TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Young and old have staked out a spot in front of the television as September rings in a fresh batch of series – from the fifth season of “90210” to a new round of “Arabs Got Talent.”
But long before there were drama series to keep couch potatoes hooked each evening, there was the hakawati – a storyteller who told nightly tales, leaving the audience with a cliff-hanger guaranteed to bring them back for the next turn in the plot.
In Lebanon’s northern capital of Tripoli, Nazih Kamareddin claims he is one of the remaining hakawatis in the country and carries on the ancient art of long-form storytelling. It’s a tradition that began thousands of years ago in the coffeehouse, the social gathering spot for friends and family – and particularly male camaraderie – in the Middle East and North Africa.
Wearing traditional Ottoman garb, Kamareddin – often referred to by his fans simply as the hakawati – tells the tale of Antarah and Abla, based on the life experience of the pre-Islamic poet Antarah ibn Shaddad (A.D. 525-608), the son of a black slave from the Arabian Desert who is forced to meet a series of challenges to win the approval of his love Abla’s father.
The long poem, which takes the hakawati an entire month to perform, has stood the test of time with its values of chivalry, heroism and of course the age-old battle for love.
Kamareddin loves the story, one of the main reasons he became hooked on hakawati performances as a young man 30 years ago, after his drama teacher in his hometown of Tripoli cast him in the starring role as the storyteller for a Ramadan performance depicting a traditional old scene at a coffee shop.
Tripoli, an old Arab city full of Mamluk architecture where men stay up to the late hours playing backgammon, smoking nargileh and chatting with friends, serves as the perfect backdrop for hakawati performances, which bring spectators back to their roots with a classic Arab tale of love, fighting and courage.
Kamareddin’s clear voice, animated gestures and love of storytelling made him a natural to work as a hakawati, something he says hadn’t been done in Lebanon since 1955 and a tradition he was excited about reviving.
“I was interested in the story I told, and that made people interested,” he says. “ Antarah loses and almost dies so many times just to see his love.”
By now, the veteran storyteller has told the ancient tale so many times that he has the whole thing memorized – all 30 days of it, an unusual feat these days but not so in the heyday of the hakawatis, when such poems were passed orally from one generation to the next. But that hasn’t stopped him from doing his own modern-day improvisations for the amusement of his loyal audience. At one point, as he’s describing the agony of Antara in the Arabian Desert, he picks up his mobile phone and dials a number.
“The number you are trying to reach is either disconnected or is no longer in service,” he tells the disappointed audience, which comes back each day to root for the protagonist and see what he’ll do next.
“Life can be hard in the desert, and sometimes you don’t get reception,” Kamareddin jokingly says of the modern element he has added to the old tale.
But while for many people reminders of centuries gone by are a nice treat now and then, for Kamareddin the thought that he is Lebanon’s last hakawati and one of only a handful remaining in the Arab world – including one in Syria and another in Morocco – is a serious cause for concern.
“Who will replace me?” he wonders out loud with a tone of pride but also fear over the potential loss of the art he has been practicing all of his adult life. He says he has heard of other hopeful hakawatis, but all had quickly failed. He can’t say for sure why this has happened, but he does say the main requirement for being a successful hakawati is having a great love for old Arab tales and storytelling – perhaps something that requires too much patience these days.
“People don’t read love stories anymore in the technology age,” he said.
He says the one time when his craft is most appreciated is during the month of Ramadan, when appreciation for Arab heritage and traditions is particularly high.
And though there’s still competition from TV series during that time, Kamareddin is glad that for at least one month each year there’s a chance for him to make a splash with his storytelling. In fact, this summer was the first time he performed in Beirut.
After his performance, audience members, many of them children, lined up to get their pictures taken with him. He hopes at least one of them will be left with a spark to carry on the ancient art of Arab storytelling.