The Hakawati

by Rabih Alameddine

Hardcover, 513 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25.95 | purchase

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Title
The Hakawati
Author
Rabih Alameddine

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Book Summary

Returning to Beirut after many years in America, Osama al-Kharrat finds a turbulent, war-torn city far different than that he remembers but takes solace in the entertaining stories of his grandfather.

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Excerpt: The Hakawati

Listen. Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.A long, long time ago, an emir lived in a distant land, in a beautiful city, a green city with many trees and exquisite gurgling fountains whose sound lulled the citizens to sleep at night. Now, the emir had everything, except for the one thing his heart desired, a son. He had wealth, earned and inherited. He had health and good teeth. He had status, charm, respect. His beautiful wife loved him. His clan looked up to him. He had a good pedicurist. Twenty years he had been married, twelve lovely girls, but no son. What to do?He called his vizier. “Wise vizier,” he said. “I need your help. My lovely wife has been unable to deliver me a son, as you know. Each of my twelve girls is more beautiful than the other. They have milk-white skin as smooth as the finest silk from China. The glistening pearls from the Arabian Gulf pale next to their eyes. The luster of their hair outshines the black dyes from the land of Sind. The oldest has seventeen poets singing her praises. My daughters have given me much pleasure, much to be proud of. Yet I yearn to see an offspring with a little penis run around my courtyard, a boy to carry my name and my honor, a future leader of our clan. I am at a loss. My wife says we should try once more, but I cannot put her through all this again for another girl. Tell me, what can I do to ensure a boy?” The vizier, for the thousandth upon thousandth time, suggested his master take a second wife. “Before it is too late, my lord. It is obvious that your wife will not produce a boy. We must find someone who will. My liege is the only man within these borders who has only one wife.”The emir had rejected the suggestion countless times, and that day would be no different. He looked wistfully out onto his garden. “I cannot marry another, my dear vizier. I am terribly in love with my wife. She can be ornery now and then, vain for sure, petulant and impetuous, silly at times, ill-disposed toward the help, even malicious and malevolent when angry, but still, she has always been the one for me.”“Then produce a son with one of your slaves. Fatima the Egyptian would be an excellent candidate. Her hips are more than adequate; her breasts have been measured. A tremendous nominee, if I may say so myself.”“But I have no wish to be with another.”“Sarah offered her Egyptian slave to her husband to produce a boy. If it was good enough for our prophet, it can be good enough for us.”That night, in their bedroom, the emir and his wife discussed their problem. His wife agreed with the vizier. “I know you want a son,” she said, “but I believe it has gone beyond your desires. The situation is dire. Our people talk. All wonder what will happen when you ascend to heaven. Who will lead our tribes? I believe some may wish to ask the question sooner.”“I will kill them,” the emir yelled. “I will destroy them. Who dares question how I choose to live my life?”“Settle down and be reasonable. You can have intercourse with Fatima until she conceives. She is pretty, available, and amenable. We can have our boy through her.”“But I do not think I can.”His wife smiled as she stood. “Worry not, husband. I will attend and I will do that thing you enjoy. I will call Fatima and we can inform her of what we want. We will set an appointment for Wednesday night, a full moon.”When Fatima was told of their intentions, she did not hesitate. “I am always at your service,” she said. “However, if the emir wishes to have a son with his own wife, there is another way. In my hometown of Alexandria, I know of a woman whose powers are unmatched. She is directly descended, female line, from Ankhara herself, Cleopatra’s healer and keeper of the asps. If she is given a lock of my mistress’s hair, she will be able to see why my mistress has not produced a boy and will give out the appropriate remedy. She never fails.” “But that is astounding,” the emir exclaimed. “You are heaven sent, my dear Fatima. We must fetch this healer right away.”Fatima shook her head. “Oh, no, my lord. A healer can never leave her home. It is where her magic comes from. She would be helpless and useless if she were uprooted. A healer might travel, begin quests, but in the end, to come into her full powers, she can never stray too far from home. I can travel with a lock of my mistress’s hair and return with the remedy.”“Then go you must,” the emir’s wife said.The emir added, “And may God guide you and light your way.” *****I felt foreign to myself. Doubt, that blind mole, burrowed down my spine. I leaned back on the car, surveyed the neighborhood, felt the blood throb in the veins of my arms. I could hear a soft gurgling, but was unsure whether it came from a fountain or broken water pipe. There was once, a long time ago, a filigreed, marble fountain in the building’s lobby, but it had ceased to exist. Poof. I was a tourist in a bizarre land. I was home.There were not many people around. An old man sat dejectedly on a stool with a seat of interlocking softened twine. His white hair was naturally spiked, almost as if he had rested his hands on a static ball. He fit the place, one of the few neighborhoods in Beirut still wartorn. “This was our building,” I told him because I needed to say something. I nodded my head toward the lobby, cavernous, fountain-free, now perfectly open-air. I realized he wasn’t looking at me but at my car, my father’s black BMW sedan.The street had turned into a muddy pathway. The neighborhood was off the main roads. Few cars drove this street then; fewer now, it seemed. A cement mixer hobbled by. There were two buildings going up. The old ones were falling apart, with little hope of resuscitation. My building looked abandoned. I knew it wasn’t–squatters and refugees had made it their home since we left during the early stages of the civil war–but I didn’t see how anyone could live there now. Listen. I lived here twenty-six years ago. Across the street from our building, our old home, there used to be a large enclosed garden with a gate of intricate spears. It was no longer a garden, and it certainly wasn’t gated anymore. Shards of metal, twisted rubble, strips of tile, and broken glass were scattered across piles of dirt. A giant white rhododendron bloomed in the middle of the debris. Two begonias, one white and the other red, flourished in front of a recently erected three-story. That building looked odd: no crater, no bullet holes, no tree growing out of it. The begonias, glorious begonias, seemed to burst from every branch, no unopened buds. Burgeoning life, but subdued color. The red–the red was off. Paler than I would want. The reds of my Beirut, the home city I remember, were wilder, primary. The colors were better then, more vivid, more alive. A Syrian laborer walked by, trying to steer clear of the puddles under his feet, and his eyes avoided mine. February 2003, more than twelve years since the civil war ended, yet construction still lagged in the neighborhood. Most of Beirut had been rebuilt, but this plot remained damaged and decrepit. There was Mary in a lock box. A windowed box stood at the front of our building, locked in its own separate altar of cement and brick, topped with A-shaped slabs of Italian marble, a Catholic Joseph Cornell. Inside stood a benevolent Mary, a questioning St. Anthony, a coral rosary, three finger candles, stray dahlia and rose petals, and a picture of Santa Claus push-pinned to a white foam backboard. When did this peculiarity spring to life? Was the Virgin there when I was a boy?I shouldn’t have come here. I was supposed to pick Fatima up before going to the hospital to see my father but found myself driving to the old neighborhood as if I were in a toy truck being pulled by a willful child. I had planned this trip to Beirut to spend Eid al-Adha with my family and was shocked to find out that my father was hospitalized. Yet, I wasn’t with family, but was standing distracted and bewildered before my old home, dwelling in the past. A young woman in tight jeans and a skimpy white sweater walked out of our building. She carried notebooks and a textbook. I wanted to ask her which floor she and her family lived on. Obviously not the second; a fig tree had taken root on that one. That must have been Uncle Halim’s apartment. The family, my father and his siblings, owned the building and lived in five of its eleven apartments. My aunt Samia and her family lived in the sixth-floor penthouse. My father had one of the fourth-floor flats, and Uncle Jihad had the other. An apartment on the fifth belonged to Uncle Wajih, and Uncle Halim had one on the second floor–fig tree, I presumed. The apartment on the ground floor belonged to the concierge, whose son Elie, became a militia leader as a teenager and killed quite a few people during the civil war.Our car dealership, al-Kharrat Corporation, the family fountain of fortune, was walking distance from the building, on the main street. The Lebanese lacked a sense of irony. No one paid attention to the little things. No one thought it strange that a car dealership, and the family that ran it, had a name that meant exaggerator, teller of tall tales, liar.The girl strolled past, indifferently, seductively, her eyes hidden by cheap sunglasses. The old man sat up when the girl passed him. “Don’t you think your pants are too tight?” he asked.“Kiss my ass, Uncle,” she replied.He leaned forward. She kept going. “No one listens anymore,” he said quietly.I couldn’t tell you when last I had seen the neighborhood, but I could pinpoint the last day we lived there because we left in a flurry of bedlam, all atop each other, and that day my father proved to be a hero of sorts. February 1977, and the war that had been going on for almost two years had finally reached our neighborhood. Earlier, during those violent twenty-one months, the building’s underground garage, like its counterparts across the city, proved to be a more than adequate shelter. But then militias began to set up camp much too close. The family, those of us who hadn’t left already, had to find safety in the mountains. My mother, who always took charge in emergencies, divided us into four cars: I was in her car, my sister in my father’s, Uncle Halim and two of his daughters with Uncle Jihad, and Uncle Halim’s wife, Aunt Nazek drove her car with her third daughter May. The belongings of three households were shoved into the cars. We drove separately, five minutes apart, so that we wouldn’t be in a convoy and get annihilated by a stray missile or an intentional bomb. The regathering point was a church just ten minutes up the mountain from Beirut. My mother and I reached it first. Even though I’d gotten somewhat inured to the sounds of shelling, by the time we stopped my seat was sopping. Within a few minutes, as if announcing Uncle Jihad’s arrival, Beirut exploded into a raging cacophony once more. We watched the insanity below us and waited warily for the other two cars. My mother was strangling the steering wheel. My father arrived next, and since he was supposed to be the last to leave, it meant that Aunt Nazek didn’t make it somehow.My father didn’t get out of his car, didn’t talk to us. He kicked my sister out, turned the car around, and drove downhill into the lunacy. Aghast and eyes ablaze, my sister stood on the curb, watched him disappear into the fires of Beirut. My mother wanted to follow him, but I was in her car. She yelled at me. “Get out. I need to go after him. I’m the better driver.” I was too paralyzed to move. Then my sister got into the car next to me, and it was too late to follow. We were lucky. Aunt Nazek’s car had died as soon as it hit the first hill. Always a good citizen, she parked the car on the side even though there were no other cars on the road. My father had driven past and hadn’t noticed. He found them, and my cousin May jumped into his car, but he had to wait for Aunt Nazek as she tried to remember where she put all her valuables. He returned them to us safely, and while driving back, a bomb fell about fifty meters away from them and a metal shrapnel hit the car’s windshield and got stuck there. No one was hurt, though both Aunt Nazek and May lost their voices for a while, having shrieked their throats dry. My cousin May said that my father shrieked as well when the shrapnel hit, an operatic high note. However, both my father and Aunt Nazek deny that. “He was a hero,” my aunt would say. “A real life hero.” “It wasn’t heroic,” my father would say, “but cowardly. I’d have been too afraid to show my face to my brother if I hadn’t gone back after his wife.”That day was twenty-six years ago.Fatima was waiting outside her building, which was covered head to toe in black marble, one of the newer effronteries that have risen in modern Beirut. As if to compensate for the few neighborhoods that had not been upgraded since the war, Beirut dressed itself in new concrete. All over the city, upscale highrises were being built in every corner, nouveau riche and bétonné.“Sorry I’m late,” I said, grinning. I could usually predict her reaction since she was an old friend and confidante. I was about to get a pretend tonguelashing no matter what I said. “Get out of the goddamn car.” She didn’t move to the passenger side, stood with arms akimbo, her blue-green purse dangling from her wrist almost to her knees. She was dressed to dazzle, everything about her flashed, and the ring on her left hand screamed–a hexagonal mother of an emerald surrounded by her six offspring. “You haven’t seen me in four months, and this is how you greet me?” I got out of the car and she smothered me, covered me in her perfume and kisses. “Much better,” she added. “Now let’s get going.” At the first sign of traffic, she slid open the visor mirror and interviewed her face. “You have to help me with Lina.” Her words sounded odd, her mouth distorted as she redecorated her lips’ outline. “She’s spending the nights sleeping on the chair in his room. As ever, your sister won’t listen to reason. I want to relieve her, but she won’t let me.”I didn’t reply and I doubted that she expected me to. Both of us understood that my father wouldn’t allow anyone other than my sister to take care of him and was terrified of spending a night by himself. He had nightmares about dying alone and uncared for in a hospital room.“When we arrive,” she said, “kiss everybody and go directly to his room. I don’t think there will be a lot of people, but don’t allow the rest of the family to delay you. I’ll stay with the visitors, not you. He’ll be offended if you don’t rush in to see him.”“You don’t have to tell me, my dear,” I said. “He’s my father, not yours.” *****Fatima left the green city in a small caravan with a retinue of five of the emir’s bravest soldiers and Jawad, one of the stable boys. She understood the need for Jawad–the horses and camels had to be cared for–but she wondered whether the soldiers would be of any use. “Do you not think we need protection?” Jawad asked as they started their journey.“I do not,” she said. “I can deal with a few brigands, and if we are attacked by a large band, five men will be of no use anyway. On the contrary, their presence may be a magnet for that large group of bandits.” She felt the emir’s fifty gold dinars she had hidden in her bosom. “If it were just you and me, we would invite much less attention. Well, nothing we can do now. We are in the hand of God.”On the fourth evening, in the middle of the Sinai Desert, before the sun had completely set, the party was attacked just as Fatima had predicted. Twenty Bedouins dispatched the city soldiers. Finding little of value among the belongings, the captors decided to divide the spoils evenly. Ten would have Fatima and ten would get to use Jawad. Fatima laughed. “Are you men or boys?” She stepped forward, leaving a visibly nervous Jawad behind. “You have a chance to receive pleasure from me and you choose this stripling?”“Be quiet, woman,” said the leader. “We must divide you evenly. We cannot risk a fight over the booty. Be thankful. You would not be able to deal with more than ten of us.”Fatima laughed and turned back to Jawad. “These desert rats have not heard of me.” She took off her headdress; her abundant black hair tumbled around her face. “These children of the barren lands have not sung my tales.” She unhooked the chain of gold coins encircling her forehead. “They believe that twenty infants would be too much for me.” She took off her abayeh showing her seductress figure, stood before the Bedouins in her dress of blue silk and gold. “Behold,” she said. “I am Fatima, charmer of men, bewitcher of the heavens. Look how the moon calls his clouds; see how he crawls behind his curtains; watch him hide in shame, for he refuses to reveal himself when I show my face. You think you peons will be too much for me, Fatima?” She raised her hands to the vanishing moon. “Think whether twenty of you would satisfy me, Fatima, tamer of Afreet-Jehanam.” She glared at the men. “Tremble.”“Afreet-Jehanam?” the leader cried. “You conquered the mighty jinni?”“Afreet-Jehanam is my lover. He is no more than my plaything. He does my bidding.”“I want her. I refuse to have the boy. We have to redivide the spoils. This will not do.”“No,” the leader said. “We cannot have everyone get what they want. That is not the Arab way. It has already been decided.”“I want the woman as well,” cried another man. “You cannot keep her to yourself and give us this waif of a boy.”An argument ensued. Everyone wanted Fatima, except for one man, Khayal, who kept insisting, “I really want the boy,” to anyone who would listen. But no one listened. The nine men who wanted Fatima instead of the boy grew livid. Rules or no rules, they had been cheated. They had no idea Fatima was so talented. They had been deceived and wanted their appropriate share. The goods, as any idiot could see, had not been divided equally. Battle lines were drawn, swords unsheathed. Quickly, the ten killed the nine. “I think the boy is winsome,” said Khayal.Twenty lustful eyes stared at Fatima. “Now, now, boys,” she said coyly. “Was that really necessary?”“It is time, Sitt Fatima,” the leader said. “We are ready.”“Well, I am not. I must choose who goes first. The first lover is very important. He will help me set the stage for what is to come. Should I go with the one who has the biggest penis? I like that, but sometimes he who has the biggest is the worst lover, and that will force me to work harder. This should be amusement not labor. Which of you has the smallest penis? A man with a small member would be more eager to please me, but then, as hard as it is, it is not as satisfying. Choosing the first lover should not be taken lightly. I have much to consider.”The leader huffed and puffed. “There is nothing to consider. I go first. I am the best lover and the rest can take turns after I am sated.”“You are not the best lover,” another brigand said. “If you were, your wife would not be leaving her house in the middle of the night.” Those were the last words that man uttered. The leader unsheathed his sword once more and cut off his head. “You should not have killed him,” another cried. “It is not right that you go first. We should let Sitt Fatima decide. She is the expert, not you. She should decide on the order. Since I have the biggest penis, I believe I should go first.”“You do not have the biggest,” argued another. “I do.” He lifted his desert robe. “Look here, Sitt Fatima. I have the biggest, and I promise you I am not a bad lover. You must pick me.”“Put that tiny thing away,” the leader said. “I am the leader and I go first.”“It is thickness that matters, not length.”“I still want the boy. I just want the boy.”“Your member is no bigger than a thimble.”“You take that back. Admit that mine is bigger than yours or prepare to die.”And the men fought till death. The leader was left standing–the leader and the boy lover, who had remained out of the fray. “The best of all men awaits you, your ladyship.” The leader puffed up like a pigeon. “Let us begin.”“Let us,” she said. “Undress and show me my prize.”“Come to me,” he said once he was nude. “Look. I really have the biggest one.”“No,” Fatima said. “Mine is bigger.” From under her dress, she took out her knife and cut his penis off and slit his throat. “Pack everything back into the caravan,” Fatima told Jawad. “We have some ways to go before we settle for the night. Gather these dead men’s horses. I will go through their things. We will leave this arid wilderness richer than we arrived.”“But what shall we do with this man?” Jawad gestured toward his admirer.“By your leave, I would like to invite the boy into my tent,” Khayal said.“The boy is neither captured nor a slave,” Fatima said. “Since he has free will, you must convince him, charm him into your tent. We have seven nights before we reach my home city, Alexandria. You have seven nights to seduce him. You may begin tomorrow.”And Fatima looked up at the sky and its stars and thanked the moon for his help.And Fatima, Jawad, Khayal, led their numerous horses, camels, and mules into the night.