I’ve seen other books described in reviews as dazzling and mostly thought of the adjective as just a synonym for great or wonderful. But as I finished Rabih Alameddine’s monumentally imaginative novel, The Hakawati, I really felt dazzled. At its heart, the novel describes the emotional and physical journey a son makes to visit his father as he lies dying in a hospital in Beirut. But because our protagonist, Osama, is the grandson of a hakawati (an itinerant storyteller), his story is just a kernel for a profusion of other stories. Some of the stories show us Osama’s family history. Others are entirely fantastical and feature demons and djinn. Yet others are a blend of myth and history. This book is stuffed but never feels too long. I would happily have sat at the feet of the storytellers in this book for more.
The primary narrative features a middle-aged Osama returning to Beirut after decades in the United States. He had left the country in the early years of the Lebanese Civil War to study engineering in California. Before he left, Osama was part of a tightly-knit, sprawling family of cousins, aunts and uncles, his parents, and his notorious grandfather. The more we learn about his family, the more we realize that Osama was not just running from violence. He was also running from a philandering father and a brittle mother and warring relatives. I loved the parts of the novel that revealed Osama’s grandfather’s history in pre-World War I Lebanon; it’s like looking into a vanished world.
A second narrative that runs through the entirety of The Hakawati. In this narrative, a woman named Fatima turns her strong will into magic. Her sections are some of the funniest and the bleakest parts of the novel. I adored her entrance. Fatima is the servant of an emir who wants a son. To date, his wife has delivered daughters. The emir learns of a witch who has the secret of bearing a male child. Because he can’t go himself, he sends Fatima. Fatima doesn’t take a large escort because she doesn’t think it’s necessary. So, of course, she and her small party are almost immediately set upon by bandits. To get out of being raped and murdered, Fatima starts to spin a story about how her lover (her “plaything”) is a powerful demon and that none of the bandits could satisfy her. This story causes the bandits to attack each other…and also starts Fatima on a long, strong journey in and out of the underworld.
The last major narrative does a lot of heavy lifting. It’s framed as a story that the emir from the second narrative to his wife while she’s pregnant, to inspire their unborn child to become a great hero. It’s also referenced in Osama’s story as a family favorite. Ultimately, this story—which relates the almost entirely fictional adventures of a real-life historical figure, Mamluk sultan Baibars—blends prophecy, propaganda, and a smidgeon of history. Late in The Hakawati, a young Osama is shocked to learn that this beloved story is mostly not true. His Uncle Jihad tells him that it doesn’t matter whether or not a story is literally true. Rather, stories are the official versions of our own histories. Stories, literally true or otherwise, are what we want to remember and pass on to the next generation.
These three narratives are surrounded by tangents and side stories. All of these stories not only frame each other (there are so many layers in this book!), they also reinforce each other by repeating motifs. We see couples desperate for male children (Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael make several appearances), lots of jealousy, poor decisions and misuse of magic, plenty of sex and death, family obligations, feuds, and so much more. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to spot the thesis of the book for several chapters. Every theory I came up with would be exploded by a new tale that didn’t fit. Thankfully, I gave that up when I realized I was overthinking things. The Hakawati is a celebration of stories and their power. Because it is full of so many kinds of stories, with so many different characters and plots and endings, The Hakawati has something for everyone—especially for readers who are never tired of hearing a new yarn.