Rabih Alameddine: The Hakawati

February 18, 2021

This book is on fire! A dizzying magic carpet ride. A jealous book. It requires your full attention. Look away and you will lose track and get lost, look closer and you will get lost in the stories within stories within stories. It is a matter of choosing your definition of “lost.”

“No matter how good a story is, there is more at stake in the telling,” says the hakawati. The evidence is the book itself, a contemporary retelling of the Arabian Nights through the approach of Lebanese writer, Rabih Alameddine; but this is the Arabian Nights (uncensored, the author warns), deeper and more relevant, and suffused with rich Lebanese culture and history.  It is wondrous, bizarre, sometimes even vulgar and repulsive — but only when you take things literally and only until you realize they are metaphors and then it becomes disturbing, and then these parts become ingenious!

One does not have to read the Arabian Nights in order to enjoy this, but I believe it will be better appreciated with an ample background. Many references would have been lost to me and some sections would have seemed absurd had I bypassed the Arabian Nights. The writing style does not have a tinge of mediocrity, and yet I am aware that it cannot be everyone’s cup of coffee; but I will remember this book for the beautiful words it gave me:

Hakawati — “A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths, and fables (hekayat).  A story-teller, and entertainer. A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns… ‘hakawati’ is derived from the Lebanese word ‘haki,’ which means ‘talk’ or ‘conversation’. This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling.”

Zajal — a poetry duel practiced in Lebanon until today.

Bakhshi — an oud player, a singer, and a storyteller.

Maqam — In the Arabic language it means place, location, situation, position, a shrine, but in Arabic music it is a scale and a mood. “Teardrops descending along cheeks, a cascade of grace,” as the protagonist puts it lyrically.

Tarab — “A musical enchantment. It is when both musician and listener are bewitched by the music.” An entrancement achieved between performer and listener while engaged in music.

This whole book is a cacophony of stories. How fitting that its last word is “listen”.

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