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June 24, 2008

Book Notes - Rabih Alameddine ("The Hakawati")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Some of my favorite Book Notes essays have focused on world music (notably the entries by Laila Lalami and Jessica Abel), introducing me to fascinating artists and genres. I am not surprised that Rabih Alameddine's essay for his book The Hakawati features Arabic music that, once I tracked down the songs, made the perfect soundtrack to his novel.

The Hakawati is a big novel both in size and ambition, a collection of tales that weave themselves into an engrossing, beautifully written book. I was so enamored with the novel that I immediately ordered Alameddine's two other novels, I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters and Koolaids: The Art of War, as well as his short fiction collection The Perv, and plan to devour them as soon as they arrive in my mailbox.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Stunning . . . If any work of fiction might be powerful enough to transcend the mountain of polemic, historical inquiry, policy analysis and reportage that stands between the Western reader and the Arab soul, it’s this wonder of a book—a book not about a jihadi but a hakawati (Arabic for storyteller). . . ."

In his own words, here is Rabih Alameddine's Book Notes essay for his novel, The Hakawati:

I intended The Hakawati to have a distinctive rhythm. The hakawatis, the storytellers of yore, could keep a story going for months and months. Musicians from the area—the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa—have a similar sense of rhythm. In the novel, the narrator plays the oud, precursor to the modern-day guitar, and is enamored with maqams, the melodic systems that are the basis of all Arabic music. He also listens to the great Oum Kalthoum, who can enchant an audience for an entire evening with a simple song, building layer and layer of a single verse, turning a brick into an entire village.

The playlist I will present is the music that helped me prepare for the book (I don’t listen to music while writing; the music I like can never be background). The list has only two musicians, but my god, what musicians—arguably, the two greatest of the Arab world. Oum Kalthoum, the voice of the Arab people, is the more famous. Five million Egyptians attended her funeral in 1975. The second is Munir Bashir (1930-1997), the great Iraqi oud player, who single-handedly revived classical Arab music. Ironically, he was the son of an Assyrian father and a Kurdish mother.


*Enta Omri, by Oum Kalthoum

Like most of her great songs, Enta Omri (you are my life) was recorded a number of times. I tend to prefer the live recordings. She had a cold on the one that I have, and on it, her voice had a huskiness that still makes my soul shudder when I listen. If you play this, notice how the audience encourages her, entices her along. This version is 59 minutes and 19 seconds, not that long by her standards. This was the first time Mohammad Abdel Wahab composed a song for her. A classic by any standard.

*Baeed Annak, by Oum Kalthoum

This is a personal favorite. There might be better songs out there, but Baeed Annak (far from you) always struck a chord in my heart. I have a few versions, and my favorites are two concerts. She used to give a concert one Thursday a month and everyone camped around the radio to listen. The versions of this song average about 45 minutes; the one I listen to the most is 59:59!

*Improvisations on Iraqi Maqams, by Munir Bashir (from the Mesopotamia CD)

Just the man and his oud; there is no one better. His improvisation on simple themes is miraculous. Lower the lights, raise the volume, and listen. No need to buckle up, the ride is way smooth.

*Maqam Rast, by Munir Bashir (from the Maqamat CD)

One of my favorite maqams, as old as time itself, it seems. His taqsim (improvisation) on this maqam is as good as anything I’ve heard. There isn’t a jazz musician out there who has anything on this man.

*Maqam Rast, by Munir Bashir (from the Flamenco Roots CD)

Same maqam, different taqsim. Classical Arabic music relies heavily on improvisation. Whether it is Oum Kalthoum or Omar Bashir, neither can perform a song the same way twice. This version is shorter than the one above, and Bashir takes the melody down a different road.

*Flamenco Roots, by Munir Bashir (from the Flamenco Roots CD)

In this album/CD, Munir Bashir begins with a maqam and finishes with a flamenco flourish, and the journey from classical Arabic to Spanish music is wondrous.

*Maqamat Mukhalif, Awshar, Sigah, Saba, by Munir Bashir (from the Maqamat CD)

Four maqams in one. What more could one ask for?

Rabih Alameddine and The Hakawati links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's page at the publisher
an excerpt from the book

Boston Globe review
Dove's Eye View review
Entertainment Weekly review
Georgia Straight review
Leap in the Dark review
metroactive review
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel review
New York Observer
New York Times review
Old Musty Books review
Paste review
Publishers Weekly review
Rocky Mountain News
San Francisco Chronicle review
San Jose Mercury News review
Seattle Times review
Time Out Hong Kong review

All Things Considered profile of the author
Focus 580 interview with the author
Los Angeles Times article by the author
San Francisco Chronicle profile of the author
Writer's Voice interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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