The last Hakawati
"You will recall,
gentlemen, that yesterday, when we left the fighters, they had just
made an agrement with General Ma'ruf. They would put King Baybars to
the test, they had decided. Then they returned to tell the king's
squire, 'Uthman, who, when he heard this, declared, 'Strike me
blind! Clothe me and unclothe me! What will become of such
fighters?' - for he pretended the king would trounce them easily".
Using his own annotated manuscript text and a few costumes and
props, Abu Shadi breathes renewed life into the epics of Arab
literature, including the romance of Prince 'Antar, in a
neighborhood tradition that has enriched the performing arts
So our storyteller begins his evening's
narrative at the al-Nafurah Cafe. This month, he is recounting the
adventures of al-Zahir Rukn al-Din Baybars, most eminent of the
13th-century Mamluk sultans. The manuscript he holds in his hand is
an embellished tale based on Baybars's victory over the invading
Crusader armies more than 700 years ago. Baybars was said to be a
just ruler and a valiant fighter; as portrayed in this drama,
however, his heroic stature goes far beyond the historical evidence:
He regularly performs fantastic military feats in a wild adventure
laced with sorcery and roguery. His groom, 'Uthman, is half saint
and half pickpocket, dares to address his master simply as
"Soldier!" and plays sly tricks on his lord.
Most of the audience listening tonight
knows the historical facts well enough. They learned them long ago
from school texts and history books, and many have seen film
portrayals of Sultan Baybars. What attracts them to the al-Nafurah
Cafe is this unique dramatization, available only here at their
local coffee house, and only from the expert teller of these tales,
the hakawati, who brings them to life.
Al-hakawati is a Syrian term for
this poet, actor, comedian, historian and storyteller. Its root is
hikayah a fable or story, or haka, to tell a story;
wati implies expertise in a popular street-art. The hakawati is
neither a troubadour, who travels from place to place, nor a rawi,
whose recitations are more formalized and less freely interpreted.
The hakawati has popular counterparts in Egypt, where he is often
called sha'ir, or poet, and where he accompanies his tales on
a rababah, a simple stringed instrument. In Iraq he is known
as qisa khoun.
Here in Syria, the hakawati sits facing his audience, book in one
hand, cane in the other, sometimes reciting from memory, sometimes
interjecting poems, jokes and commentary, and sometimes reading the
text. And he always performs in a coffee house. In fact, the
hakawati is so closely identified with the cafe in which he performs
that some old-timers recall him simply by exclaiming, "Ah, 'ala
al-qahwah!" - "Ah, the cafe!"
But the hakawati's craft is a dying one,
and here at al-Nafurah can be found the single remaining regularly
performing hakawati in all of Damascus, and indeed, experts say, in
all of Syria.
Tonight, as usual, members of the audience
were quiet as they arrived, each nodding in recognition to the
proprietor before taking a seat. Most acknowledged other regulars,
too, and nodded to Abu Shadi, the hakawati.
There is no stage around which the
customers arrange themselves, no curtain, no props. Some men sit
against the wall, while others occupy seats near the kitchen,
apparently unconcerned that they have no view of the performance.
Leaning back in their chairs, they take up their waterpipes and draw
in the smoke. For these moments, they seem lost in their thoughts,
The tea boy slips from table to table with
a brazier of hot coals swinging from his hand. He stops, places some
coals in the trough of a customer's waterpipe, and moves on. Later,
he circulates with a tray of glasses of tea, and the tinkling sound
of spoons rises into the smoky room. Few eyes turn to Abu Shadi when
he takes his place on a chair elevated above the others.
As Abu Shadi begins to read the tale of
Sultan Baybars, he speaks in colloquial Arabic, occasionally
switching into the accents of a Cairene, a farmer, a citizen of
Aleppo, a Turk and so on, depending on the character he is reading.
Reaching the scene in which Sultan Baybars receives news of the
landing of the enemy Franks at Alexandria, the hakawati's voice
"'Everyone, I command! Mount your
horses. God is eternal!', and Baybars gives the order for his troops
to depart from Cairo for Alexandria their arms raised to repel the
At this, the hakawati pauses and glances up
from his book. A shout comes from the far side of the room and he
waits, smiling. An elderly gentleman he had appeared to be sleeping
calls out, "The message to al-papa! Read the message to
al-papa!" To the Arabs of the Middle Ages, al-papa, the pope,
wasthe symbolic leader of the invading Crusader armies, and this man
is referring to the letter Baybars will shortly send to the leader
of the Christian forces.
Abu Shadi seems delighted with the
interruption, and he becomes animated at once. His eyes open wide as
he scans the room, until his audience too is alert, and he
disregards his text. In the street accent of an Egyptian, he becomes
Ibrahim, servant of Baybars.
"'I swear on the head of my grandfather,
Imam 'Ali; I am your messenger, oh king. This will be his last day!'
And he mounts his mare and sets of for the enemy camp. Now, Ibrahim
arrived in front of the grand tent of the king of the Franks and
shouted 'Good morning, oh pope! Here, stand and talke this letter
from our lord, your conqueror. Don't be deceived by your general's
assurances of victory. Take this message, or I'll take your head."'
The hakawati assumes a regal posture on his
seat as he recites these lines. A customer at the back, stirred by
Ibrahim's audacity, cheers. Laughter breaks out across the cafe, and
more cheers rise. This happens at any point in the story at which
Baybars or his soldiers demonstrate their fearlessness, as if the
home team had scored a goal. The hakawati returns to his text, and
the customers bend forward, stir their tea, and settle into their
chairs once more as the reading resumes.
So it continues for almost an hour. At one
point Abu Shadi, gesturing broadly, strikes a chair with his
"sword." Exclamations from the audience punctuate his reading, and
there is muffled laughter when the hakawati's puns become earthy, or
when he assumes the exaggerated Egyptian accent of the Falstaffian
Abu Shadi finally arrives at the moment of
high drama when Ma'ruf, commander of a group of mountain fighters,
openly challenges Baybars:
"Raise your sword, oh king, and face
this day alone, for it is your last."
It is a call to battle between erstwhile
But before anything more can happen, the booming voice of the
combatants is replaced by prosaic tones as Abu Shadi lifts his eyes
from the book and announces, "Today, friends, we end here. Thank you
for coming." He closes the book, steps down from his platform and,
now indistinguishable from the other customers, moves among the
tables to speak with his friends.
The serial style of presentation is a
common feature in storytelling around the world: It is how The
Iliad was first "published," as well as David Copperfield,
a dramatic technique employed to raise suspense and hold an audience
from one day to the next, and it is a particularly common feature of
Arab stories. Indeed, the tale of Baybars is of the same epic genre
- called al-malhama as Alf Laylah wa Laylah, A Thousand
and One Nights.
The heroic epics from early Arab history
make up most of the repertoire of the hakawati, including the epic
of King Sayf ibn Thi-Yazzan, set in pre-Islamic Yemen at the time of
the Ethiopian invasion; the Sirat Banu Hilal, which tells of
the Hilal tribe's migration from Arabia across North Africa in the
11th century; and the romance of 'Antar, which the Encyclopedia
of Islam calls "the model of the Arabic romance of chivalry."
There are many versions of each, and all are of uncertain origin.
Khairy alZahaby, Syrian author and expert on hakawati literature,
says that it is possible that these Arab stories may have been
influenced by Greek epics, and that they in turn may have inspired
the postRenaissance European versions of tales such as King
Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Now, however, this once widespread form of
entertainment has grown so rare that few young people have witnessed
it. Maisoun Sioufi of New York heard the stories from her
grandmother and her aunt, who recited them to her when she was a
child in Damascus in the 1950's.
"They did not read, but recited from
memory," she recalls. "The story continued for the whole weekend,
from Thursday evening to Saturday." Sioufi remembers her grandmother
changing her accent, in true hakawati fashion, to fit the character
she was voicing, and she laughs when she recalls how her grandmother
always left the family in suspense, ending each story at a point
when the hero's life was in danger.
"Those were such vivid stories, full of
chivalry and humor. The plot was always hackneyed and simple, but we
were spellbound," she says. "Those were our Robin Hood and our
Taysir al-Saadi, a well-known radio
dramatist in Damascus, remembers that "it was our fathers who
followed the hakawati. This was their local entertainment when they
gathered for their evening coffee." And to men who today are over
60, the mere mention of the hakawati can stir memories of heroism,
of repartee and ribald jokes, of color and valor and political
satire. They remember each hakawati for his style and personality.
Al-Saadi remembers hakawati Abu 'Ali Abouba,
for example, and how he "drew crowds to our neighborhood, and we
boys ran after him." AlSaadi himself never heard Abouba perform,
but, he says, his grandmother did. "She knew the stories he told,
especially the jokes,and I remember them from her." Whether Abouba
inspired him to become an actor, alSaadi does not say, but he admits
he has always been fascinated with the hakawatis, and he has
collected their texts. He himself played the role of a hakawati in a
recent radio drama.
The late Abu Ahmad Monis, generally
regarded as the last of the great hakawatis, used to perform at the
al-Nafurah Cafe and packed all 200 seats, according to the cafe's
former owner. "He recited without looking at his book," he recalls.
"He greeted everyone as they entered, and asked about their
families. He could slip into any accent: Aleppan, Egyptian, Turkish,
that of a servant or lord, upper class or rural."
Abu Shadi, the surviving hakawati at the al-Nafurah Cafe, emphasizes
the importance of acting in his work. He names the famous
contemporary film actor Abbas Nouri as one he aspires to emulate,
because Nouri "is especially talented in voice accents and
imitations." Abu Shadi says he regrets he never had an opportunity
to study acting professionally. He too recalls seeing Monis as a
child, and he admired another old hakawati at al-Nafurah, Abu
Shahin, but was not apprenticed to either of them. Nevertheless, Abu
Shadi accompanied his father to the cafe and, when he could, he read
passages from Abu Shahin's books. He loved these epic stories, he
knows he is not a master hakawati, and he admits he still has much
to learn. If it were not for the Syrian government's support of
hakawatis today, in the form of occasional festivals and special
performances during Ramadan, he says, the art would have completely
Many theater and folklore experts, however,
are more critical. The tradition is already gone, they insist. It is
just folklore now, and Abu Shadi's performances are a kind of museum
piece, says Khairy al-Zahaby. "He is commercialized," says another
student of the hakawati literature.
But Damascus professor of history Suhail
Zakkar feels differently, insisting that Abu Shadi "is working
sincerely." The Damascus expert on the history of the Crusades and
the hakawati epics does not seem to mind that some tourists now
attend the performances at the al-Nafurah Cafe, or that the hakawati
himself appeals to foreign visitors. Zakkar sees it as a living and
thus changing art form.
Abu Shadi himself acknowledges that his
audience differs dramatically from what it was in the past. "Local
Syrians do not support us," he complains. "They want something new.
But foreign people understand. To them, something old is
Nabil Haffar, professor of theater studies
at the Damascus Academy of Theater Arts, respects the hakawatis of
the past more than those of the present. "The real hakawatis are
gone," he maintains. Yet he studies their tradition keenly, and
feels there is much to learn from them. "Voice," he says, "is
especially important. I teach the hakawati technique of voice to my
students at the Academy."
Though radio actor al-Saadi agrees that
voice is crucial to a hakawati's success, he believes that the
quintessential skill of a hakawati lies in his ability to work an
audience. "It's not like the theater, where you have an opening and
closing, where a curtain separates stage and audience. Here the
situation is simpler and puts more weight on the performer. A good
hakawati has a store of verbal appetizers which he serves at the
beginning, to warm his audience up. With each anecdote, he moves
closer to the audience. Because he knows his audience, he can draw
on their lives for his stories. His sympathy with them as a person
and as a storyteller is the basis of his success."
Al-Saadi's anecdote of the famous Abu 'Ali
Abouba illustrates this relationship. He recounts that Abouba
visited a doctor, complaining of melancholy. "The doctor, ignorant
of the identity of his patient, told him 'You need to see the
hakawati Abouba, who will sympathize with your problem and cheer you
up.' 'But,' said the patient sadly, 'I am Abouba!"'
Rawa Batbouta, who has helped organize
hakawati performances during Ramadan and knows the epics in detail,
agrees that the presentations only really work when the audience is
involved. "Frequently listeners will side with of one of the heros,
cheering him or her on. Sometimes one group cheers on one side of a
battle, while other observers take the other side. It cannot work as
a simple reading or lecture."
Of his audience at the al-Nafurah Cafe, Abu
Shadi explains: "I watch them; I feel their mood; I wait for their
replies." He calls himself a social guide, a person who points out
morals. "I have to be sensitive to the people's problems," he says,
and he also depends on men in the audience with whom he can engage
He tells of his performance two years ago
at a festival in Jordan. "There was a huge audience, and I was the
first hakawati they had heard. But," he confides, "they did not know
the story. Next time I will insist that I be accompanied by three or
four of my friends. It will liven the thing up." Abu Shadi believes
that it is his neighborhood associates who will make his true
Hakawatis work best, then, when the
listeners are regulars, and a relationship has had time to evolve.
"Because visitors at the cafe are increasingly strangers, the
atmosphere for hakawati performances is gone," says one who has seen
the changes at close hand. Abu Salih al-Rabbat, the 80-year-old
manager of the al-Nafurah Cafe, does not blame radio or television
for the decline of storytelling, nor the loss of potential
apprentices to compulsory education. Having lived most of his life
in the old suq, or market, near the Umayyad Mosque, he has
watched the nature of the cafe itself change and the larger social
role of the traditional coffee shop decline.
"Forty years ago, those who stopped at my
cafe lived nearby, behind or above the shops you see here in the
streets. Men dropped in and listened to the hakawati after closing
their businesses in the evening. Today, thisneighborhood atmosphere
is gone. Shopkeepers live outside the suq, miles away. After work
they rush home. Our clients nowadays come from all over the city.
They drop in along with the tourists, and few have any real
relationship with the hakawati."
Moreover, he notes, "coffee shops are few
today compared with the past. In the 'Amarah district of central
Damascus, there were 10 cafes a few years ago; now only two remain.
Baghdad Street had 15 coffee shops 50 years ago. Today not one
Regardless of the fading of the hakawati's
living art, his texts have their own historical role in Arab
literature. However skilled as a joker, actor, or poet, the hakawati
builds his performances around written accounts of Sultan Baybars,
the Banu Hilal, Prince 'Antar and other popular figures. Every
hakawati knows and owns these texts, having either purchased them
or, more likely, received them from a master.
The books are usually manuscripts copied
from an earlier edition, and they may contain supplements and a
wealth of marginal notation. Abu Shadi says that he frequently
writes notes, adds pages and sometimes inserts or omits passages at
any given performance, according to his reading of the audience that
Today these rare manuscript editions are
coveted by collectors and theater scholars, but performers rarely
give them up. Some of the printed texts from which the manuscripts
may derive are themselves extraordinary documents: According to one
authority in Damascus, they seem to be limited-edition printings,
and they exist in too many versions to catalogue and analyze.
Perhaps the most astonishing and valuable
feature of the hakawati texts is their colloquial style, which is
virtually unique in Arab literature from any period. Arabic texts
and especially histories are written, as a rule, in classical
Arabic, but the hakawati's malahim are not only colloquial,
but in some cases richly embellished with rhymes and puns.
Damascus-based painter Mustafa Hilaj says that he rereads A
Thousand and One Nights "not for the story: I read it for the
Because of the colloquial nature of the
texts, says Professor Nabil Haffar, "historians and critics do not
consider these renditions of the epics to be real literature." But
he and others value the texts because they understand the word-play
in Arabic, the rhythm, the poem. "There's courage in these writing
styles. They contain and they feel more of the history of the time."
Moreover, writing Arabic in colloquial form
requires considerable sensibility to local nuance and slang. Some
editions of these epics contains passages in a prose meter called
saj', and one edition of the Banu Hilal epic is so rich in its
style that one laughs aloud with delight at the skill of the author,
some of whose passages combine poetry, pun and rhyme in a manner not
unlike some passages of Shakespeare.
Author al-Zahaby is among those who value
the inventive colloquialisms he finds in these texts. Arab writers
like him are challenged by the need to go beyond traditional
classical forms of writing and to experiment with new language,
especially when portraying local characters. They also read the
texts to grasp the social and moral norms of the past, to see how
powerfully women were portrayed, and to understand how people set
against one another or reconciled and to see what liberties were
taken with language. Ironically, many students of language in
Damascus today prefer to study these texts rather than watch the
hakawati who helped create them.
Little of this cultural significance is any
use to Abu Shadi, whose nightly audience continues to dwindle, and
whose colleagues' performances are increasingly confined to Ramadan,
when the Syrian Ministry of Culture and several cafes and hotels
sponsor hakawatis. During this month, daily routine changes, and
after families break their fast each evening, they often seek out
neighborhood activities in a manner once common year-round. Once
again they can hear the hakawati at the famous 'Amarah Cafe, and the
Cham Palace Hotel sponsors hakawati performances in Damascus,
Aleppo, and Hama. As special events, they often attract large
Yet Ramadan remains the exception rather
than the rule. For eleven months a year, it is only amid the
tinkling of teaglasses and the sweet waterpipe smoke at the old al-Nafurah
Cafe that Abu Shadi holds forth about Sultan Baybars, episode after
episode. Whether he is keeping a tradition alive or merely
demonstrating what popular Arab culture once was, as long as his and
other hakawatis' texts remain, others can take up and transform the
ancient art, and return to heal the woes of the neighborhood.