I've always believed that if you want to understand a people's culture than you need to know the stories they tell. Everything from the tales about the heroes who people their mythology to the stories that form the basis for their belief system will tell you more about how a people define themselves than any fact based history.
In some way stories are the popular history of a culture. They may be dismissed as legend or myth by so-called serious scholars, but if you look closely enough you'll find out that they were all based on fact. Over the years they have all been embellished to some degree or other, but what stories haven't had their lilies gilded to some extent anyway?
For the longest time the only records that we had of Troy's existence were from Homer's account of the war, and nobody believed them to be true until Troy was unearthed in the late 19th century. There might not have been the direct involvement of the Gods and Goddesses in the battle as was depicted in Homer's Odyssey, but the fact remained the war between Greece and Troy really occurred.
Although in the greater scheme of things a family's stories may not seem important, they bear the same relationship to a family's history as a culture's stories do its history. Whether you know it or not, all families have stories, even yours, that are as unlikely as any mythology in some ways. You may not think so looking at your parents, but think about where they came from. Look back to your great-grandparent's generation on each side of the family and find out where they were. What are the odds that they would have children who would marry, have children of their own who would meet and marry to finally meet to create you? If that's not the stuff of myth I don't know what is?
In his newest work, The Hakawati (roughly translated as the story-teller) being released today (April 22/08) by Random House Canada's Knopf imprint, Rabih Alameddine has created a glorious tapestry by interweaving the threads of one family's story with the stories of the Arab world. In doing so not only does he give truth to the cliche fact can be stranger than fiction, he shows how fine a line there really is between myth and history, and how the one gives birth to the other.
While recounting the history, and the rise in fortunes of the al-Kharrat family, through the eyes and memory of their prodigal son, Osama, on his returning to Beirut from Los Angeles for the death of his father, Alameddine regales us with the stories that entranced his characters when they were children. While most of us are probably familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac, (although judging by the way the world acts today it seems like most of us have also forgotten that each of the Big Three: Christian, Jew, and Muslim recognize him) I doubt that many of us know anything about Ishmael, father of the Arab tribes, the true story of Fatima who was lover to a djinn, or Baybars the slave prince who vanquished the Crusaders once and for all.
Of course every history has to start somewhere and with the al-Kharrat family, at least on the father's side, it started with Osama's grandfather. The illegitimate son of an English missionary doctor and his Armenian maid he is the Hakawati of the title. At the age of twelve he had to flee the city of Urfa in Turkey where he was born, when, for his part in pigeon war, his life was threatened. His mother had died two weeks after he was born, and the doctor's maids who raised him sent him to Beruit where one of them had a cousin.
At least this is the story that Osama tells us his grandfather told him when he was young. Osama is our Hakawati, regaling us with his memories of his father, mother, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and enemies. Stories that he was told by his grandfather, his uncles, and other members of his family of the history of the Arab world make up a goodly portion of his memories. Within those stories, other stories live, and as the book unfolds all the stories take on lives of their own.
As a result, in the course of telling us the history of his family, Osama tells is also telling us the history of the Arab world. Each history starts with the tale of the founder, and parallels the other for the rest of the book. Through war and peace in Lebanon, and the stories of Arab heroes fighting to preserve their freedom in the face of treachery, we learn both the modern legend of the al-Kharrat family and the ancient myths, as the heroes of each tale give birth, survive warfare, and travel the world.
Rabih Alameddine has created a beautiful epic that combines the modern and the ancient world into one extraordinary story. There is an elegance to his story telling that elevates the mundane to the mythical and a straight forwardness that makes the legendary human. By blurring the lines between his "real" world of Osama's family history and the "legendary" world of the Arab heroes, he makes the reader examine the whole concept of story and history and question what is real and what is myth.
At one point young Osama asks his uncle whether a story he is telling him is true or not and is told that he should believe the story but not the storyteller. The story of the horrors suffered by Lebanon during its seemingly endless civil war is true, the number of Lebanese people who were forced into exile is true, but whether or not this story teller is telling the truth doesn't matter. What matters is the essence and the feelings generated by the story and Alameddine has been able to communicate the experience of that country's betrayal and abandonment by both the Arab and the Western world.
In the end what makes this so effective is that we care about the people. Osama and his family could just as easily be any one of our families. They are drawn with love, so that even the character who is like your annoying aunt who tells everybody what to do, makes you smile. The Hakawati is a wonderful story told by a masterful storyteller, which on it's own is sufficient reason for reading it. The fact that it pulls back the blinds a little further on the Arab world and introduces you to some of the beauty and magic that has existed in the Middle East for thousands of years is just an added bonus.
(Originally posted April 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.