"You will recall, gentlemen, that yesterday, when we
left the fighters, they had just made an agreement 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
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 throughout
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,
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, or dozing.
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 grows imperious:
"'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 invaders."
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
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 talk 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
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 squire 'Uthman.
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
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 Batman."
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
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 says.
Abu Shadi 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
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 something
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 in repartee.
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 performance possible.
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 survives."
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
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 crowds.
Yet Ramadan remains the exception
rather than the rule. For eleven months a year, it is only
amid the tinkling of tea glasses and the sweet water pipe
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