Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Storyteller or The Hakawati

If you like stories, this is the book you need to pick up. If you enjoy exotic stories, this is the book to pick up. If you've never heard of the Arabian Nights, this is the book to pick up. If you enjoy all of the above, you'll read this book over and over and over again.

I could tell this was a special book from the first sentence. It promised me a story you see like no other and boy did it deliver. It is by Lebanese American writer, Rabih Alameddine. The book takes us from journey to journey, from Ancient Egypt to civil war Lebanon in the twenty first century, from the battlefields of ancient Turkey to the mountains of the Caucasus and the shores of Syria.

The main storyline is that of Osama, a Lebanese-American who comes back to Lebanon to be at the bedside of his dying father. We get to know the dynasty of the al-Kharrat family (Kharrat is liar in English) and how they came to be the best storytellers in the region. It also touches (although briefly) upon the issue of those who leave during a war (the Lebanese one in this case) and those who stay to see it through. The former returning to feel like an outsider and the latter resentful and frustrated.

The book weaves stories of religion and ancient history touching upon factual characters but in totally fabricated scenarios. There is no ruse to conceal this as Rabih is found admitting in the acknowledgement page that “By nature a storyteller is a plagiarist. Everything one comes across — 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 a pinch of salt, boiled thrice with sugar and served as a piping-hot tale.” Meaning: check your history, don't take his word for it.

This is not an easy book to read and the stories can seem overwhelming and at times exhausting to keep up with as Rabih flits from one to the other. This is a gripping story and offers a truly wonderful insight into the mysticism that is associated with Middle East history. Think kings, queens, emirs. Think swords, harems and honor. Bravery, chivalry, and witchcraft. It is not only a story of the power of love but truly the book itself is a product of love for its characters and what they represent.

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