April 19, 2018

Best Books Q&A: Rabih Alameddine, author of The Hakawati

By Wilda Williams

In the Middle East, a hakawati is a storyteller; and in his magical and exuberant fourth novel, The Hakawati, an LJ Best Book, Lebanese American author Rabih Alameddine displays a Scheherazade-like genius for enchanting readers by interweaving multiple narratives revolving around several generations of a Lebanese family, with tales and stories within stories drawn from the Koran, the Bible, Arab folklore, Ovid, Shakespeare, and more.

How did the novel come about?
The Hakawati had many beginnings. In 1999, I wrote a long piece that was later trimmed and published as a short story. That was Chapter Ten from the novel in a different form. I wrote a couple more stories, one successful, the other not. The latter ended up as part of the book. I had different ideas for novels in my head, though, and none of them seemed to make much sense. Then, in 2003, I was teaching in Beirut when my father was dying in the hospital. I couldn’t follow through on any of my previous ideas, so I began to write something completely different: the first grandfather chapter. I placed the man in Urfa [a Turkish city] because I had read a memoir based there. I discovered that Urfa was the birthplace of Abraham, so I began to reread Old Testament stories. Then I found out that the city was a hotbed of pigeon wars. Who knew?

Yet all this was simply material. I didn’t have a novel. I didn’t have a structure, and I had stories raging and clawing in my chest. I wanted to write about a family gathered around a deathbed; I wanted to write a novel about parents and offspring; I wanted to write a novel about the grandfather and how a family begins, how it forms (Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac?); I wanted to tell stories. It was a year later, in 2004, that it finally occurred to me that it was one novel, that everything fit together because the grandfather was a hakawati, and so was the entire family. Once I had that, I had the structure. I had my novel.

What are some of the oral and written storytelling sources that influenced you in the writing of this book?
I’ve always been influenced by my reading. For this novel it was books, books, and more books: Calvino, Homer, Ovid; Koran, Bible, Bhagavad Gita; literary, commercial, and pulp fiction; Arabic poetry and folktales; a hakawati’s book; German studies of Arabic tales; Marvel comics, DC comics, Astérix and Obélix, Tintin; Nabokov, Borges, Nooteboom; Shakespeare’s plays; and memoirs written by family members now long gone.

But then I’ve always considered myself fortunate to be Lebanese. Once I understood what kind of book I was writing, I spread the word among family and friends that I was looking for stories. I received hundreds of calls from acquaintances, long-lost relatives, strangers who swore they were relatives, talkers all, wanting to tell me their stories. Stories flit about us all the time. We just forget to listen. Our butterfly nets gather dust.

Your mastery of multiple plot lines is dazzling. How did you keep track of the different threads and weave them into a cohesive whole?
I don’t plot anywhere but in my head—no outlines, corkboards, or graphs! I was a mathematician and studied engineering. I’ve always had a certain facility with spatial problems. Maybe that’s why I can keep track of the different weaves, but I’m unable to explain how.

Not surprisingly for a culture that produced The Arabian Nights, storytelling has always been an important art in the Middle East. Are there modern-day hakawatis in Lebanon? Or are the new hakawatis novelists like yourself? Are there other Lebanese authors that you would recommend to American readers?
There are no modern-day hakawatis, at least not in Lebanon. I know of one in Damascus, in a café called the Nafoura (fountain), but he plies his trade for tourists. I heard of a couple of retired old coots in northern Syria, both Kurds. There is a theater troupe in Cairo that is trying to revive the art, but I don’t know much about them. Are novelists the new hakawatis? Yes, and so are playwrights, poets, filmmakers, and even soap operas. I do read Hanan al-Shaykh and Rashid al-Daif. Other Lebanese writers I read are Amin Maalouf, Hoda Barakat, and Elias Khoury.

Do you still live part-time in Beirut? What is the city like today?
I do. Like all great cities, Beirut is constantly changing and must be experienced. Come visit.