Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Hakawati

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The Hakawati

by Rabih Alameddine

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2008, 528 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2009, 528 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Beyond the Book

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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 thousands of years, A Thousand and One Nights has nearly as many, if not more, authors and origins. Its roots can be traced back to Persia, India, Baghdad, and Egypt, dating as far back as the 10th century. An ever-evolving collection of tales, the original manuscript has never been found, but the oldest extant manuscript is a Syrian version - called the Mahdi edition from the 1300's, now found in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. The many tellings and translations of the Nights vary wildly both in content and style, but nearly all unfold in the same way, in that one story evokes another, and all versions revolve around the famed central story of Scheherazade, in which she saves herself from execution by regaling King Shahryar with an endless series of (or 1001) tales.

The Nights was first introduced in Europe in the early 18th century in a French translation by Antoine Galland, and included several tales not found in the Arabic source text, including "Aladdin's Lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", which Galland claimed to have heard from a Syrian storyteller. English translations followed, many abridged, embellished, and bowdlerized. Hussain Haddawy translated the most recent English edition in 1990, from the definitive 14th-century Arabic edition - the Mahdi edition - which is considered to be the most authentic.

Several classic translations of the tales can be found at Wollamshram World.

Article by Lucia Silva

This article was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the June 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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