So our storyteller begins his evening's narrative at the al-Nafurah Café. 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 Café 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 café in which he performs that some old-timers recall him simply by exclaiming, "Ah, 'ala al-qahwahl" —"Ah, the café!"
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 water-pipes 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 lor 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, was the 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 off for the enemy camp. Now, Ibrahim arrived in front of the grand tent of the king of the Pranks and shouted Good morning, oh pope! Here, stand and take this letter from our lord, your conqueror. Don t be deceived by your general s assurances of victory. Take this message, or I fl 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 café, 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 tbis day alone, for it is your last.
It is a call to battle between erstwhile allies. 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 al-Zahaby, 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 post-Renaissance 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 personality.
Al-Saadi remembers hakawati Abu 'Ali Abouba, for example, and how he "drew crowds to our neighborhood, and we boys ran after him." Al-Saadi 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, al-Saadi 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 Café and packed all 200 seats, according to the café'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 Café, 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 café 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 completely disappeared.
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 Café, 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 new."
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 Café, 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 café 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 café, 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 sucj, or market, near the Umayyad Mosque, he has watched the nature of the café itself change and the larger social role of the traditional coffee shop decline.
"Forty years ago, those who stopped at my café 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, this neighborhood 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 cafés 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 day.
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 words."
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 cafés 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 café, 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 waterpipe smoke at the old al-Nafurah Café 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.
Anthropologist and journalist Barbara Nimri Aziz writes about Middle East issues. She is the host of "Tahrir: Voices of the Arab World," a weekly radio program on the Pacifica network.