Alameddine resurrects the fading oral tradition in a multimedia-like narrative.
The Hakawati, Rabin Alameddine, Picador, 2008, p.513, £5.99.
Rabih Alameddine’s latest novel Hakawati turns out to be an interesting critique on the art and craft of story telling revealing a writer who is very sensitive to the challenges of a novelist. The genre of the fairytale evolved from the human desire to transcend the ordinariness of daily living by tapping the rich repertoire of individual imagination and every country, community and group has created its own distinctive oral tradition of tales to enthral.
A story teller in the Arab/Lebanese tradition is known as “Hakawati” and his stories of people and places usually draw an impressive audience who gather to listen to him over a cup of tea. Taking off from the magical storytelling experience of a Hakawati, Rabih Alameddine has matured into a seasoned hakawati himself in this multimedia-like massive narrative of 513 pages. The evolving nature of contemporary multiculturalism has provided a rich turf for Alameddine to resurrect the fading art of the oral tradition.
Stories within stories
Through the protagonist Osama Al Kharrat’s perspective, Alameddine uses the inset technique of story generating story to enable the confluence of history, legend, myth, folklore, family values or cultural vastness. By narrating his childhood experiences of growing up in war-torn Lebanon, Osama captures the politics of a recent past; while memories of his hakawati grandfather serve to manoeuvre the jumps from the present into the peripheral and uncharted worlds that lie beyond rational experience. The episodic narrative thus encompasses the fantastic tales of Fatima (who meets the most evil person) or the folklores involving fairies, elves, imps, ancient cures, prophecies, the crusades, slaves, kings, magic carpets, the underworld, the earthy, the ethereal the lewd. If the different worlds of the past and present, fact and fiction find a legitimate place in the novel, it is because even the most fantastic elements appeal when they carry an authentic human experience.
Consider his candid acknowledgement at the end: “By nature a story teller is a plagiarist — each incident, book, novel, life episode, story, person, news clip — is a coffee bean that will be crushed, ground up, mixed with a touch of cardamom, sometimes with a pinch of salt, boiled thrice with sugar, and served as a piping hot tale.” Such an outspoken exposure of the art and craft of storytelling can be the prerogative of a seasoned storyteller with a sharp insight into the psychology of the listener/reader who is told to trust the tale rather than the teller.
All along are interspersed varied perspectives on how a story can get enriched. Uncle Jihad touches the core of the issue when he says, “You see the story of the story of Baybars is in some ways more interesting. Listen. Contrary to what my father and most people believe, the only true event in the whole story, in all its versions is that the man existed. Everything else has been distorted beyond recognition. Al-Malik al Zahir ruken al Din Baybars al Bunduk Dari al Salihi owes his fame to his talent for public relations without which his reign might have been reduced to a mere historical footnote.” He adds that these days few can discern historical accounts from the stories of the hakawatis and looks at Baybars as a marketing hero who “consolidated his power and created a cult of personality by paying, bribing and forcing an army of hakawatis to promulgate tales of his valour and piety.” The story of the king is the story of the people, and unfortunately, no king has learned this lesson.
Retelling well known stories requires dramatisation by the expert storytellers. To meet the demands of a first-person narrative, which is to maintain a matter-of-fact tone when being personal, is not an easy task and Alameddine’s Osama slips occasionally into artificiality as in “I felt foreign to myself. I was a tourist in a bizarre land. I was home.” Yet what matters is the emergence of the complex experience of expatriation and displacement that a typical immigrant (not necessarily from Lebanon) faces.
There is natural ease in his portrayal of the enormous hold of childhood experiences over an adult’s life. The novel reaffirms that a well told story resonates in a myriad ways to effect an unseen and sometimes unrecognised transformation in shaping personality. The rich and picturesque spread of human idiosyncrasies lingers in one’s consciousness long after the story line might have been forgotten. Even apparently casual discussions (such as the one on one’s shoe size) carry insightful comments on human nature and truths. A seemingly simple event like the arrival of the dog Tulip carries a recognisable emotional vibe. Such sharp and subtle moments enable the reader to glimpse the eternal that remains hidden in the ephemeral.