Rabih Alameddine is a Lebanese author who lives in San Francisco. His previous works, such as The Perv and Koolaids: The Art of War, focused on the AIDS epidemic that ravaged the gay community in San Francisco during the 1980s and the experience of Lebanese living in America, displaced from the civil war in their home country. His latest novel, The Hakawati, relates the story of multiple generations of a Lebanese family. The novel employs an intricate structure that shifts between stories set in modern-day Lebanon, civil-war era Beirut and traditional Arab legends.
NOW Lebanon: Your book retells many traditional legends, such as stories from the 1001 Nights. Was there much research you had to do before beginning to write?
Rabih Alameddine: Yes, but it depends on what you mean by research. I read a great deal, from Ovid, to Homer to Shakespeare. I was very interested in how people tell stories.
NOW: How do the legends connect to the plotline in modern-day Beirut?
Alameddine: The themes. I was interested in writing about the family, and like in all families, there are certain things that are not said…. the stories illuminate what’s going on in the family...
It’s how you read the novel. I wanted to write a multi-layered novel where one could read many things into it. But at the same time, if one reads it only as all these wonderful stories, I’m fine with that as well. So even if you don’t get a direct link right away, maybe you will by the third or fourth read.
NOW: Let’s talk about one story in particular: “The Prince Baybars” story, which is a legend about a 13th century slave who defeats the Mongol invasion and the Crusaders, rising to become a Mamluk sultan. Why does this story still have relevance in 21st century Beirut?
Alameddine: …It is the same as a lot of other stories that the Arab culture tells itself, which is, basically: Once we were this great empire, and because of external forces, we were brought down and destroyed. But we were once the greatest culture of all, so that we may suck right now, but once we were the best. It gives hope to a lot of people to repeat this.
In Lebanon right now, the Lebanese can be killing each other, and they will always blame either Syria or Israel, or the United States, or Kissinger. You know, they’re still blaming Nixon! The Lebanese are killing each other, but it goes back to the same idea that there is an outside force that is intent on destroying us, and it’s not our fault.
I moved the story around a little bit to make it more contemporary and more interesting, because if I wrote a whole story about how everybody keeps screwing with us, that’s not really interesting. So I let them fight back.
NOW: Do you give credence to the idea that there are all these outside forces that have caused the ruin of the country?
Alameddine: Of course not. It’s unbelievable. There is nobody in Lebanon, practically nobody, who does not believe in conspiracy theories; that there is this little man out there, going from place to place, trying to get the world to [mess] with them.
I put the story in there because I think it is representative of how a lot of people think.
NOW: There’s a great deal of action, color and sex in the “legends” your book relates. And then, when one reads about modern-day Beirut... the mood seemed more subdued, even funereal. Was this intentional? Is this how you really see the city today?
Alameddine: Not necessarily. You have to remember that there was a specific need for it to be that way, because the father is dying. I wanted a movement from generation to generation, so that the older generation has practically, by the time the novel opens, died out. I wanted a changing of the guard, and that’s a very depressing period.
But also… I see Beirut right now as a little bit of a dying culture in some ways. But I also see the United States as partly a dying culture...
NOW: Why is that?
Alameddine: In Lebanon, it’s about being comatose. It’s walking around not knowing; they prefer not to know what’s going on and not to see what’s going on. And in the US, it’s the same thing. It’s the last gasp of a dying empire.
It’s still a great time to live in either one of these places, and life can still go on. But if you look closely, there is no capacity in those places to look inward, or outward in the case of United States.
NOW: The Hakawati is your first book where most of the plot takes place in Lebanon, rather than the United States. Did writing about Lebanon present any unique challenges for you?
Alameddine: I don’t know if there are any unique challenges… There are always events that happen in Lebanon in all my books. So it’s certainly not new to me.
I never considered myself an American writer writing about Lebanon, or a Lebanese
writer writing about the United States. I’m just a writer, writing about certain places and certain things. I guess one of the biggest challenges is figuring out the fragmentation of Lebanese society and avoiding writing about what I don’t know…
NOW: Your book is being read by many Americans and Europeans who have only a passing knowledge of Lebanon. How did you want to portray your home country for those learning about it for the first time?
Alameddine: Actually, I don’t really care. I never cared about that. I don’t represent Lebanon, and nobody voted me the explainer of Lebanon. I actually don’t particularly write for an American audience. I write. I write about what I’m interested in. I rarely worry about who’s reading me. Usually, it’s my editors who do that. But I never worried about how it is being perceived.
I know that for a lot of people, if they read my book, it will be their first immersion into an aspect of Middle East culture. They may assume that this is Lebanese culture, but it isn’t...
So anybody who assumes that my version of Lebanon is representative of Lebanon, that’s their issue. I cannot sit down and think, “Oh, I’m going to write something that will explain Lebanon to an American.” That would make the book a little too boring.
NOW: What was sexuality’s role in the novel?
Alameddine: I think that sexuality is a part of life. I can’t understand writing a book without it. There is always the assumption that Arabs don’t have sex. It’s astounding to me. This is a story about a family, and they have sex; many of them do. I am constantly surprised at people who find it shocking.
Everyone seems to forget that a lot of the best Arab literature is sexual literature. The One Thousand and One Nights is extremely sexual in the original, the uncensored one; the stories are practically all about sex.
NOW: There are a few muted references to the narrator being gay. What role do you think that plays in the story?
Alameddine: Actually, I did not intend the narrator to be heterosexual or homosexual. I tried to keep it open to different interpretations, because if I had made it clear one way or another, it could have affected how people looked at the book. There are a lot of homosexual references, but it’s rarely about the narrator. Whether I treat him as homosexual or not depends on the mood of the day. He’s not very sexual, and he gets sublimated into all of these sexual stories.
He is very passive, and there is a reason for that. He is much more of a watcher, and that’s what makes for a great storyteller, those who are usually the people who watch rather than the people who participate. I wanted a narrator who’s ill-defined in some ways. You don’t know what his relationships are, he doesn’t really have relationships. He’s a computer programmer. Whether he’s gay or straight is left in the open. You know his family adores him.