Reading Guide Questions
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
astonishingly inventive, wonderfully exuberant novel that takes us from the
shimmering dunes of ancient Egypt to the war-torn streets of
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
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.
- The novel opens with the tale of an emir and his wife who have twelve
daughters and seek the aid of their slave, Fatima the Egyptian, to help them
have a son. This family tale runs parallel, for much of the book, to the
story of Osama and his family. What links, if any, do you see between these
- When Osama returns to his ruined former home in Beirut, he hasn't lived
there for twenty-six years. He feels out of place and alienated. How has the
war changed life for his family? Do any of the ensuing events, the family
and friends he sees, or the memories called up by his visit, help to create
a renewed sense of belonging for him, or does his sense of alienation
- Fatima tells Khayal that his desire for Jawad can only be fulfilled if
his stories are seductive enough: "Please . . . favor us with your
seduction. We sit here, parched earth awaiting its promised thunderstorm.
Quench our thirst, we beg you" [p. 21]. What are some other instances of how
stories are shown to be both seductive and life-giving?
- In Turkey, under the Ottoman Empire, the British doctor Simon Twining
and his Armenian maid produce Osama's grandfather, the hakawati. Osama's
family, eventually Lebanese, is Maronite Christian on his mother's side and
Druze on his father's side. While this primary story is set in Beirut, the
other tales are set in many different countries and time periods. Does the
Middle East seem to be just as much a melting pot as the United States? How
does the novel give a sense of the many cultures and histories mingled under
the term "Arab"?
- How is The Hakawati like others novels you have read, and
how is it not? What is its structure? What demands does it place upon you as
a reader, and what are its pleasures?
- The Hakawati presents the reader with a wide array of
smart, funny, sexy, strong women: the two Fatimas, Lina, Osama's mother, and
many others. Given cultural stereotypes about Islam's repression of women,
does this come as a welcome surprise? Who are some of the most enjoyable
female characters in the novel, and why?
- How many people in the primary plot of Osama and his family would you
consider to be storytellers (hakawatis)? Which of these characters is the
most important storyteller, and why?
- Fatima meets the djinn Afreet-Jehanam when he comes to take revenge for
her claim to highwaymen that he was her lover: "He is no more than my
plaything", she boasted [p. 12]. As a result, he cuts off her hand [p. 70].
When she goes to the underworld to recover her hand, the two become lovers
and she conceives the child who will become Shams. What are the most
surprising twists in the long, intermittent story of Fatima, and why is she
a great character? What, if anything, does this Fatima have to do with the
other one, Osama's friend who lives in Rome?
- Shams means "sun" in Arabic; Layl means night. Shams Tabrizi is an
important figure in the Divan of the Sufi poet and mystic, Rumi. The
story of Shams and Layl may also be based on the ancient tale of the lovers
Layla and Majnoun. While Alameddine improvises freely upon ancient sources,
what interpretations might be drawn from the love between Layl and Shams?
- Fatima's struggle with the magician King Kade, "the master of light," is
full of astonishing events as she tries to find a way to bring
Afreet-Jehanam back to life. King Kade is finally defeated when she throws
mud onto his gleaming white robe. How does this episodeFatima going on a
journey to the upper world to find King Kadework with the tale of Orpheus
and Eurydice, which Uncle Jihad tells Osama in an interlude of the Fatima
tale [pp. 171-179]?
- Osama asks Uncle Jihad if he will come for him to the underworld, if he,
Osama, were to die young like Eurydice [p. 178]. Since all of the stories in
The Hakawati are told in the context of the fact that Osama's
father is dying, why is this exchange particularly relevant? What is
puzzling about Uncle Jihad's death?
- Soon after his grandfather's funeral, Osama is having an oud lesson with
his teacher, Istez Camil, who points out that he is playing without feeling
[p. 209]. What has happened to Osama, and why does he give up the oud for
the guitar shortly after this? What does the oud represent, and why is the
surprise gift of another oud, from his niece, so moving [pp. 395-97]?
- How would you describe the style in which Alameddine has reimagined and
retold the ancient stories in this book? How does he shift the language and
humor in the traditional tales into a register that a contemporary audiences
can relate to?
- One of the epigraphs to Book Four is from Fernando Pessoa: "Literature
is the most agreeable way of ignoring life" [p. 403]. Another is from Eric
Hoffer: "Man is eminently a storyteller. His search for a purpose, a cause,
an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a
pattern in the development of his life story-a story that is basically
without meaning or pattern" [p. 403]. How do these ideas relate to the many
plots, and possible patterns, in The Hakawati?
- The central story is that of Osama and his family gathered in the
hospital room of his dying father. Is the proliferation of stories a vast
diversion from the inevitable, approaching death of Osama's father? Do the
stories have the effect of stopping time? What is the novel's perspective on
- When Uncle Jihad tells Osama, "Never trust the teller, trust the tale"
[p. 206], the saying is funny in the context of the family name, al-Kharrat,
which means fibster. Are stories lies, or are they more true than reality in
certain ways? What is Osama like as a narrator of the main story?
- What picture do Osama's various recollections conjure of his
relationship with his father? Why does his father not remember the same
things he remembers, like the incident of the falcon hurting Osama's arm? Is
Uncle Jihad right when he says, "Events matter little, only stories of those
events affect us" [p. 450]?
- What is the effect of the final scene, in which Osama begins to tell his
father the stories his grandfather told him, including stories of his father
as a boy? What kind of ending does this create? Why does Alameddine end with
the word "Listen"?
One Thousand and One Nights
Giovanni Boccaccio, The
Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions
Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories
Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of
Cadmus and Harmony
Italo Calvino, Italian Folktales
Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul; The Black Book
Salman Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh
Jane Smiley, Ten Days in the Hills
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