A Conversation with Rabih Alameddine, author of The Hakawati
Okay, let's begin at the beginning. Do you remember when the idea for
The Hakawati came to you? In your mind's eye, what did you see?
Along time ago, in a galaxy far, far awayoh, never mind.
The idea for The Hakawati had many beginnings, as is the case for many a
novel, I presume. Which beginning would one consider to be the true one, the
Let's see, in 1999 I wrote a long piece that was later trimmed and published as
a short story in Zoetrope. That was chapter 10 from the novelwhich goes back
and forth between my main character Osama al-Kharrat's visit to the UCLA campus
as a teenager and his vigil at his father's hospital bed years laterin a
different form. I wrote a couple more stories, one successful, the other not.
The latter ended up as a part of the book. I had begun to see the al-Kharrat
family in my head. It still wasn't a novel. I was floundering. I had different
novels in my head and none of them seemed to make much sense.
I was teaching in Beirut 2003annus horribilis, as the Queen would saywhen my
father was dying in the hospital. I couldn't follow through on any of the novels
I had in my head, so I began to write something completely different: the first
grandfather chapter. I can't tell you why I did that; I hadn't considered the
subject before. I placed the man in Urfa because I had read a memoir based
there. I discovered that Urfa was the birthplace of Abraham, so I began to
reread Old Testament stories. Then I found out that the city was a hotbed of
pigeon wars. Who knew?
Yet all this was simply material. I didn't have a novel. I didn't have a
structure, and I had stories raging and clawing in my chest. I wanted to write
about a family around a deathbed; I wanted to write a novel about parents and
offspring; I wanted to write a novel about the grandfather and how a family
begins, how it forms (Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac?); I wanted to tell stories.
It was a year later, in 2004, that it finally occurred to me that it was one
novel, that everything fit together because the grandfather was a hakawati, and
so was the entire family. Once I had that, I had the structure. I had my
Woven in with Osama's narration are stories, and stories within stories. They
are Biblical tales, Arabian myths re-imagined, legends of al-Kharrats from
generations past. Can you talk about the range of sources and influences for
I've always been influenced by my reading. For this novel it was books, books,
and more books: Calvino, Homer, Ovid; Koran, Bible, Bhagavad Gita; literary,
commercial, and pulp fiction; Arabic poetry and folktales, a hakawati's book,
German studies of Arabic tales; Marvel comics, D.C. comics, Asterix and Obelix,
Tintin; Nabokov, Borges, Nooteboom. Shakespeare's plays. Memoirs written by
family members now long gone.
Everything I've ever read became story fodder.
But then I've always considered myself fortunate to be Lebanese. Once I
understood what kind of book I was writing, I spread the word among family and
friends that I was looking for stories. I received hundreds of calls from
acquaintances, long-lost relatives, strangers who swore they were relatives,
talkers all, wanting to tell me their stories. My grandfather's first cousin
told me stories of growing up in the mountains of Lebanon. My grandfather's
ninety-eight year-old second cousin told tales of the English missionaries and
their songs. A destitute cage cleaner in the employ of a pigeoneer told me
pigeon stories, muezzin stories, and even a couple of fairy tales I had never
heard. The best Druze stories I heard were told to me by a Shiite psychiatrist.
The best/worst seduction tale of a Lebanese woman was told to me by my mother's
deliciously foul-mouthed first cousin. ("Yes," she said, luring me into her
tale, "it did involve an asclepiad.")
As to stories within stories, I remember wanting to do something like that years
and years ago while watching a re-released print of a convoluted Polish movie in
the Castro Theater in San Francisco. The Saragossa Manuscript took my breath
Stories flit about us all the time. We just forget to listen. Our butterfly nets
Part of the book takes place in 2003, when our narrator, Osama al-Kharrat,
visits Beirut from California. Why did you decide on 2003?
There are two reasons for the date, February of 2003. The main one is that I
didn't want to deal with the invasion of Iraq directly. There are enough
crusades in the novel. The other is that in February of 2003 my own father died.
This makes some things easier: what the weather was like, what was happening in
Beirut when the family was in the hospital, etc. The Iraq war is the main
reason, though. I felt that setting the novel after that date would overwhelm
it, that the war might make for too easy a metaphor.
Osama left home twenty-some years before the novel opens, and when we meet
him he is living in California and is traveling to Beirut to visit his family.
You grew up in Beirut, you moved to California, you visit home often, you're
about the same age as Osama. Is there anything else you and Osama share?
Basically, I'm asking you the requisite 'is this autobiography in disguise'
I don't believe in auto-plagiarism (a Nabokovian term). There are many things
that Osama and I share, but we're very different, and the novel isn't really
autobiographical. What we have in common: I'm actually a little older than my
character, but we both went to UCLA for undergrad. Our fathers died at the same
time. Almost everything else is different: personality, family, education. I
don't play the oud (or the guitar) though I love the instrument passionately.
I'm much more the center of my own drama that Osama is of his. I spend more time
in Beirut, and I have a much more troubling career.
I probably have more in common with a couple of the imps than I do with Osama.
How do the two strains of this novelthe modern-day narrative and all the
ancient storiesspeak to each other?
They interweave, they aid and abet each other. They also reflect each other,
back and forth they go. In some ways, they are the same story, or the
continuation of the same story. Sometimes an "ancient" story will elucidate a
"modern-day" one; other times, the narrator's family story presents a different
take on the mythical story.
I have always been intrigued with the question of whether, when we tell a story
about ourselves, we get closer to the listener or distance ourselves. Are we
becoming vulnerable or more protected? Osama tells stories to communicate, to
express feelings. It's his way of relating to people, and to the reader.
One of the epigraphs to Book 2 reads, in part, "Once a story has been told,
it's anyone's, it becomes common currency, it gets twisted and distorted." That
philosophy is borne out in your telling of all stories in this book. Do we have
any obligations to storiesespecially stories that have been passed through the
generations, like family stories, or shared cultural stories, or stories from
the Bible or Koran?
The epigraph is by Javier Marías, who could probably discuss this subject much
better, since I consider this a difficult question. Once I hear the word
obligation, my lips purse, my shoulders start to shrug, and my wrists tense
preparing to break imaginary shackles. My first reaction, my instinctive
response, would be that a storyteller has no obligations to anyone or anything,
none. To talk about a hakawati's obligations, or a writer's, chafes and
grates and itches. Astoryteller's obligation is to tell a good story; a story's
obligation is to be great. Now, what makes a story great, or a great
storyteller, can be argued ad infinitum.
A writer can do whatever she wishes to a story, and of course, a reader has the
right to not read that story. Stories get distorted by the mere fact of being
told; I never understood the need to be true to them, be they biblical,
historical stories, or whatnot. Man is by nature a congenitally unreliable
While you were growing up in Beirut, were there still active hakawatis in the
city? How about today? Did you go listen to them perform while you were working
on this novel?
I didn't know of any while growing up. Had I known of one I certainly wouldn't
have gone to listen. I grew up on "Bewitched" and Monty Python, on the flirting
between Matt Dillon and Kitty Russell, between Mr. Steed and Mrs. Peel, on Dr.
No, The Sound of Music, and Bruce Lee. Mine was a relatively modern
household. My friends and I pooh-pooed anything that Arabic culture offered,
specially the few things that our parents enjoyed. We pitied them for enjoying
Fairuz and Umm Kalthoum. I dreamed of seeing Genesis (with Peter Gabriel, of
course) and Queen in concert, not of listening to a storyteller. If hakawatis
existed in Beirut when I was young, my generation probably killed them.
There are none today, at least not in Lebanon. I know of one in Damascus, in a
café called the Nafoura (fountain), but he plies his trade for tourists, a
facsimile of a real hakawati. I heard of a couple of retired old coots in
northern Syria, both Kurds. There is a theater troupe in Cairo that is trying to
revive the art, but I don't know much about them. So, no, I didn't talk to a
hakawati or hear one perform, not a professional. Like most things in the novel,
the details of the hakawati's performances are invented.
As Osama describes it, life during the civil war in Lebanon bred a particular
kind of roll-with-it attitude, and deadpan humor, in Beirutis. Air raid sirens
may have gone off, and bombs may have dropped, but people weren't about to put
life on hold. Do you see that attitude as part of Beirutis' cultural identity in
real life, and how would you characterize it? Has it lingered even though
things are more stable now?
Yes, it has lingered. I think it's part of the Beirutis' innate character, an
inherited abnormality. The situation in Beirut right now (early 2008) is
horrible and tense. We have no president because the political sides can't seem
to come to an agreement. The economy has been at a complete standstill since the
Israeli bombings in July 2006. Everyone is utterly depressed, and hope has left
Yet, you can rarely get a reservation at any restaurant or club on Gemmaizeh
Street. I have a friend who once crossed a demonstration in which the opposing
sides were about to kill each other because she needed to pick up the perfect
pair of jeans, which were being altered. I was told that once, when a car bomb
exploded not too far from a café in Aisha Bakkar, the owner was upset with two
of his customers because they stood up to investigate before having finished
their cups of coffee. He assumed they didn't like his coffee and was mollified
only when the other customers convinced him that the offenders were probably
You paint such a vivid portrait of Fatima, Osama's emerald-festooned
Jewish-Italian-Iraqi best friend, that I had to wonder if she is based on a real
person. Is there a real-life Fatima?
No, there is no real-life Fatima. She's made up. When I was a child in
Kuwait, there was a girl in school, a couple of years older than I was, who
sucker-punched an older, blubberbellied bully at recess. She must have been
seven or eight, and I don't remember much of what she looked like other than
that she had mixed Arab parentage. The Fatima in my book is probably who I
imagined that girl would grow up to be.
Not surprisingly, every Lebanese woman who has read the book so far has insisted
that Fatima was based on her, my agent being the first (and since I'm not dumb,
if my agent insists that she was based on her, then surely she was).
Did you live in Lebanon while the civil war was going on? How did that
experience influence you as a writer?
Not exactly. I left for England when the war started and then came to the U.S. I
did, however, travel back and forth constantly since my family was always there,
even during the most horrific times of the war. The exception was during the
Israeli invasion of 1982. I was on the last flight out (I know, every Lebanese
will tell you they were on the last plane out) and didn't return till 1984.
Otherwise I was there for a good chunk of every year. Unlike many Lebanese,
though, I was able to leave whenever I wished and never had to suffer the
horrors of the worst days, months, years.
How it influenced me as a writer? I'm not sure that can be quantified. I'm sure
there is some correlation between my writing style and the civil war but I doubt
causality can be inferred. I used to think that the war sharpened my wit, but I
no longer do. Most Lebanese have a different sense of humor.
Do you want this novel to teach readers about Middle Eastern culture,
Lebanese culture specifically? Put another way, did you feel any
responsibilities or pressures writing about your homeland for an American
No, no, and definitely not. I don't presume to be able to teach a reader,
nor do I wish to. That's a slippery slope. I'm not fond of didactic fiction, nor
do I believe that anyone can learn about Middle Eastern culture by reading one
novel. Middle Eastern culture is diverse, so is Lebanese culture. In this novel,
the al-Kharrat family is of a certain class, lives in a certain area, has a
specific background. To assume that one is able to learn something about the
Middle East from that doesn't make sense to me. No novel can do that, nor should
it. Hell, War and Peace might have given me an idea of how some Russians may
have seen the Napoleonic War, but I'd be naïve to think that it taught me about
Russian culture or the Napoleonic War. Novels offer one perspective, the
writer's. Some writers have a wider perspective than others, but no
one can teach about an entire culture, or worse, presume to speak for it. I can
barely speak for myself; I can't for Lebanese culture.
But I will say this: maybe the novel can break through a reader's biases and
preconceived ideas about what the Middle East is. I guess that would be a kind
of illumination, to rattle misconceptions.
The question suggests that I write for an American audience. I don't. I don't
write for a Lebanese audience either. I'm part of various subdivisions of
humans, but I have never felt that I've belonged to any. I write and desperately
hope that someday a reader will read what I've written, but I never presume that
my reader is an American, an Arab, a lesbian, a soccer player, a Quaker, a left
handed Inuit basket weaver, an Argentine gigolo, or whatever. Why restrict
oneself to silly boundaries? I write for a human audience.
There are so many funny lines in this book. My favorite: "Sarah decided to
sharpen the cutlery" in one scene with Sarah and Hagar, and I love it because of
the way you use contemporary vernacular to tell a Biblical storyand you do that
throughout the book. Are you conscious of "writing funny" and do you that you
have to hone and refine the funny lines? Or does funny just sort of happen when
you write? How important is humor in this book?
Funny sort of happens when I write. I'm not conscious of it. If I try to write
funny, it comes out forced and clunky. I don't hone and refine the funny lines.
I'm not a comic in that sense. If a line or scene doesn't sound funny in the
first draft, it gets thrown out. Again, refining it sometimes makes it sound
Humor is essential in this book. I can't imagine a novel on storytelling not
being funny. Someday I might write a novel that isn't funny, but it hasn't
happened so far. Some of my stories might rely on humor more than others but
it's always there. I tend to prefer a light touch when dealing with a serious
subject, and tend to prefer those writers with a sense of humor. I grew up on
Dostoyevsky, and I still think he's amazing but a bit too earnest. Now, if he
had Gogol's lighter touch. . . . Humor tends to sharpen the blunt edges of
You are a successful painter in addition to being a writer. You also have
your MBA and an engineering degree. When people meet you and ask you "what do
you do," how do you answer? And what else do we not know about you? (Do
you throw the discus in your spare time?)
I write. That's how I answer. I guess that's more central than any other.
I've wanted to write for as long as I can remember, so once I began to do so, it
was easy to say, "I'm a writer." Also, calling myself a painter doesn't feel
true right now. I haven't seriously painted in a long time. My last exhibit was
in Norway in 1997, quite a while ago.
I don't throw the discus in my spare time. I play soccer. It's my one true love,
my one uncomplicated intimate relationship. I've been playing for 38 years and
should have retired a long time ago. (Some have suggested that I should have
retired 38 years ago.) I can't, though. I still schlep my creaky joints and aged
knees to the field twice a week. I've played on the same teams for decades. It's
been a pleasure watching my teammates age and observing their declining skills.
Since I've never had that much skill to begin with, my fall from my peak playing
days has been less dramatic. They all still play much better than I do, but I
think that in a few years they'll get so bad that I'll catch up.
I don't watch soccer/football as much as I used to though, so one can say I'm
finally beginning to grow up. But then I'm obsessed with UCLA basketball, have
been since I was a freshman there. Every day when I first wake up, I turn the
computer on so I can scan the Web for any tidbit on the UCLA basketball team. My
obsession embarrasses me and makes no sense, yet I refuse to give it up.
That's about as interesting as I can make myself sound. I wish I could say that
I'm a brilliant pianist or a great chefI can't cook but last year I learned to
how to wash dishes. Does that help?