four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-The HakawatiIn Arabic, hakawati means "storyteller," and here, Rabih Alameddine weaves together tales from Islamic lore, Greek mythology, the Bible, and other sources. The author of two previous novels (I, The Divine and Koolaids), Alameddine divides his time between Lebanon and San Francisco.

The Story: In 2003, Osama al-Kharrat, a software engineer living in Los Angeles, returns to Beirut after years away to attend to his dying father. Although the city is unrecognizable, Omar’s colorful family and friends provide a familiar environment as they entertain each other with gossip, jokes, and fantastic stories, some of which deal with separation and loss. Among the longer tales are the saga of Fatima, who fights her way into and back from hell, and the legend of Baybars, a ruler who vanquished Christian crusaders in earlier centuries. The stories reflect Osama’s own life and also resonate with the larger history of Lebanon and its troubles.
Knopf. 528 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0307266796

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Bewitching readers with tales of spellbinding genies and shape-shifting demons, Alameddine gives classic tales a modern twist, borrowing from the best of his sources, which include A Thousand and One Nights, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Old Testament and the Koran, to name a few. … At just the right moments, Alameddine alternates the thread of [Fatima’s] story with that of the al-Kharrats, resulting in a narrative whose disparate parts come together with a richness that gives this book its cultural, historical and literary worth." Traci J. Macnamara

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"I think I will not be alone in wishing that the al-Kharrat story could have been weighted more heavily. Osama’s existence in Los Angeles, where he spends almost all of his adult life, is only very superficially sketched, and the secret lives of some of the other characters remain tantalizingly underexplored." Mary Brennan

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] wildly imaginative patchwork of tales improbably threading together Greek mythology, biblical parables, Arab-Islamic lore, and even modern Lebanese politics. Though reading such a chaotic book proves exhausting—blame the author’s desultory technique and dizzying array of characters—several stories both charm and amuse." Rayyan al-Shawaf

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Hakawati could have used some editorial tightening. Nonetheless, Alameddine 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 Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Like all feasts, The Hakawati can become too rich. The epic cast of characters can be hard to track. The stories within stories can be as confusing as desert trails, intertwining until they become one glorious tangle of multicolored threads." Sandip Roy

Critical Summary

The Hakawati is more than just a good book: it’s a diplomatic opportunity that invites non-Arabs to see beyond stereotypes and expose themselves to some of the nuance and complexity within the Arab world. Arab readers and others already familiar with the varied source material will find it transformed by Alameddine’s imagination. The work garnered high praise for its literary merit, although some reviewers found the immense cast and mazelike structure confusing and wished for a closer focus on Osama’s story. Readers should prepare themselves for a challenge, but they shouldn’t fear this sprawling, bittersweet, and wickedly humorous novel.