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Originally published Friday, May 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Hakawati" is a sweeping tale of Arab culture and family

"The Hakawati" by Rabih Alameddine is the modern-day story of Osama al-Kharrat and his family. Osama grows up in Beirut in the 1970s in a wealthy family only one generation removed from its less prosperous roots.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Rabih Alameddine

The author of "The Hakawati"

will read at 7:30 p.m. Friday

at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book

Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

"The Hakawati"

by Rabih Alameddine

Knopf, 528 pp., $25.95

Rabih Alameddine's intoxicating, ambitious, multi-layered new novel is a marvel of storytelling bravado, as it should be. In the Arab tradition, a hakawati is a sort of combination raconteur, poet and stand-up historian who should, almost literally, hold his audience captive — like Scheherazade herself, whose life hung in the balance as she spun out her tales over a thousand and one nights.

The framing narrative of "The Hakawati" is the modern-day story of Osama al-Kharrat and his family. Osama grows up in Beirut in the 1970s in a wealthy family only one generation removed from its less prosperous roots. His father's skill as a businessman — he builds an empire of car dealerships across the Middle East — stands in contrast to the al-Kharrat family's humble beginnings.

The history of this tight-knit family, populated by strong women and uniquely flawed and endearing men, becomes the foreground of the novel. Osama describes one of his many eccentric relatives: "Aunt Samia was nothing like the down-to-earth, austere, hardworking housewives I associated with the mountains. None of my aunts were. I always wondered when the transformation occurred. When did my aunts shed their dry mountain skins and evolve into shiny Beirutis, albeit rough around the edges? None of them had finished high school, and they didn't read books, so I assumed that money or location was the catalyst of the metamorphosis, but sometimes I wondered if it was just their singular personalities."

In the background, Beirut falls apart. Civil war reshapes the city and the country; Osama leaves Lebanon as a teenager to attend UCLA, where he remains after college. As the story begins, he returns to Beirut, where his father is slowly dying. He doesn't recognize the city he grew up in: "I was a tourist in a bizarre land. I was home."

Alameddine interweaves Osama's painful hospital vigil with classic Arab fables, re-imagined with wicked contemporary humor. The al-Kharrat story unfolds in parallel with the tale of Baybars the slave king and the saga of the shrewd, resourceful slave Fatima, who fights her way into and back out of the jaws of hell.

All the stories are thematically linked, with aching motifs of separation — children from parents, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers. Alameddine creates a compelling portrait of the underpinnings of Arab culture — riddled, like every culture, with contradictions.

"The Hakawati" is wonderfully bittersweet and complex, and the sweeping tales of Baybars and Fatima create a real resonance with the smaller human story of the maddening, irresistible al-Kharrats. But I think I will not be alone in wishing that the al-Kharrat story could have been weighted more heavily. Osama's existence in Los Angeles, where he spends almost all of his adult life, is only very superficially sketched, and the secret lives of some of the other characters remain tantalizingly underexplored.

On the other hand, early in the book, one of Osama's uncles gives him some good advice: "Never trust the teller," he says. "Trust the tale."

This tale left me wanting more — the true mark of a good storyteller.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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