Dear Rabih

Anonymous's picture

Storytelling originated, in the east and the west, from a strong tradition of oral culture. Where do you see your novel fitting into this oral culture? When and how did you decide on the format of the book, that is that it would be told from the mouth of this Hakawati?

gregoryknapp's picture

On Titlepage you were

On Titlepage you were adamant that as a writer you do not presume to, and cannot, represent Arab culture or even Lebanese culture.

However, on the show Simon Winchester gently suggested that you could not avoid this fate being thrust upon you by your readers.And indeed, the rave review in The New York Times Book Review was subtitled “A novelist builds a bridge to the Arab soul . . . ” Likewise, a glowing review in The Seattle Times called your book “a sweeping tale of Arab culture and family.”

Thus, it seems that you cannot escape this burden, even at the hands of your admirers. Given your feelings on this issue, how do you think about this sort of reaction to your book? 

Rabih's picture

Dear Kevin, Thank you for

Dear Kevin,

Thank you for your question, and thank you for beating Greg by asking the first one.

Obviously since my novel is written, it isn’t exactly part of oral culture. I tried to include certain oral storytelling techniques, but while editing, I removed most. They didn’t work in a novel (a simple example would be calling Baybars “our boy” or “this here our boy” which in oral storytelling is a way of pulling a listener into the story and making Baybars more sympathetic as one of us—it didn’t work in a novel!)

I would say that my novel talks about oral culture, is inspired by it, but I’m not sure where it fits.
When did I decide on the format of the book? I know the exact date in 2004. I know it because I still have an email from my agent from that period. A variation of this question was asked in an interview before and to save time, let me cut and paste my response (makes things easier, and makes me sound alert and verbose early in the morning):

The idea for The Hakawati had many beginnings, as is the case for many a novel, I presume. Which beginning would one consider to be the true one, the original?

Let’s see, in 1999 I wrote a long piece that was later trimmed and published as a short story in Zoetrope. That was chapter 10 from the novel—which goes back and forth between my main character Osama al-Kharrat’s visit to the UCLA campus as a teenager and his vigil at his father’s hospital bed years later—in a different form. I wrote a couple more stories, one successful, the other not. The latter ended up as a part of the book. I had begun to see the al-Kharrat family in my head. It still wasn’t a novel, so should these stories be considered the original idea? I was floundering, though. I had different novels in my head and none of them seemed to make much sense.

I was teaching in Beirut 2003—annus horribilis, as the Queen would say—when my father was dying in the hospital. I couldn’t follow through on any of the novels I had in my head, so I began to write something completely different: the first grandfather chapter. I can’t tell you why I did that; I hadn’t considered the subject before. I placed the man in Urfa because I had read a memoir based there. I discovered that Urfa was the birthplace of Abraham, so I began to reread Old Testament stories. Then I found out that the city was a hotbed of pigeon wars. Who knew?
Yet all this was simply material. I didn’t have a novel. I didn’t have a structure, and I had stories raging and clawing in my chest. I wanted to write about a family around a deathbed; I wanted to write a novel about parents and offspring; I wanted to write a novel about the grandfather and how a family begins, how it forms (Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac?); I wanted to tell stories. (I’d been wanting to write a story referencing the descent of Inana for about 15 years.)

It was a year later, in 2004, that it finally occurred to me that it was one novel, that everything fit together because the grandfather was a hakawati, and so was the entire family. Once I had that, I had the structure. I had my novel.

Rabih's picture

Dear Greg, How are you this

Dear Greg,

How are you this morning? I hope you didn't get up too early.

To answer your question: I still am adamant. I do not presume to, and can’t, represent Arab culture or Lebanese culture. The idea that I can seems preposterous to me. Simon’s suggestion might be true. I may or may not be able to ‘avoid this fate being thrust upon’ me by readers. I don’t have that much control over that. The issue is about a writer’s intent, in this case, my intent. If I entertain the idea that I represent Arab culture, which presumes a conceit and arrogance on my part, it will affect my work. At best a book written by a ‘cultural representative’ is didactic and dull, most of the time it’s crap.

Whether my novel is a bridge to the Arab soul or not, it wasn’t my intention that it be so. If readers see a sweeping tale of Arab culture, I’m not complaining, at least not vociferously (specially if a lot of people see that sweeping tale after buying a lot of books, a lot of my books, I wouldn’t complain, no, I wouldn’t.) I wouldn’t call it a burden. I simply do not wish to go down that road.

Of course, another discussion would be the assumption that the reader is someone who needs a bridge. It seems that everyone thinks that the reader is an American who will know nothing about Arabs or Bosnians or Chinese, her world enclosed by an alligator infested mote that needs a bridge. What about Arab readers? What do they see?

gregoryknapp's picture

Even in the face of death

Even in the face of death you are cheered by the act of story telling.

You say about a character in your book: “Though the father is dying, his stories are alive. . . . No matter what’s going to happen, the stories themselves will live on, and whether we as people live on through the stories we’ve told, or that we make these stories alive, is something that I’m fascinated with.”

By its nature your book encapsulates the history of storytelling: from oral tradition to the printed book. Do you think the digital age will be able to adapt to and sustain the age old narrative tradition you describe, and that you value so highly – to the point that you suggest that narrative can overcome death itself?

Alia's picture

Dear Rabih, Going by your

Dear Rabih,

Going by your last comment about Arab readers, do you think that if you had written the book in Arabic rather than English, the result would have been a significantly different novel? In other words, did the language you chose to write in change the story? And will you do the translation into Arabic? Thank you, Alia

Rabih's picture

Dear Greg, That was a quick

Dear Greg,

That was a quick turnaround for a question. Do your employers know you spend your time online asking questions of silly writers? I guess that's better than playing Sudoku.

I seem to use the word ‘fascinated’ quite a bit when I speak. I need to watch that. Practice: intrigued, captured, enamored.

After the printed book? I don’t know. The Hakawati is being sold as an electronic book. I don’t know what it’s like to read one that way. I tried listening to a book on CD once; It was a jarring experience. I’m a book person. It’s difficult to see anything beyond a book.

Do I think the digital age will be able to sustain the old forms of storytelling? Hope so. I love the idea of podcasts. My knowledge of digital technology is very limited, and I’m not sure I’m in a position to answer such a question. What I do hope is that someday, I can sit in my San Francisco apartment and listen to a live streaming of a hakawati in Isfahan, in Karbala, in Goa, translated, of course. Or better yet, I can watch a hakawati on my laptop. Years ago, I saw a magnificent Korean movie, its name eludes me, that had a storyteller on stage telling a story to an audience, and as he tells it, the epic comes to life on the screen. I wish I can remember the name of the movie. Something like that online would be miraculous.

In any case, the possibilities are endless. Will it preserve the old traditions? I don’t know. My book didn’t really do so. It created something new. What will come forward is something new, possibly an amalgam. Hopefully, it will be great.

Rabih's picture

Alia, What a lovely name.


What a lovely name. The narrator of my next novel is called Alia. Of course, in eight years or so, by the time I'm done it could be Mezzanine, Shateefah, or Sudoku. But for now it has to be Alia, referencing its meaning of course.

These is no doubt that the language I chose to write in determined what kind of novel it was. It would have been significantly different had I written it, or attempted to, in Arabic. Actually, when I am thinking in English, I am a different person than when I am thinking in Arabic.

I will not do the translation in Arabic. I’m not that skilled. My first book was translated into Arabic (but not published) and I hated the translation. I can tell what works and what doesn’t, but I can’t write a better one. I can speak Arabic, and I can read it, but writing it, and writing well, is an altogether different proposition.

Odile's picture

Rabih,Nam Le referred in the


Nam Le referred in the course of the TP episode to Kazuo Ishiguro saying that he now wrote for a global audience. Nam Le stated being shocked at first...but then added that shortly after he realized how "obvious" that statement was.

At the risk of bringing this "label issue" back to the table I am wondering if that appeals to you as an "identity". I am always amazed by the fact that when I go to Brussels and chat with my sister about books we often end up having read the same ones even though our cultural environments appear/ and are in many ways so different.

gregoryknapp's picture

Following up on your answer

Following up on your answer to my question about the role you may have been given, against your will, as an interpreter of “the Arab soul.”

Both in your response here today, and on Titlepage, you spoke about the “writer’s intent.”

I understand your concern not to seem arrogant by being seen as trying to “represent Arab culture” in your work but, if I may reassure you at all, I don’t sense that anybody is charging you with that. The issue of arrogance certainly never occurred to me.

That said, and without getting into literary theory, how important do you think the “writer’s intent” is, once a book is written and published?

Believe me, I am not being flip. I realize that you have spent years working on this book, and it is your creation. But what is your view of what happens to your creation when it goes out into the world?

GK's picture

Hello Alameddine -- You

Hello Alameddine --

You write in allegorical manner similar to Panchatantra. As you know, Panchatantra (in Sanskrit) is a collection of stories which employs animals as vehicles for furthering the story teller's objective. And the story teller's objective was almost always to convey a moral -- prescription of a certain behavior or attitude. Since these fables were composed to instruct the powerful and the mighty, they were a bit disguised but nevertheless clear.

So my question is: do you consciously have a goal in your mind? do you want to mainly entertain or describe without any values attached to the description or hopefully, lead the readers to a certain attitude and behavior? Of course, like life your intent -- if there was a conscious one at all -- is probably complex. Put it differently, do you begin your composition once you have identified a goal (e.g., reform the cruel king or in the modern context it may be remedy the evident injustice) or your composition largely begins with no such defined goal?

You are very eclectic -- I was not exposed to your writing till I was introduced to you through Titlepage. For a fellow who likes Eastern writers, I enjoy your writing. Thank you very much.


Rabih's picture

Odile, I remember Nam saying


I remember Nam saying that. Personally, I don't think I write for a global audience. I get asked who is my audience all the time and I have yet to be able to come up with a good answer, or a clever one, let alone a true one. I don't write for a real audience. When I'm writing, I'm usually having a confusing discussion with myself, with an imaginary me, the me who is yet to read me, a younger, more handsome me, but who still likes me.
I told you it was confusing.

I do know that I'm not writing for an American audience or a Lebanese audience. There are certain references in the novel that only a Lebanese would know, some that only an American would, others only a Portuguese, or someone who speaks the language, would.

Am I a global writer? I don't know. I can tell you that this morning, I'm a caffeine-less, nicotine-less writer, which means I'm a mess-of-a writer, but I'm a feeling-superior writer because I'm a stronger-than-any-addiction writer knowing full well that I will be a crashingandburning writer in probably less than an hour.

But please don't ask me if I represent a global culture!

Lina's picture

Dear Rabih In your first

Dear Rabih
In your first novel, Koolaids, you juxtaposed America's AIDS wards with the terrorist battlegrounds of Lebanon. That image was very powerful and has haunted me since - I'm wondering if you could talk a bit more about that choice, and whether with the developments on both fronts, you would still draw the same comparisons?

Kevin Longrie's picture

Rabih, Thank you so much for

Thank you so much for your response and a peek into your inbox.

Rabih's picture

Greg, The issue of arrogance


The issue of arrogance may have never occurred to you, but it occupies my thoughts. I do have a certain streak. I mean, I open my novel with “allow me to be your god.” But whether I am charged with it or not, the issue of arrogance has to be acknowledged. What kind of person can presume to speak for an entire people, a culture, a nation? I prefer to look at it this way: Tolstoy and Singer may have chronicled aspects of a certain culture, but they certainly didn’t represent that culture.

An interesting question as well is: What kind of person wants to speak for an entire culture?

Can we create a new word: Trumpish?

A writer’s intent is paramount while writing, not so much after a book is written or published. I still try to have a modicum of control of how my book is being perceived, how it is read—I can object to a romantic book cover, etc.—but for the most part, a reader will bring his own world into my book. I know I read other writer’s book my own way. Hell, I’ve had arguments with friends that I know what they meant to say in a certain passage they wrote more than they can. Any great book is actually a creation of the writer and the reader.

I have to learn to give up more control!

Rabih's picture

GK, Let me start by saying


Let me start by saying that the Panchatantra isn’t one of my favorites. It’s called Kalila and Dimna in the Arab World. I’m not that fond of it because it is supposed to convey moral tales, and the tales end up dull, and a bit puerile. I prefer A Thousand and One Night where the tales aren’t supposed to instruct but to save a life, many lives. The idea that a story can be so enchanting as to save lives is itself enchanting. I also love the Parrot Tales, which I wrote about in The Hakawati. A husband gives a parrot to his wife in order to keep her from straying and the parrot has to tell bewitching stories to the wife so she doesn’t leave the house. I’m terribly fond of Ovid whose intention was to simply dazzle!

I do have a goal in mind, many in fact, but none of them are about instructing or telling moral tales. My goals tend to be about writing something wonderful, about asking a reader to look at the world in a different way, about trying to figure out problems. I don’t usually start with a specific goal at least not consciously. They develop as the novel develops.

JMW's picture

Dear Rabih, I was wondering

Dear Rabih,

I was wondering about the packaging of your book, which I think is stunning. I believe there's an object on the cover that represents a symbol of luck -- I hope I'm not too far off. Could you explain what that is? And I assume you're happy with the jacket. Did you have a lot of say in it, or did the designers just come up with something you liked?

GK's picture

G.K. Kalyanaram Hello Rabih

G.K. Kalyanaram

Hello Rabih --

A quick follow-up if you have the time. I complete understand your taxonomy -- it is true that Panchatantra can at times be dull and even puerile because it is so very heavily organized for instruction. What do you think of the Aesop's fables? I suspect that your reaction would be similar to that of Panchatantra -- may be a bit less sharp. With thanks.


Dan's picture

Dear Rabih, Of all the story

Dear Rabih,
Of all the story lines you start, leave, and pick up again, which one did you return to with the most pleasure?

Rabih's picture

Lina, Thanks for having read


Thanks for having read Koolaids. You must be one of the twelve people who read the book.

Juxtaposing America’s AIDS wards with the battlegrounds of Lebanon was a straightforward choice (I hope I didn’t use the word terrorist then. We can thank the current administration for turning the word into a meaningless cliché). I was interested in comparing worlds in crisis. I tend to believe that we are most alive, if not only alive, in chaos. As humans we numb ourselves as much as we can, and I find that people under chaos, when one assumes it behooves them to continue in their coma, actually wake up.

With the developments, neither front is as chaotic anymore so it wouldn’t work. AIDS is no longer the crazy killer, and the Lebanese, while still crazy, aren’t killing each other any more than in other places!

Rabih's picture

JMW, I assume you mean


I assume you mean Fatima’s hand, which is a symbol of luck, or more precisely, a symbol to ward off evil. Most of the cultures in the Middle East use it, as well as some countries in Eastern Europe. Jews call it Mariam’s hand.

It’s on the cover because I created an imaginary story on how it came to be. The cover has many things that are in the book: the hand, the pigeons, the whorls of roses, the color blue.

I love the jacket. I had nothing to do with it. The designer came up with it on the first try.

gregoryknapp's picture

Dear Rabih: I am fascinated,

Dear Rabih:

I am fascinated, if I may borrow your expression, by your statement that you "tend to believe that we are most alive, if not only alive, in chaos."

This is a thought that has occurred to me, as well, and yet surely it is deeply problematic.

We don't want civil wars, or another Twin Towers-type event, even though they may in fact have the bizarre effect of making us feel "alive."

And this thought obviously also leads to the conclusion that peace (the opposite of chaos) leads to death.

Could you say more about this line of thought?

Rabih's picture

GK, I feel the same way


I feel the same way about Aesop's fables as I do about the Panchatantra. I hope my lack of fondness for them isn't coming across as sharp. They simply don't move me. On the other hand, take one of the stories that is supposed to be a moral tale the Bhagadavita. Some teller along the way must have forgotten that he's supposed to instruct and turned it into a most enjoyable tale. I think someone must have gotten gloriously lost in the tale while telling.

Alia's picture

Dear Rabih, When you talk

Dear Rabih,

When you talk about chaos being connected with feeling alive, that comes home with your other novel "I, the Divine," which aside from being a great protrait of the human side of the Lebanese civil war while not really being about the war (I am haunted to see this day by the main character and I could not sleep for a couple of night after reading it) is a great example of a woman numbing herself by escaping to a place where she can't feel the chaos or anything else, and you can't really blame her.

And I never thought about the meaning of Alia in terms of a narrator, but you're right. It is a good name for a narrator, so I hope you keep it!

Rabih's picture

Dan, That is a question that


That is a question that isn't easy to answer because there are lots of lines that I use, throw out, come back to, restructure, basically obsess about.

One of my favorite lines in the book is taken from a D.H. Lawrence line: Never trust the teller, trust the tale. (Lawrence said artist) It was also referred to in Susan Sontag’s essay, Against Interpretation. I’ve wanted to use that line forever and I created an entire scene and story only so that one of the characters would say that line.

Another line that I had wanted to use in a story I wrote over six years ago resurfaced in The Hakawati. Neither the line, nor the story, worked then. It did now: Reality never meets our wants, and adjusting both is why we tell stories.

But if I were forced to choose it would be the opening lines. I used something similar in one of the chapters of I, the Divine (they were all first chapters so I had to come up with many opening lines). But the idea for it is something that I’ve always had in my head—the idea that most novels should start with something like, “Listen. I have a great story to tell you. I was there. Here’s what I saw.” I have used variations of this a number of times.

jeane's picture

Dear Rabih, When I read "I,

Dear Rabih,
When I read "I, the Divine" I was altogether enthralled and frustrated by the structure. You asked me to "work" while I read. As soon as I was getting into the story line, I felt like I had to start from scratch again. But then I "got it"....and I really enjoyed it. I have not read The Hakawati yet, but I understand that the structure is quite particular again....full of stories, layers, stops and gos.
You said in the the show that the structure was obvious to you.
I am curious about that...?
Could you describe your process of writing a little bit and how / when the structure comes into play?

Rabih's picture

Greg,You said

Greg,You said ‘fascinated.’ Heh, heh, heh.Of course it’s deeply problematic. We prefer to think that peace is what we should all strive for.

Remember the overused Orson Wells line about cuckoo clocks and the Renaissance. Years ago, I used to meditate about three times a day. I had reached a high state of inner peace. I was content. I was so enlightened, I practically bored myself to death. Luckily, it was simply a phase of denial.

I’m now back to being unhappily neurotic. Yes, there is no doubt. Peace kills.

In Koolaids I wrote: "I wonder if being sane is disregarding the chaos that is life, pretending only an infinitesimal segment of it is reality."

Chaos demands something greater from us, so we avoid it like . . . chaos. We’d rather be comatose, pretending that who wins American Idol is important.

The Twin Towers made us feel alive for a while. We woke up, began to understand that we are part of a world, we actually had discussions about our place in it, how we are seen. We woke up and decided to bomb Afghanistan, shock and awe Iraq, and go back into coma to discuss really important stuff like Janet’s wardrobe malfunction.

Crisis awakens. What is awakened isn’t necessarily intelligent!

Rabih's picture

Alia, Thanks for your kind


Thanks for your kind words about I, the Divine, which is one of the top four favorite books of mine!

Alia is a great name for a narrator. Herbert used it for one of his characters in Dune. He used quite a few Arabic names and words. I'm using it in my novel because the narrator is a bit detached, a bit too intellectual, watches her world from a slight distance.

Rabih's picture

Jeanne, The structure of I,


The structure of I, the Divine was obvious to me before I started. It was the reason I started. I came up with the structure first, and the character of Sarah was based purely on what kind of woman would abandon so many chapters. The structure determined the story. But once I decided on the structure and initiated the story, Sarah gained a level of consistency and dimension that made her very real to me and, I hope, to those who read her story.

I set out to tell a complete story within a set of fragments. I was intrigued by this idea because it reflects the way I think and the way people experience life. Our lives are filled with events that form a continuous stream: we get up, go to bed, eat, work, talk to others, do all the daily things. And we sense a continuous self as agent in all those events. But when we remember, when we tell our stories, we remember only peaks and valleys, significant events that are only partially connected one to the other, and often out of order.

The Hakawati was very different, much more difficult to grasp. I can’t see a novel, a book, until I see its structure, and The Hakawati didn’t begin to coalesce till about four years into writing it (see my response to the first question). Once I understood that it was a novel about storytelling, telling and layering stories determined the structure and the framing tale.

Rabih's picture

Dan, I was just told that I


I was just told that I misread your question. I read it as my favorite lines. To answer which story line I loved getting back to: It was the Fatima story, particularly the imps. I totally loved the imps. When they first appeared, they were meant to be only markers as Fatima descended into the underworld, but I fell in love. I couldn't help bringing them back again and again until I finally understood their real place in the novel, just how imperative they were. Did I mention I love them?

Jeane's picture

Thank you! In the same vein,

Thank you!

In the same vein, I very much related to your idea that we - as individuals - are the product of stories we tell about ourselves; and so are cultures.

I wonder if it is not just the way we are built. We just can't remember everything, hence, we cling to -- to use your own terminology - the peaks and valleys, until they too start to disappear.

gregoryknapp's picture

Dear Rabih: I am completely

Dear Rabih:

I am completely ignorant of literary life in San Francisco -- you know, beyond City Lights.

Could you give us a brief sketch?

Dan's picture

So, Rabih, how

So, Rabih, how mischievous--and how sacrilegious--were you being when (as I recall) you named most if not all of your beloved imps after Old Testament figures of great significance?

Rabih's picture

Dan, I was being mischievous

I was being mischievous naming the imps, but then, as keepers of the gates, they couldn't be named anything else.
Sacrilegious? Can I plead the fifth?

Rabih's picture

Greg, The literary life in


The literary life in San Francisco is amazing. It begins and ends, and is defined, by the Thursday night bubble bath. It’s a communal thing. All the fabulous writers of the city get together, shed our clothes and weekly worries, jump into the large outdoor tub, and pass the bubbly. Spouses sit on the side and peel the grapes. And critics give foot massages.

What can I say? Literary life in San Francisco is the bomb.

Most of the writers I know in San Francisco sit at home and write. We worry whether we will finish a book, how to pay the rent, whether anyone will ever read us. I assume it’s the same everywhere. It’s a small city so we know each other for the most part, and are quite supportive. We go on with our lives and we’re very envious of New York writers because of their Friday night communal bubble bath and bubbly.

gregoryknapp's picture

Rabih: I know that you also


I know that you also are a painter.

Have you ever thought of illustrating one of your own novels, or are the two different artistic endeavors completely separate in your mind?

Dan's picture

Now I'm beginning to think

Now I'm beginning to think that in some ways the whole book is about deceptions--storytelling itself is in deep and significant a form of deception-- especially in view of how strongly Othman's character comes out.

Here is one more thing, though, that I meant to ask during the show. The whole book is filled with numbers--three, four and seven show up very often--as they often do in fairy tales--but others do too. What do you think is so compelling about these enumerations?

Rabih's picture

Greg, I have never wanted to


I have never wanted to illustrate one of my novels. I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’m not a good illustrator in any case, and my novels are not illustratable! I’m a big fan of illustrated works (Joe Sacco and Chris Ware are geniuses) but it would take a completely different approach. It would be more likely, not probable but more likely, that I would include photographs in a novel (Sebald’s The Emigrants or Sasha’s The Lazarus Project) than illustrations.

Rabih's picture

Dan, If you ask me, all


If you ask me, all novels are about deception—storytelling is deeply about deception—and that’s why picaresque novels are so great; picaresque in its original meaning, a novel about an engagingly roguish hero, a charming deceiver, a loveable criminal with a gold heart. Othman.

Numbers are inherently compelling. Many have offered various theories on numerology, mostly Freudian and Jungian. I can tell you that threes mean family (three bears, three palaces, tripods and Trinity) and fours represent complete relationships, and multiples of nines are death numbers or cycles, and so on. But most of the time, I find all that to be poppycock—fascinating, but for the most part delightful Campbellian poppycock. I was very conscious throughout of my use of numbers, but almost always, it was instinctive. There had to be three palaces, of silver, crystal, and clouds. It had to be three. I can’t honestly explain why though, not without giggling.

Siun's picture

Dear Rabih: I found this

Dear Rabih:

I found this discussion while forcing myself to pause in my reading of Hakawati - I do not want it to end and so am pacing myself. What a wonder it is.

I believe the Korean film you mentioned above is Chunhyang directed by Im Kwon-taek ( which is available from Facets Films and maybe Netflix, etc.

No questions from here - just completely entranced by Hakawati ... and insisting everyone I know buy a copy and devour it.

Thank you.