Friday, September 2, 2011

Week 31: The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine

I picked up The Hakawati on a whim because it had gotten a lot of great reviews, but primarily, I wanted to read it because it is about a Lebanese family, and I am part Lebanese. As soon as I started reading it, I knew I loved it, and by the time I finished it, it had become my favorite book. Of all time. It’s that good! I suppose that some might find the “frame tale” structure too convoluted or too meandering, but I can’t imagine not being utterly consumed by this book. Hakawati means “storyteller” in Arabic, and the entire tale is a tribute to the art of storytelling. It sets the tone immediately with its opening lines: “Listen. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.” The central story revolves around Osama al-Kharrat, a young Lebanese man who lives in Los Angeles, but has traveled back to Beirut to be at his dying father’s bedside. There, he reunites with his large family as they all keep vigil and help support each other. The family immediately charms the reader, as we meet various characters, from Osama’s father himself, to Osama’s sister and cousins and cantankerous aunts. Each family member is captured perfectly, has their own sparkling personality and their own story. On top of this, more stories are interwoven. We follow the story of Fatima, a slave girl who seduces a demon. We are introduced to Baybars, a boy who grew up to become a prince and war hero. We learn the history behind Osama’s parents’ origins and the diverse ethnic background that comprised his ancestry. It’s stories on top of stories on top of stories, but through it all, the common thread is the bond that brings families together. Did you ever have nights with your own family in which you stayed up late, recounting funny stories from your childhood? This book is like that. It employs a heavy dose of magic, as many of the stories would qualify as fables. The reader will come across imps and trolls, magic spells, and carpet rides. It’s a fairy tale in that it will transport you into a different world. However, it is tethered to the present, as other stories recount the wars that have devastated Lebanon, or Osama’s journey to the States to look at UCLA. It’s all a fantastic tapestry. It will make you ache for the days when people told stories and kept a verbal tradition, as opposed to being steeped in our culture of digital nonsense. There are so many characters who will make you laugh and make you cry.  There are so many bewitching elements of Middle Eastern culture, so many beautiful, poetic sentences, so many strong female characters, so much romance and honor. It’s timeless and it was a joy to read.

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