The Hakawati’s Magic

Isn’t listening to stories more fun than reading them? Isn’t the solitude of a story book scary? More so in folktale cultures? Oral tradition of story-telling is fading away fast. My mother’s mother used to tell me stories to put me to sleep or to soothe my itchy nerves. My mother can’t tell stories like her. Will I be able to tell stories to my kids and grandkids? The Hakawati is a redemption of those days when telling and listening stories was the part of the day looked forward to; when stories were lived by families.

The Hakawati is a seemingly effortless and daunting effort by Mr. Rabih Alameddine to take the tales of Hakawati across lands, rivers, seas and oceans. The blend of Thousand & One Nights’s style with the modern novel form elevates the magic of oral tales. The reader is not left in scary solitude. The magicians, sorcerers, warriors, kings, imps, inanimate magical objects like flying carpets, desolate lands, starry desert nights, valour, embattled armies, humdrum of a local market abuzz with activities, their orderly chaos disordered by sudden attacks, the labyrinth of devil’s den, the seductive beauty, delusions, the evil of human minds, its lofty ideals, its desperation, its horrors, its joys, the endless & meaningless struggle for vague principles, love in its various forms, boundary less love, jealous love, taboo love, erotic love, simply love and hallucinatory quality of reality never let go off your hands.

The legendary tales of Fatima and epic tales of valiant warriors and schemers like Arbusto and Baybars run parallel to the historical settings in which the Druze family of al-Kharrat’s emerges and recasts itself to the modern stage of Lebanon. Lebanon, which is torn with civil war evidencing dispossession, alienation and yet a pinching desire to rise again, against the unyielding phlegm of loss.

Osama al-Kharrat’s father is bed ridden in a hospital in Beirut. Osama comes back from Los Angeles to Beirut to find the world of his youth changed from what he left behind a quarter of a century back. This is 2003. Memories of his childhood, his hakawati grandfather, the civil war era of later half of 20th century, the family and its friends flood on his mental landscape and he transports us back to the days when his grandfather was born to love in the tempest. The story takes us slowly ahead in time where his grandfather gets inspired to become a hakawati; family of al-Kharrat (meaning a fibster or one who spins yarns of tales) and its heritage, his special relationship with his Uncle Jihad (what a name, given the character’s disposition to art and not war) and his stiff relationship with his father.  Through the pages of The Hakawati you will discover that Osama is indeed a storyteller.

Subtlety abounds through the pages of The Hakawati. Way past half in the novel, our narrator Osama al-Kharrat tells about his Uncle Jihad’s collage of images from movie magazines (one of Uncle Jihad’s numerous obsessions being films). The narrator’s vision swathes the collage with rapt attention to details and the reader is compelled to recollect the classics of western cinema and its evergreen stars from Bette Davis of Jezebel fame to Jane Fonda to Steve McQueen to Judy Garland. While all the while the reader may just be busy recollecting the faces of the stars in the time frozen scenes of the classics, narrator deftly places an intrusion by his story-hating father: “After Uncle Jihad’s death, my father wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see the image of Alan Bates and Olive Reed kissing fiercely. My father must have spent quite a bit of time scraping.”

Forthrightness is the forte of the story. The words are not veiled in their synonyms when portraying a character or while unfolding the events. This directedness is not for seeking attention. It is rooted in the dialects of the characters and in the human acts of theirs. Telling about the hasty and indiscreet affair of his great-grandparents the narrator offers: “He consumed her right then, uncomfortably, outside the outhouse, the faint malodor acting as an aphrodisiac.”

It is a tale one may read aloud to a family gathered for a long holiday. The Hakawati also inspires a story lover to unearth the story of her family – the little tales & fables of a journey undertaken by relatives, who with passage of time, knowingly or unknowingly, became a ‘family’. The Hakawati instils passion in the hearts of lonely individuals lost to the grinding mill of sustaining a family. These are all subtle feelings the reviewer gets by reading, err… ‘indulging’ in the novel. Yes, this novel is indulging indeed. It is not a page-turner, dear bookworms. It has to be paced to sync with the rhythms of your heart. You may swiftly lift yourself up high to look at the eras gone by and with a nosedive you can have an innocent peep into a day of an individual. With no clichés and full of life in its essentials, the story of Osama Al-Kharrat is as personal as it is universal – the feeling of desolation in a place you had left behind (“I was a tourist in a bizarre land. I was home.”), the feeling of connectedness to your roots despite prolonged migration, the nostalgia that fills you when you step into a space which was once inhabited by you but is now filled up with strangers – I can go on with the list of themes. However, once you have read the novel yourself, you will feel that some very dominant theme has been left unmentioned here. The language is simple, flow of the words is lyrical and composition is lean. The expanse of the narrative is continental.

To an aspiring writer the novel offers a great deal of advice which are adorable and given their succinctness does not seem preaching. “A sound advice is adorable.” That is my adage that resounds in my mind while reading these compact pieces of wisdom. Hakawati grandfather is relating to his grandson (our narrator) the deficiency of his doctor father as a storyteller and when the grandson is curious as to “What was wrong with his stories?”, the grandfather lends a very simple and beautiful analogy to precede a thought-worthy one-liner. “They are just common. He always told his favorite stories from the Bible. Stories with obvious moral lessons are like eels in a wooden crate. They slither over and under each other, but never leave the tub. In my day, I told some of the same stories, but mine soared. His problem was that he believed. Belief is the enemy of a storyteller.”

I am still pondering over the last line here. There are many such moments that make you pause and take in the aroma and the taste of the broth prepared by Mr. Alameddine. This novel is for listening as it is from a hakawati.

Mr. Alameddine has treated the wars and strives of daily lives in Lebanon with his distinctive humor. The wars do not cloud over the enchanting stories and tales that envelope the air. The thriving hope in the hearts of the well-developed characters of the novel render the graveness and sadness that accompany wars neutered. At the end when Osama tries to make his father listen to the stories about him, about himself, about the family, about everything that the grandfather hakawati told him, a listener’s heart shall melt and geld away the most stoic and artless soul.  “Listen… Let me tell you a story.

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