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The Storyteller

by Rabih Alameddine

Al-Mutanabbi, the greatest of all poets, wrote all his poems down on large rolls of papyrus and set out for Baghdad. He knew he was a genius and was obsessed with his immortality. Few put anything down on paper in those days. All poems were memorised, all stories, even the Koran...

‘The sight of eight laden camels crossing the desert attracted the attention of brigands, who killed the poet and his son.
"What happened to the manuscripts?" asked my mother.
"Funny you should ask. Al-Mutanabbi was of course a penniless poet."
"Is there any other kind?" My mother clapped her hands once and laughed.
"They unloaded the camels and discarded the valueless poetry, but, as it happened, one of the nasty brigands had an unexplored sensitive nature."
"And he just happened to be able to read?"
"Of course. He read and was entranced and bewitched. He repacked all the poems and kept them for years, had them copied and distributed. One would hope he was able to repack all the poems without losing any to the harsh desert winds."
"But what if he wasn't able to," my mother said, "and some of the papyrus blew away?"
"Imagine. Poetry still hovering over the skies of Baghdad."
"Or buried under the desert sands," my mother said. "Someone drills a well in Iraq, and out gushes poetry instead of oil."
"But will the discoverers understand Arabic, or appreciate poetry, for that matter?"
"Al-Mutanabbi's problem to begin with."’

This novel is, for me, the book of the year. For lovers of myth and legend it is a treat beyond compare and for hardnosed historians it holds immeasurable interest as a chronicle of modern times. Rabih Alameddine describes the Lebanon that he knew as a child in his uniquely beautiful prose. He is the storyteller, the hakawati.

Lebanon was a country at peace with its wide ethnic mix of Africans, Uzbeckis, Jews, Christians, Arabs, Druze, Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Persians, Palestinians, French, British and other Europeans all living as neighbours in streets vivid and fragrant with flowers and shrubs. When war and destruction came it was as if at the hand of a capricious child. The story is about a lively, affectionate and sophisticated Lebanese family, and it is interleaved with myths and legends which, with poetry, was the very life of Beirut.

In 1975 the war, or ‘skirmishes’ as everyone called it then, began. The Lebanese foolishly assumed that the trouble wouldn't last long and, as the narcissi, roses, hyacinths, violets and thyme flowered, no one realized how quickly all would be lost - house, home and business, and the family scattered all over the world. Only marriages and death would reunite them, for no Lebanese is allowed to marry or die unless he is surrounded by his entire extended family, all his in-laws, his friends, and most of his acquaintances.

It is possible that poetry still hovers over the skies of Baghdad or is buried under the desert sands. Someone drills a well in Iraq and out gushes poetry instead of oil. But will the discoverers understand Arabic, or appreciate poetry, for that matter? Al-Mutanabbi's problem to begin with.

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