El-Hakawati (الحكواتي) means “the storyteller” in Arabic. The word inspires an image of a wandering sage that captivates children and adults alike in smoky coffee places of the Levant. Igniting the imagination, the storyteller creates insurgent moments that last in people’s minds.
In the Arab and Mediterranean world, and especially before the age of radio, television and the Internet, the hakawati played a central role in a society’s culture, defining modes of expression and entertainment and reflecting the importance placed on oral histories, improvisation and mythmaking. Homer, who hailed from Asia Minor, was a hakawati.
A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths, and fables (hekayât). A storyteller, an entertainer. A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns. Like the word “hekayeh” (story, fable, news), “hakawati” is derived from the Lebanese word “haki,” which means “talk” or “conversation.” This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling. A great hakawati grows rich, and a bad one sleeps hungry or headless. In the old days, villages had their own hakawatis, but great ones left their homes to earn fortunes. In the cities, cafés were the hakawatis’ domain. A hakawati can tell a tale in one sitting or spin the same tale over a period of months, impregnating it with nightly cliffhangers.