Knopf Publishing Group, Hardcover, 9780307266798, 528pp.
Publication Date: April 22, 2008
“Here is absolute beauty. One of the finest novels I’ve read in years.” —Junot Diaz
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.
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.”
“Stunning . . . If any work of fiction might be powerful enough to transcend the mountain of polemic, historical inquiry, policy analysis and reportage that stands between the Western reader and the Arab soul, it’s this wonder of a book–a book not about a jihadi but a hakawati (Arabic for storyteller). . . .
The Hakawati concerns a young man’s trip from Los Angeles to his father’s deathbed in Beirut. There he and his relatives exchange jokes, tear-jerking tales, cliffhangers and legends during the weeks of their vigil. Some of their stories are contemporary–an impetuous sister’s wedding, troubles at the family’s car dealership, a great-grandfather falling in love. But their wellspring is ancient and varied: Alameddine has poached from and transformed parables from the Old Testament, Homer, Ovid, the Koran, the uncensored Thousand and One Nights, and many other sources. . . .
The result might have been experimental folderol, but Alameddine has a genius for the emotional hinges on which novels turn. We learn this during the earliest stages of the book, as the narrator worries about his [dying] father . . . In a more predictable novel, the next tale might have been about the ailments of a venerable king. Instead we hear of a slave, her hand cut off by a demon, who embarks on a journey through the underworld. [Thus] the suffering of the narrator’s father has been transmogrified into a slave’s retrieval of her dignity. It suggests, without actually mentioning either, the journeys of Aeneas and Odysseus to the realms of the dead.
Both the old yarns and the new ones are shaped by Alameddine’s strong comedic instinct. The Hakawati draws on ancient tradition to make an old form authentically new . . . In this book, where searing political upheavals like the Lebanese civil war figure but don’t dominate, and in an era when almost all we seem to see of the Middle East is terrorism, it’s bracing to come upon a work–and a world–that expands our narrow vision, transforming it to one of multiplicity, enchanting it with hope.”
–Lorraine Adams, The New York Times Book Review
“Rabih Alameddine’s intoxicating, ambitious, multi-layered new novel is a marvel of storytelling bravado . . . Alameddine interweaves Osama [al-Kharrat]’s painful hospital vigil with classic Arab fables, re-imagined with wicked contemporary humor. The al-Kharrat story unfolds in parallel with the tale of Baybars the slave king and the saga of the shrewd, resourceful slave Fatima, who fights her way into and back out of the jaws of hell. All the stories are thematically linked, with aching motifs of separation–children from parents, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers. Alameddine creates a compelling portrait of the underpinnings of Arab culture–riddled, like every culture, with contradictions. The Hakawati is wonderfully bittersweet and complex, and the sweeping tales of Baybars and Fatima create a real resonance with the smaller human story of the maddening, irresistible al-Kharrats. . . . This tale left me wanting more–the true mark of a good storyteller.”
–Mary Brennan, The Seattle Times
“A fantastic tapestry . . . After reading [The Hakawati,] I didn’t want to return to the mundane world. [Osama al-Kharrat] returns to his native Beirut after long years spent in Los Angeles to visit the bedside of his dying father. That’s the brightest thread of this tale. But this is the story of a thousand threads interweaving legends, fables and parable. There are the mythic wars of Arab lore, and the real civil war in Lebanon. . . . A story that ranges from the seven gates of the underworld to a deathbed in Beirut could only be told by a real storyteller, a hakawati–a spellbinder. . . . We meet many, many other characters here: Fatima, who appears to be a goddess, we meet Baybars, the slave king, we meet imps, djinn, witches and horses with magical powers. They’re the atmosphere, and the real people feel like mortals walking around in this fairytale atmosphere. . . . In this book, people are often entering the world of legend when the real world is painful. And that is, after all, one of the places that the imagination springs from. In other words, when [Osama’s] fictive family is suffering the real pains of the Lebanese civil war, the mother in this book will say, tell me a story, distract me, enchant me, and the imagination serves that function too. . . . I really liked that very gentle image, that Osama, even as his father is breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out, is going to begin a new tale.”
–Jacki Lyden, senior correspondent, All Things Considered
“Exhilarating . . . In Alameddine’s world there are magic carpets, but they can misbehave in midair. There are imps, but they can end up in an imp stew or be transformed into colorful squawking parrots. And there are Kama-Sutra topping tales of sex and seduction. Alameddine has great fun telling this story, and it’s infectious. . . . Both dazzling and dizzying. [The Hakawati] meanders, doubles back, moves back and forward in time, takes off on tangents and then eats its own tail. There are stories within stories within stories. . . . It’s an audacious all-you-can-eat buffet . . . Alameddine’s talent is that each of these tales is as picaresque as the next, each feels just as real, just as contemporary. In some ways the stories leak into each other, full of the same ingredients of love, family, betrayal and sex. . . . Alameddine is a wonderful raconteur and teller of tales, as effortless in conjuring up a war in ancient times as a garden party in Los Angeles. He can be serious and poignant, [and he] also refuses to be awed by the sweep of history–at one point producing a prophet who announces he’s not going to eat any more broccoli.”
–Sandip Roy, San Jose Mercury News
“A riot of stories concerning the rise of the eccentric al-Kharrat family. Osama [al-Kharrat]’s waggish grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his classic tales of princes, genies, and wise-cracking seductresses are worthy of Scheherazade. Rabih Alameddine has a deft, winsome touch.”
–Karen Karbo, Entertainment Weekly online
“Bravely ambitious . . . This is the stuff of the day-to-day becoming extraordinary, the work of the hakawati, the storyteller: merging the mundane and the fabulous. The Hakawati is made up of many stories, and like Scheherazade’s famous nights, it is intended to keep death at bay, while in serpentine fashion resurrecting the world in words with each day’s dawn. At the center of the novel is the family saga of Osama al-Kharrat, who after 26 years in Los Angeles has returned to his roots in Lebanon to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed . . . Family tales are shared, and passionate descriptions bring to full realization characters such as Osama’s sophisticated and headstrong mother or his humorous and warmly affectionate Uncle Jihad. . . . A skillfully wrought, emotional story . . . Alameddine should be commended for the chances he takes, and [his] prodigious skills . . . He 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.”
–David Hellman, San Francisco Chronicle
“Captivating . . . A wildly imaginative patchwork of tales improbably threading together Greek mythology, biblical parables, Arab-Islamic lore, and even modern Lebanese politics [that] charm and amuse. . . . Most of these tales originate with narrator Osama’s late paternal grandfather, whose fascinating childhood and multiple identities forged a masterful hakawati, the Levantine Arabic word for ‘storyteller.’ While Osama’s rather stodgy father had no time for the old man’s colorful, moving and grotesque yarns, Osama imbibed them with gusto. As a result, he has become a walking treasure-trove of fables and historical legends. . . . Somewhere between bitter reality and escapist fantasy, the ever-humorous author provides the stoically optimistic view of the sputtering Lebanese experiment: ‘You take different groups, put them on top of each other, simmer for a thousand years, keep adding more and more strange tribes, simmer for another few thousand years, salt and pepper with religion, and 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.’”
–Rayyan Al-Shawaf, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Alameddine is an embellisher extraordinaire. His new novel, The Hakawati, is a big book, both literally (513 pages) and figuratively, and it’s attracting critical attention for its scope and ingenuity. In the novel, scores of stories are woven through the life of a Lebanese family, the al-Kharrats. It is told mostly through the eyes of Osama, the young son. Osama is a good listener, and everyone likes to tell him stories. Some of them are true–or true enough. Some are folk tales. Some are about daily life in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. Some are about Baybars, a 13th-century warrior and sultan of Egypt and Syria. And some come directly from Mr. Alameddine’s Technicolor imagination.”
–Cynthia Crossen, The Wall Street Journal
“Four stars. Astonishingly inventive . . . Stunningly retold stories [that] reintroduce readers to familiar characters like Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael and the fabled Fatima [and] also the stories of contemporary Lebanese who have suffered the torments of war for decades and how they carry on with their daily lives in spite of all that insanity. . . . Alameddine’s enchanting language [has] a fascinating, lyrical quality . . . He juggles his many narratives effortlessly, enhancing each with small details from the world they inhabit–caring for pigeons on a rooftop, the way a cold beer tastes after a desert trek. The real hakawati, here, is Alameddine.”
–Beth Dugan, Time Out Chicago
“Be thankful for Rabih Alameddine’s new novel, The Hakawati. In one of the most delightful books of the year, Alameddine relates many of the stories that unite the people living in the Middle East. The narrator’s family are Druze living in Lebanon, but the stories we hear come from Cairo, Damascus and Turkey as well as from the Bible and the Quran. Modern readers have nothing to fear from Alameddine as the novel is contemporary as well as ancient. David Bowie and Santa Claus can be found in these stories as well as Abraham, Orpheus, jinnis, sultans, crusaders, magic carpets, virgins, houris and, of course, evil viziers. The story of why Aladdin is Chinese is superb. The Hakawati is a book to be read and read again.”
–Chris Watson, Santa Cruz Sentinel
“Mesmerizing . . . Alameddine’s book is sui generis . . . like a magic carpet transporting you to a place where fables and history, weddings and funerals, murder and sacrifice, people so real you can almost touch them, and jinnis and witches and beys and imps and prophets who take the form of parrots coexist . . . More than any book in recent memory, The Hakawati, is–at its very big heart–all about the importance of telling stories . . . Funny and heartbreaking, with an ending that turns the novel on its head, transforming the central character and giving new provenance to every detail. . . . Pure genius.”
–Elizabeth Dewberry, Paste Magazine
“If you like The Arabian Nights, check out The Hakawati. . . . Fables, both old and new, reinterpreted by Alameddine, weave throughout a modern-day story: Lebanese narrator Osama al-Kharrat’s arrival in Beirut from Los Angeles to visit his ailing father, himself the son of a hakawati, or storyteller. In the end, the tales create an intricate tapestry that displays the complexities of a family and a culture.”
–Don George, National Geographic Traveler
“In this entertaining, kaleidoscopic novel, a young Lebanese-American returns to Beirut to visit his dying father. Taking a cue from The Arabian Nights, Alameddine intertwines this story with myriad others, drawing on the history and legends of the Middle East, from Abraham and Fatima to the Crusades.”
“Dazzling . . . weaves together spellbinding reimaginings of two of the Arab world’s most bewitching tales–that of Fatima and Baybars, the famous slave king, and of Osama al-Kharrat, a Lebanese expat who returns to Beirut to be at his dying father’s bedside.”
–Condé Nast Traveler
“A big, giant treat of a book . . . Rabih Alameddine shines as a storyteller and a novelist, and nowhere are the distinctions between the two vocations more evident than in this lovely, captivating tome. As a storyteller, Alameddine dazzles us with bejeweled adventure stories of lust and love, murder, scandal, and war. As a novelist, he crafts a complex structure, shaping subtle mirrors between the flights of fancy and the central story of a family in war-torn Beirut, gently shifting the perspective until, like a mosaic, the tiny pieces begin to take shape, and the real picture of the novel emerges. Like a merry-making band of magic carpets, the folk tales and adventure stories woven into the central story of a Lebanese family whisk the reader away again and again, acting as both mischievous troublemakers and sage guides. Part of the great joy of reading The Hakawati is the escapist pleasure found in these fanciful digressions . . . Bewitched by Alameddine’s fine prose and addictive tales . . . I lost myself in tales of Fatima and her jinnis, sultans and their great battles, Abraham, Sarah and Hagar reinvented and made real, and watched as they sent echoes into the deeper, bleaker story of a family and their own stories, ancient legacies and culture rent by war. . . . My advice to potential readers is this: Surrender to the hakawati. Get on this 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.”
–Lucia Silva, Bookbrowse Recommends
“Not just a story within a story but hundreds of stories within a story, a 513-page macramé with myriad threads.”
–Anneli Rufus, East Bay Express
“Rabih Alameddine may be one of the most brilliant Middle Eastern authors writing in English today. The Hakawati masterfully interweaves the contemporary story of Osama al-Kharrat, a Maronite/Druze Lebanese who has settled in Los Angeles and returns to his father’s deathbed in Beirut, with re-imagined classic tales of the Middle East [that] are all brought to life in this wildly exuberant and wickedly humorous novel. . . . Alameddine manages to describe the absurd reality of politics, society and religion that his characters inhabit, with humor, yes, and even affection.”
“Alameddine assumes the role of a hakawati . . . in a tour de force that interweaves at least five separate narratives into an exquisite tapestry in the denouement. He spins the story of Osama al-Kharrat, a Lebanese American returning to Beirut to sit at his dying father’s bedside; the al-Kharrat family’s rise to prominence . . . the Mameluk warrior Baybars . . . the mythic Fatima, who became the consort of the jinni Afrit-Jehanam; and, above all, the disintegration of a tolerant, civilized Lebanon into a battleground for competing religions, ethnicities, and ideologies. Each narrative is further enhanced by smaller stories about raising pigeons and playing traditional melodies as well as tales drawn from the Koran, the Bible, The Arabian Nights, Ovid, Shakespeare, and every person who ever spoke to the author. This magical novel is epic in proportion and will enchant readers everywhere. Recommended for all libraries.”
–Andrea Kempf, Library Journal (starred)
“Opulent and picaresque . . . In this grand saga of a Beirut family with Armenian, English, and Druze roots, Alameddine constructs stories within stories that encompass the world of the jinni, the tales of Abraham and Hagar, the legendary pigeon wars of Urfa, Lebanon’s brutal civil war, and post-9/11 Beirut and L.A. At the center of this matrix is Osama al-Kharrat (his last name means exaggerator), grandson of a hakawati and son of a wealthy car dealer and a glamorous, sharp-tongued mother, one of many resplendently witty and wily women characters. . . . [Osama’s] arrival [in Beirut] sets off a cascade of memories and launches 1,001 stories. The most thrilling involve the legendary Fatima, the hero Baybars, Osama’s bon vivant uncle Jihad, and the hakawati himself, not to neglect the many diverting parables. 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.”
–Donna Seamans, Booklist (starred)
“Magical . . . Stories descend from stories as families descend from families . . . telling tales of contemporary Lebanon that converge, ingeniously, with timeless Arabic fables. With his father dying in a Beirut hospital, Osama al-Kharrat, a Los Angeles software engineer, returns in 2003 for the feast of Eid al-Hada. As he keeps watch with his sister and extended family, Osama narrates the family history, going back to his great-grandparents, and including his grandfather, a hakawati, or storyteller. Their stories are crosscut with two sinuous Arabian tales: one of Fatima, a slave girl who torments hell and conquers the heart of Afreet Jehanam, a genie; another of Baybars, the slave prince . . .
Osama’s family story generates a Proustian density of gossip: their Beirut is luxuriant as only a hopelessly insular world on the cusp of dissolution can be; its interruption by the savagery that takes hold of the city in the ’70s is shocking. . . . Almost as alluring is the subplot involving a contemporary Fatima as a femme fatale whose charms stupefy and lure jewelry from a whole set of Saudi moneymen, and her sexy sister Mariella, whose beauty queen career (helped by the votes of judges cowed by her militia leader lovers) is tragically, and luridly, aborted.
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.”
–Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)
“Here is absolute beauty. One of the finest novels I’ve read in years. To explain why this book is so wonderful and why Alameddine is so important would take a book. Fortunately you have that very book in your hands.”
–Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“Alameddine mingles a four-generation family saga with a cornucopia of Arabian tales and historical dramas to create a one-of-a-kind novel. Osama al-Kharrat returns in 2003 to Beirut, where his family once owned a prosperous car dealership, to visit his dying father Farid. . . . Osama, who has lived most of his adult life in California, speedily sinks back into the excitable embrace of his extended family (including numerous strongminded women) as they take turns at his father’s hospital bedside. The history of the al-Kharrats and of Lebanon unfolds side by side with multiple strands of Arabian folklore creatively reimagined by Alameddine, who mischievously informs us at one point that his surname is a variant of Aladdin. Not content to let a single jinni out of a bottle, the author summons up a vast array of imps, demons, witches, warriors, slave kings and fierce females to embed his contemporary characters in the splendor of Middle Eastern culture . . . No one interested in boundary-defying fiction will want to miss Alameddine’s high-wire act. A dizzying, prodigal display of storytelling overabundance.”
–Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“An epic in the oldest and newest senses, careening from the Koran to the Old Testament, Homer to Scheherazade. It’s hard to imagine the person who wouldn’t get carried away.”
–Jonathan Safran Foer
“Here it comes, the book of the year, on its own magic carpet. No book this bewitching has ever felt so important; no book this important has ever been so lovingly enchanted. The Hakawati is both a snapshot of our current crisis, and a story for the ages. What else can we ask the djinn of literature for?”
–Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Confessions of Max Tivoli
“The Hakawati is both genius and genie out of the ink bottle, a glorious, gorgeous masterpiece of pure storytelling and fable making. It promises to pay homage to the Great Story, to recount the great tests of loyalty and love, and the proof shown by the brave and the true. But Alameddine’s storyteller is afflicted with tics and twitches, for the tests turn out to be violent and insane, while the proof requires nepotism and bargain prices. What’s more, the djinn are pouring tea for the hakawati’s aunt, as missiles and wit illuminate the landscape before searing it to bits. In spite of our horror, we’re laughing uproariously, realizing that what is timeless about this story makes it very timely indeed.
If you read stories to be entertained, read The Hakawati. If you enjoy stories of true love, read The Hakawati. If you prefer family sagas, read The Hakawati. If you like adventure tales, read The Hakawati. If you read to stay informed, read The Hakawati. If you read to escape, read The Hakawati. If you read only literary classics, read The Hakawati. If you love fables, watch the news first, then read The Hakawati.
Rabih Alameddine is the Hakawati, and in the very near future, everyone will know how to pronounce his name.”
“The Hakawati is astonishing: a triumph of storytelling. Lesser writers might write a book based on only one of the dozens of stories Alameddine delivers in just a few pages of this novel. There is a delightful cheekiness in telling so many tales all at the same time. It is a page-turner–not only because you want to find out what happens at the end, but because of the ever-flowing stories that take you forward. It is pure genius. I love this novel.”
–Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man
“The Hakawati is not only a dazzlingly funny book, not only a heart-breakingly beautiful book, it is a downright necessary book in this deeply troubled new century. Rabih Alameddine has the comprehensive soul of a great artist, and that he also holds within him the more immediate souls of both Americans and Arabs makes his words even more important for us to hear. This vast novel roils with the complexity of history and myth and moment-to-moment existence, and through Alameddine’s prodigious skills as a novelist it does so with absolute clarity. This is a great and enduring book.”
–Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from Strange Mountain
“Wonderful. The Hakawati fed me, like a good nourishing soup spooned into a hungry mouth: I was hungry for all of its rich, delicious narratives. A terrific novel.”