Summary and book reviews of The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

The Hakawati

By Rabih Alameddine

The Hakawati
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2008,
    528 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2009,
    528 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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About this Book

Book Summary

In 2003, Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father’s 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.

Osama’s grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his bewitching stories—of his arrival in Lebanon, an orphan of the Turkish wars, and of how he earned the name al-Kharrat, the fibster—are 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 war—and of survival.

Like a true hakawati, Rabih Alameddine has given us an Arabian Nights for this century—a 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.”

Excerpt

Listen. Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.

A long, long time ago, an emir lived in a distant land, in a beautiful city, a green city with many trees and exquisite gurgling fountains whose sound lulled the citizens to sleep at night. Now, the emir had everything, except for the one thing his heart desired, a son. He had wealth, earned and inherited. He had health and good teeth. He had status, charm, respect. His beautiful wife loved him. His clan looked up to him. He had a good pedicurist. Twenty years he had been married, twelve lovely girls, but no son. What to do?

He called his vizier. “Wise vizier,” he said. “I need your help. My lovely wife has been unable to deliver me a son, as you know. Each of my twelve girls is more beautiful than the other. They have milk-white skin as smooth as the finest silk from China. The glistening pearls from the Arabian Gulf pale next to their eyes. The ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group's conversation about The Hakawati, an astonishingly inventive, wonderfully exuberant novel that takes us from the shimmering dunes of ancient Egypt to the war-torn streets of twenty-first-century Lebanon.


About This Book

In 2003, Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father's 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.

Osama's grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his bewitching ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

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).

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Media Reviews
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.

Booklist

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.

Kirkus Reviews

A dizzying, prodigal display of storytelling overabundance.

Publishers Weekly

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.

Library Journal

Starred Review. This magical novel is epic in proportion and will enchant readers everywhere.

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Beyond the Book

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 ...

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