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Best Beach Reads: 'The Hakawati'

Mona Eltahawy

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: If lower gas prices help send more of you to the beach this summer, we've got some books you might want to take along. Our summer series Marketplace Beach Reads is back this week with recommendations from some of our commentators.

Today we take you into the world of Arab storytelling. Mona Eltahawy says it's a place where tradition and modern life blend in unusual ways.


Mona Eltahawy: "Allow me to be your god," writes Rabih Alameddine in "The Hakawati". "Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story".

And what a fabulous story it is. Dozens of stories in fact. Like Middle Eastern Babushka dolls, each story in "The Hakawati" contains another within it.

Here are characters who love, do business and suffer, centuries ago and in the modern Middle East. In the modern age, there's Osama al-Kharrat. He's a Lebanese tech who returns home to Beirut from L.A. to stand vigil at his father's deathbed. Osama's grandfather is "The Hakawati," or storyteller, of the title. He made a living out of spinning yarns.

The hakawati was a primary form of entertainment in the Arab world for centuries. He'd captivate audiences in coffee shops and the courts of rich and famous with tales that often took weeks to tell. Radio eventually killed the hakawati and now in place of his stories are television channels from across the globe beamed into those same coffee shops via satellite.

Alameddine brings the hakawati back to life by telling his grandfather's tales, but ultimately by being our hakawati who captivates us with rich prose, weaving the ancient into the modern, the local with the global.

From his grandfather, Osama learns that we tell stories to soothe troubled hearts and to make sense of pain and also the importance of that ultimate of modern business techniques: networking. Contacts his grandfather cultivated as an apprentice in the pigeon business loan Osama's family money to help them open Beirut's first car dealership under the family name al-Kharrat, which means "fibster."

"The Lebanese lacked a sense of irony," says Osama, in just one of the novel's many delicious instances of humor. "No one thought it strange that a car dealership and the family that ran it had a name that meant "teller of tall tales."

Alameddine tells his stories to keep alive an Arab world very few in this country see, one full of humor, music, romance and boisterous family ties. "The Hakawati" is testament to the healing power of stories, but even more importantly, their ability to humanize.


Ryssdal: Mona Eltahawy is a syndicated columnist. She lives in New York City.

Listener Gary Pearson of Cedar Park, Tennessee, recommended this to us: "Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises" by Charles Kindleberger. Nothing in there on subprimes, sad to say, but you will learn about the great Tulip Bubble of 1636.

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