An astonishingly inventive, wonderfully exuberant novel that takes us from the shimmering dunes of ancient Egypt to the war-torn streets of twenty-first-century Lebanon.
In 2003, Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed. The city is a shell of the Beirut Osama remembers, but he and his friends and family take solace in the things that have always sustained them: gossip, laughter, and, above all, stories.
Osama’s grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller, and his bewitching stories–of his arrival in Lebanon, an orphan of the Turkish wars, and of how he earned the name al-Kharrat, the fibster–are interwoven with classic tales of the Middle East, stunningly reimagined. Here are Abraham and Isaac; Ishmael, father of the Arab tribes; the ancient, fabled Fatima; and Baybars, the slave prince who vanquished the Crusaders. Here, too, are contemporary Lebanese whose stories tell a larger, heartbreaking tale of seemingly endless war–and survival.
Like a true hakawati, Rabih Alameddine has given us an Arabian Nights for this century–a funny, captivating novel that enchants and dazzles from its very first lines: “Listen. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.”
Stories descend from stories as families descend from families in the magical third novel from Alameddine (I, the Divine), telling tales of contemporary Lebanon that converge, ingeniously, with timeless Arabic fables. With his father dying in a Beirut hospital, Osama al-Khattar, a Los Angeles software engineer, returns in 2003 for the feast of Eid al-Hada. As he keeps watch with his sister, Lina, and extended family, Osama narrates the family history, going back to his great-grandparents, and including his grandfather, a hakawati, or storyteller. Their stories are crosscut with two sinuous Arabian tales: one of Fatima, a slave girl who torments hell and conquers the heart of Afreet Jehanam, a genie; another of Baybars, the slave prince, and his clever servant, Othman. Osama's family story generates a Proustian density of gossip: their Beirut is luxuriant as only a hopelessly insular world on the cusp of dissolution can be; its interruption by the savagery that takes hold of the city in the '70s is shocking. The old, tolerant Beirut is symbolized by Uncle Jihad: a gay, intensely lively storyteller, sexually at odds with a society he loves. Uncle Jihad's death marks a symbolic break in the chain of stories and traditions unless Osama assumes his place in the al-Khattar line. Almost as alluring is the subplot involving a contemporary Fatima as a femme fatale whose charms stupefy and lure jewelry from a whole set of Saudi moneymen, and her sexy sister Mariella, whose beauty queen career (helped by the votes of judges cowed by her militia leader lovers) is tragically, and luridly, aborted.Alameddine's own storytelling ingenuity seems infinite: out of it he has fashioned a novel on a royal scale, as reflective of past empires as present.