few days, elongating the last breaths of Osama's father. And like Dinarzad, who sat under the king's bed listening to her older sister's stories, Osama has listened all his life to his Druze family's tales, and is now sitting beside the king's bed, ready to retell them; ready to preserve his own father's life, and the lives of those who came before him, by telling their stories and memorializing their histories.

We see Osama's grandfather, an orphan and illegitimate child whose mother was a servant in a wealthy British doctor's home in Turkey. Grandfather wound up on the streets as a young boy, and was taken in by an Effendi and learned the ways of the city's Hakawatis. Uncle Jihad, a supreme storyteller and intellectual, tucked Osama in with hilarious and moving stories, and has some of the novel's most memorable lines. "What happened to the nasty vizier?" a young Osama asks his uncle at bed-time.

"He went to France," Jihad answers, "where all the jealous people are."

Alameddine, whose last novel, I, the Divine, explored a woman's coming of age (told entirely in first chapters, the narrator can't stop starting her own story), is brilliant when crafting strong, fierce female characters, and The Hakawati is again filled with them. The historical ones include Hagar, Lady Zeinab, and Maria of Genoa. The women of the novel's present world include Osama's grandmother, a tough woman who throws on her traditional Druze mendeel and descends on the village ruler's home with favors to ask. Osama's relative Fatima marries wealthy men and leaves them after securing exquisite jewelry, and her sister Mariella seduces everyone around her with her beauty. Lina, Osama's sister, marries then dumps a militiaman, then takes over the family's car dealership while bloated and pregnant, and Osama's mother, a chic quintessential Lebanese woman, begs a girlish guest at an L.A. dinner party to "get her colors done."

The novel is preoccupied with storytelling, family history, and the tangled links between children and their parents, but it is primarily obsessed with the function and necessity of re-telling. Ultimately, the storytellers in the book want desperately for their audience to listen. Because of the novel's layers and layers of chapters and stories, the reader may occasionally become lost, or disoriented. But the novel itself is like the many intricate journeys it tells, and it's certainly worth the reader's time and attention, because the destination is a beautiful one, encapsulated in the final word: "Listen."

Randa Jarrar is the author of A Map of Home.

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