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The Hakawati

Middle eastern storytelling combines mythology and realism seamlessly

By Samantha Rideout

By Rabih
(Anchor Canada) $21

Hakawati is the Arabic word for storyteller. It also refers to a disappearing class of men who once worked in coffee houses and city squares all over the Arab world, performing stories inspired by the same rich body of folklore that informed The Thousand and One Nights. In the past, a skilled hakawati could retain a group of regular listeners for weeks on end by teasing them with cliffhangers and delighting them with original takes on familiar tales featuring sultans, scriptural characters, heroes and genies. Today, a handful of hakawatis still perform, but television has largely taken their place.

Happily, traditional tales continue to be interpreted in drama and literature, including Rabih Alameddine’s novel The Hakawati. “Listen,” it begins, using the language of an oral storyteller. “Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.”

The novel actually contains many stories, but the one that frames all the others is the life of an engineer named Osama al-Kharrat, whose grandfather is a hakawati by trade and the family tale-teller. When the elderly man passes away, Osama gradually recognizes his own vocation as the new keeper of the family’s saga. Without someone to fulfil this role, the dead would be forgotten and the context for new events missing.

The Hakawati passes from mythology to realism as if there were no difference between them. Anchored in a hospital room in contemporary Beirut, Lebanon, the book visits settings as fantastic as castles in the clouds, endless deserts and the gates of hell. At first, readers may find it tricky to make sense of the novel as it glides from one narrative to another and back again. But those who surrender to the ride are rewarded, not only with great writing but also with the insight that stories — religious, cultural and personal alike — are what give shape and meaning to life’s experiences.

Samantha Rideout is a writer in Montreal.

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