The Hakawati (Arabic for storyteller) by Rabih Alameddine appropriately begins with the word “Listen” and ends with the word “Listen.” These two words form a circle encapsulating an enchanting world of stories within stories within stories told by a gifted storyteller who knows how to attract and sustain his audience’s attention.
The main narrative is of Osama al-Kharrat who returns to Beirut in 2003 after an absence of many years to see his dying father. Within that narrative are flashbacks of Osama’s childhood; stories he heard from his grandfather, including circumstances surrounding his grandfather’s birth and family history; and fragmented memories of life in Lebanon before the civil war that decimated the country. We meet Osama’s large extended family and hear their stories as they visit the dying man in the hospital.
Woven within this main narrative is a rich tapestry of stories primarily taken from Islamic and Jewish texts, Arab literature, and Arab folklore. The characters and events populating these stories have been re-imagined in entertaining and inventive ways. We encounter demons and djinns, sit in the presence of august emirs and sultans, experience magic carpet rides, witness battles and conquests, visit the underworld, receive an education on pigeon wars, listen to rhapsodies of romantic love, learn of magic potions, and observe as dismembered bodies of loved ones are carefully reassembled and retrieved from the dead.
Alameddine skillfully weaves myths, fables, tall tales, legends, stories within stories, short digressions, long digressions, wit, sarcasm, laugh out loud humor, twists and turns, and anything else imaginable into the backdrop of a Lebanon recovering from a devastating civil war and a prominent family that survived it. He has earned the title of being a true Hakawati—a master storyteller who seduces his listeners to join him on a boisterous, rollicking journey that captivates from the first “Listen” to the last.