"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 throughout Syria.
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.
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 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 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 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 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.
The last Hakawati
Barbara Nimri Aziz