Rabih Alameddine: Rah-be-a Ahl-ah-meh-dean
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 original?
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 novel.
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 those?
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 away.
Stories flit about us all the time. We just forget to listen. Our butterfly nets gather dust.
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' question.
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 narrator.
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 the country.
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 out-of-towners.
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 audience?
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 forced.
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 earnestness.
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?
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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