By Rabih Alameddine
Knopf, 513 pp., $25.95
Listen. I'm going to tell you about a wonderful book - poignant, profane, filled with life and grotesque deaths. The book is "The Hakawati," by Rabih Alameddine, and if the single imperative at the start of this paragraph made you lean forward just a little, all 513 pages of this novel will keep you transfixed.
A hakawati is a storyteller, an entertainer. "Like the word 'hekayeh' (story, fable, news), 'hakawati' is derived from the Lebanese word 'haki,' which means 'talk' or 'conversation,' " Alameddine explains. "This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling." And the power of words artfully strung together - to woo, to arouse, to insult, to enchant, and to deceive - is evident on every page.
Osama, the narrator, has come to Beirut from his longtime home in Los Angeles to visit his ailing father, Farid. It is 2003, and back in this still-decimated city 12 years after Lebanon's civil war ended, 26 years after its onset forced his family to flee the city, Osama is once again steeped in the culture from which he's been so distant for so long.
And what a piquant stew it is. Osama's father is Druze (a somewhat mystical sect of Islam), his mother Christian, and his mother's best friend an Italian expatriate Jew. The lore of all three faiths is recounted in stories told by Osama's late, beloved uncle Jihad, by his grandfather Ismail (himself a hakawati), by his mentors, and by the people within their stories.
We hear antic accounts of familiar characters like Adam, Lilith, and Eve; Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Ishmael. But we also follow the mythical exploits of heroines less known in the West, such as Fatima, the Egyptian slave who moves freely among earth, hell, and sky, and Layla, the "luscious dove" who is the clever and lusty engineer of the slave king Baybars's storied political and military triumphs. In the best tradition of magical realism, these tales commingle the fabulous with the mundane, the grandiose with laugh-out-loud wit.
Woven into this colorful cloth of fable and myth are threads of the history of Armenians and Turks, Sunnis and Shiites, Syrians and Lebanese, Palestinians and Falangists. Far from didactic, it's a living history, unfolding through the lives of Osama's ancestors and peers, who are shaped by and inseparable from the times they live in. The juxtaposition of ancient "maqam" played on the "oud" with Jimi Hendrix tunes played behind sullen teenagers's closed bedroom doors, of semifeudal rituals attended in brand-new Toyotas, creates a fascinating portrait of Lebanon, a country that defies stereotypes.
This novel is essentially a collection of stories about great hakawatis, mythical and real, and the stories they tell. But as it journeys effortlessly back and forth between centuries, it is also a saga of families, tribes, and nations that are like families - sprawling, bound by birth and passion, combative, destructive, and essential.
Osama's rather depressed disposition strikes the only dissonant note in this celebration. But as the book reaches its end, as he is back in the noisy, sometimes belligerent, and loving presence of his sister and cousins and aunts and uncles, he begins to once again find his voice, a voice that makes you want to lean in and listen.
Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.