In 2003, Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his fathers deathbed. The city is a shell of the Beirut Osama remembers, but he and his friends and family take solace in the things that have always sustained them: gossip, laughter, and, above all, stories.
Osamas grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his bewitching storiesof his arrival in Lebanon, an orphan of the Turkish wars, and of how he earned the name al-Kharrat, the fibsterare interwoven with classic tales of the Middle East, stunningly reimagined. Here are Abraham and Isaac; Ishmael, father of the Arab tribes; the ancient, fabled Fatima; and Baybars, the slave prince who vanquished the Crusaders. Here, too, are contemporary Lebanese whose stories tell a larger, heartbreaking tale of seemingly endless warand of survival.
Like a true hakawati, Rabih Alameddine has given us an Arabian Nights for this centurya funny, captivating novel that enchants and dazzles from its very first lines: Listen. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.
The Hakawati, like any good novel, isn't for everyone. Reading it takes a little practice, a little pacing, and if you're really lucky, one empty weekend to devour it whole. My advice to potential readers is this: Surrender to this hakawati. Get on his magic carpet, and let him tell you a story. In fact, let him tell you one thousand stories. He'll handle all the details, and you can sit back and enjoy the ride. (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).
New York Observer - Damian Da Costa
Unfortunately, Mr. Alameddine’s powers as a writer don’t measure up to his sources (surprise!) or to the novel’s considerable length. Which is a shame, because tucked inside this mess of a book are several perfectly serviceable short stories or novellas.
Milwaukie Journal Sentinel - Rayyan Al-Shawa
[A] wildly imaginative patchwork of tales improbably threading together Greek mythology, biblical parables, Arab-Islamic lore, and even modern Lebanese politics. Though reading such a chaotic book proves exhausting - blame the author's desultory technique and dizzying array of characters - several stories both charm and amuse .... what you get is a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it.
San Francisco Chronicle - David Hellman
Alameddine should be commended for the chances he takes, and he certainly has prodigious skills that should not be discounted. But The Hakawati could have used some editorial tightening. Nonetheless, Alameddine deserves credit for telling a story the West should pay attention to, and evoking the diversity of the Arab world (Christian, Muslim, Jew and even Druze, they are all here) that is often taken for granted in our ever narrowing perspective of righteousness.
Rocky Mountain News - Traci J. Macnamara
In The Hakawati's opening lines, Alameddine asks his readers to "Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story." This book covers ambitious terrain, and the author succeeds in doing what he has proposed. In the process, Alameddine proves that he's the hakawati for our times.
Alameddine, himself a brilliant hakawati, exuberantly reclaims and celebrates the art of wisdom of the war-torn Middle East in this stupendous, ameliorating, many-chambered palace of a novel.
A dizzying, prodigal display of storytelling overabundance.
Magical....Alameddine's own storytelling ingenuity seems infinite: out of it he has fashioned a novel on a royal scale, as reflective of past empires as present.
Starred Review. This magical novel is epic in proportion and will enchant readers everywhere.
A Thousand and One Nights
Once upon a time, not terribly long ago, hakawatis, or storytellers, were
commonplace fixtures on Middle Eastern streets. As coffee-drinking gained
popularity in Ottoman times, the hakawatis moved from the streets into the
coffee houses. Hakawatis were paid by the owners of the coffee houses to draw
customers, and the best could also expect tips from their audience. Hakawatis
were known for their dramatic performances, and were consummate entertainers.
The rise of radio and television brought the demise of this ancient Arab
tradition of public storytelling, and hakawatis all but disappeared from the
Middle East by the 1970's.
Listen to an NPR interview with the last full-time hakawati in the Syrian
capital of Damascus.
Hakawatis often worked from a text, improvising, embellishing, and adapting to
their audience. A Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian
Nights) served as the source for many hakawatis, and their tellings helped
to shape those legendary tales. Collected over...
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