Story telling has been a common feature of Levantine society since time immemorial, and what’s more, these Hakawatis around still very much around.
Read Time: 2 Min
A single thread united Arab societies stretching from Egypt to Syria, passing by Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon.
That thread was more mesmerizing than the Mediterranean Sea, and more cherished than olive oil. That thread was storytelling, artfully delivered by Al Hakawati, the teller of tales who captivated imaginations of young and old alike on long winter nights and hot summer evenings.
Hakawati Figurine, Syria
In popular cafés and village squares, people of all ages and social class would gather around the Hakawati to listen to folk stories, fables, and improvised legends. Seated on a lofty chair, the Hakawati had as much power over their adventure-hungry audience, as Scheherazade had on King Shahryar.
At the center of each story was a hero or heroine who typically would overcome great adversity powered by such impressive virtues as courage, generosity, and perseverance. A role model to all!
Hakawatis were often pressured to deliver a story in a single setting, yet the most hardened ones would spin their tales over several nights. It is said that in Aleppo in the eighteenth century, the great Hakawati Ahmad al-Saidawi told the story of King Baybars over three hundred and seventy-two evenings, and had to bring it to a conclusion only after the Ottoman governor begged him to finish.
Today, the stories told by Hakawatis are still passed from generation to generation in the Levant, where the flat screens of televisions and computers do not replace the geniality of live interaction. Grandparents and school teachers still narrate to children the epics of Antar and Abla, the Princess of High Resolve, and Layla and Majnun, to name a few. While these tales have historic events at their base, they have been re-imagined and enriched by a long lineage of inventive Hakawatis. Their stories live with us to this day, and still shape our culture and collective memory.