Monday, 15 September 2008

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

Picador €23.60 (hardback)

OSAMA is the name of the narrator. It's a playful touch that brings you into Alameddine's Arabian Nights world.
A hakawati is a seanchaí. These traditional storytellers work Arab cafes, holding listeners spellbound with tricksy twists.
Osama has rushed from Los Angeles to his father's Beirut deathbed. As the family mourns and remembers, a series of stories about emirs and slaves and djinns plays itself out.
It's a device that works, kind of. The book is fat enough to have proved a potent weapon in any of the wars the family passes through - the Lebanese war, the Israel-Palestine one, various homelier conflicts.
In one running story, slave girl Fatima gets herself a djinn stalker who cuts off her hand, and she goes in search of this charmed hand.
(You know those familiar Irish door-knockers in the shape of a hand, by the way? They originated from the same charm - the Hand of Fatima.)
For the western reader - this one, anyway - it all gets confusing. I found myself whining "Where's the story", wanting just one tale rather than this plethora.
If you want to know all about the folk myth around the Koran, and how the Middle East thinks, though, you needn't look further than this wind-about tale.

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