The Hakawati – by Rabih Alameddine

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"Listen.  Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story." 

Over the past three months, I've been reading a book, just a bit at a time.  It helps that the chapters are not long, but even within each chapter there are brief sections separating story segments.  Characters change, scenes change, timelines change, the types of fiction change.   In most reading, I find this particularly frustrating, particularly if the author overworks the "cliffhanger" style of writing that invites breezing through a book.  I found "The Hakawati" one to be more slowly digested.

I came to this book from a friend who reads about one book a week.  Having read my share of supermarket pulp offerings in the months The Hakawatiprior, I wanted something that spoke to something higher, that taught something about human nature, that entertained in a different way... but without being boring.  He offered up "The Hakawati."  What is a hakawati?  A story-teller.

Tales, fables, stories - of heroes, villains, sultans, jinn and imps, but also of aunts, uncles, sisters, grandparents, beys, the Great Pigeon Wars and the mixed culture of Lebanon.  All of these wind around a non-linear recounting of the narrator's return to Beirut to visit his dying father.  Those stories touch on all sorts of references, including the Bible, the Koran, 1001 Arabian Nights, and other sources that the author lists at the end of the book.  Throughout are outrageously funny tales of old, keen observations on relationships today, and unexpected rewards in details and diversions.

This is a work of fiction, but over time, I would expect it to rise to the dreaded status of “literature,” that causation for students to suffer through comparing and contrasting the characters, or exploring the hero myth, or examining themes of life, death, or familial relationships. (click HERE for a more “literary” review). There is no Stephanie Plum or Kinsey Milhone to be found here, though humor is soaked throughout). The book should not put off an audience with that distinction.  It's much better to just sit back and take it in, as I did.  That said, if found on a table of fiction at Barnes and Noble, it’s likely I’d declare it “intriguing” before setting it down and choosing something that offers easier entertainment… Rollins, Grafton, Patterson.  Some captions that intrigued:

On the afterlife: "Ah human.  Your ideas of hell are nothing more than the lees and dregs of unimaginative minds long since dead.  Listen.  Let me tell you a story."

On reincarnation: "The Druze and the Chinese are related." ... "the Druze believe that when someone dies the soul instantly jumps into the body of a baby being born.  So we're supposed to be able to figure out who was reincarnated into whom.  There aren't that many Druze.  The wise men of the Druze, and you know they're not that wise, realized there was a problem.  A Druze would die, and there'd be no one who was born at the same instant.  They had to be born somewhere, you see.  The dead were sometimes born in China... The Chinese believe in reincarnation, which could mean they're related to the Druze.  And, most important, China is far enough away so that no one can check.  The Chinese get born over here, and we're reborn in China."

On the nature of truth: "Never trust the teller," he said. "Trust the tale."
On the proper cooking of imps: "And you have to blanch them to get rid of their red color, so no one can tell it's imp stew.  You don't want your guests to throw up, now, do you?"
"But the guests would taste them."
"Oh, no, imps taste just like chicken."

On being productive: "Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life." - Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

On governance: "The story of the king is the story of the people, and unfortunately, to this day, no king has learned that lesson."

Note: Among many other sources, the author incorporates some elements from gay poetry, which may upset some.  This is but one small part, however, of the discoveries of arab culture that await within the book.

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