Monday, January 10, 2011
When Osama al-Khattar, a Los Angeles software engineer, returns to Lebanon in 2003, it's not for a celebration or for a light-hearted visit. Instead, Osama has come to sit at the bedside of his seriously ill father, sharing stories with him during the final days of his life. As Osama relates his history and the history of his father and grandfather, he weaves miraculous and wonderful fairylike tales throughout his story. From Fatima, the woman who seduced a djinn, to Baybars, a lowly serf who rose to be one of the most generous and beloved leaders of the land, Osama shares it all. As he relates the story of how his parents met, or how his grandfather, a once admired storyteller called a hakawati, became who he was, or how his beloved uncle Jihad began to feed his love of stories from an early age, Osama spins fanciful and colorful yarns about heroes both mythical and strange. Scattered throughout these colorful stories, a picture or war torn Lebanon begins to emerge, from the casual bombings of the 70's to the barren wasteland that stretches across the countryside today. Paired with the Arabic fables and the modern day story of the bedside vigil over Osama's father, Alameddine treats his readers to a feast of otherworldly and impressive stories of yesterday and today.
This book is something my wonderful reading partner Aarti and I have wanted to share in a joint read for a long time. As the year passed and seasons turned, the timetable for this read kept slipping further and further away. With Aarti in grad school now, her reading time is limited and precious, and I was glad to find out that over her winter break she was excited about sharing this book with me. We both had a lot of fun with it and got caught up in the whorls of the mazelike story that Alameddine told. We decided to switch reviews this time around, and as such, here are Aarti's thoughts on The Hakawati. If you head on over to Booklust after reading this review, you can check out my thoughts as well!
I'm writing this review a couple of weeks after finishing The Hakawati, and I find that many of the character names and relationships and conflicts have slipped my mind. I don't remember all of King Baybars' slippery plots or Fatima's fantastic escape techniques or why Osama's aunts didn't get along. What does remain, though, is the sense that I was in the hands of a master storyteller. Rabih Alemeddine turns words into magic and takes readers, literally, on a magic carpet ride through history, blurring the line between fact and fiction and bringing all his characters to full-blooded life.
I personally preferred the Arabian Nights-esque stories much more than the modern-day family drama as related by Osama. Osama's family is fascinating and complex, but none of them caught my attention the way that Fatima and Baybars and Layla and Othman did in the stories. Which is interesting because in a way, the stories were populated by characters with fairly simple and straightforward lives and relationships. They knew their roles and played them and we never heard about domestic disputes. Instead, we were regaled with stories of heroism and deviousness and jealousy and how people must use their wits to prove their honor. In the modern day stories, we get none of that. Instead, we get realism which is (to me) not nearly as fair in its rewards system. Rather, the "real" characters in Osama's life are betrayed, hold grudges, don't seem to find much humor in life and live through countless military attacks.
One of my favorite things about the Arabian Nights, when the story is told well, is that it really is only one story. One plot line leads seamlessly into another, one character introduces us to the next and before we know it, we are in the midst of a completely different adventure than the one we started in. I love this method, and I think Alemeddine does it so well. Here, the stories are more distinct — you have to keep them straight in your head — but near the end, they all seem to converge in a perfect bow and it's amazing how he does it.
There are a lot of characters in this book, and many are forgettable (including, dare I say it, Osama himself). But there are others that are an absolute delight — Othman and his beautiful, intelligent wife Layla, Fatima and her determination to keep her family together, Baybars and his quest to get on the throne. I was thrilled every time I came across one of them in the book, as though I were seeing an old friend. And at the end of the book, I felt a little wistful that I'd not be able to accompany them on any more of their adventures or grow old with them.
But I can always open this book again and ride once more on a magic carpet, defeat a villainous magician, fight invading armies and bring beloved lovers back to life. And I think that's what I appreciated most about The Hakawati. It is escapist literature of the highest standard — taking you to a completely foreign world and then settling you gently back in your own life until you're ready for the ride again.
Posted by Zibilee at 8:00 AM