In 2003, Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father's deathbed. As the family gathers, stories begin to unfold: Osama's grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his bewitching tales are interwoven with classic stories of the Middle East. Here are Abraham and Isaac; Ishmael, father of the Arab tribes; the beautiful Fatima; Baybars, the slave prince who vanquished the Crusaders; and a host of mischievous imps. Through Osama, we also enter the world of the contemporary Lebanese men and women whose stories tell a larger, heartbreaking tale of seemingly endless war, conflicted identity, and survival. With The Hakawati, Rabih Alameddine has given us an Arabian Nights for this century.
Whether you read a sanitized version as a child or a bawdier version later on, the setup of Arabian Nights is well known. In the centuries-old collection of tales, Scheherazade saves her own life by bewitching her husband, a Persian king who marries a virgin each day only to have her executed the following morning, with a series of stories drawn out over 1,001 nights. The Hakawati, the new novel by Rabih Alameddine, is something of a modern-day Arabian Nights, and in this soaring, epic book, stories also serve as lifelines, albeit in a less literal way.