Beirut may nurture a healthy publishing industry - replete with writers, poets, literary-style cafes and printing presses with long histories behind them - but one convention of the trade that has never got much care here is the reading. When new books arrive, they are usually celebrated with launch parties and book signings but rarely with gatherings in which the author reads passages from his or her work to a rapt audience. (Last week, the Virgin Megastore in Downtown Beirut hosted a signing for the veteran correspondent Robert Fisk, who scrawled his name in but did not read from copies of his new book, The Age of the Warrior.) The thinking is that Lebanese society is too social, too talkative and too fitful to sit still and listen. But on a recent afternoon, the novelist Rabih Alameddine decided to challenge all of this.
The author of Koolaids: The Art of War and I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters was in town for the launch of his book, The Hakawati. (Alameddine divides his time between Beirut and San Francisco and is most often in Lebanon for family time.) Seated at a table bearing mounds of his books and squeezed between stacks of new releases in English and pocket fiction in French, he began to read. It helped, of course, that The Hakawati is a brazen book of stories coiled around stories coiled around stories, many of which are adapted from well-known folktales and the Thousand and One Nights, (that is, the original, uncensored version of the Nights, which puts forth a less than chaste vision of female sexuality).
Alameddine had taken up position on the lower floor of Librairie Antoine, a bookshop on Hamra Street in West Beirut. Representatives of the company Levant, which is distributing The Hakawati to bookstores across Lebanon, had likewise installed themselves on the staircase leading to the reading - shushing, quieting and pleading with customers (and their kids) to keep it down as they descended the steps. The audience members jammed themselves between the fiction and nonfiction stacks, some standing, some seated, some cross-legged on the floor.
Whenever Alameddine began to read, people demanded: "What page?" so they could read along with the author, book-club style. At one point, a woman barked: "What page in the paperback? You are reading from the hard cover!" "The page numbers are the same in both editions," said Alameddine. "Walla?" she responded, meaning "Really?" but expressing no small dose of doubt. "Exactly the same," Alameddine said dryly.
Finally, with a passage from The Hakawati about funerals, rituals, ostentation, society, truth and tales, Alameddine caught the audience's attention and held it in his firm grip. But the reading wasn't without distraction. If the Lebanese are rude, then tourists in Lebanon are even ruder - several backpacked and be-sandalled guests stumbled into the event unaware, and left oblivious to the interruption. And the reading was punctuated throughout by the clack-clack-clack of high heels coming down the stairs, in addition to the louder variation, clack-snap-clack-snap-clack-snap, of a particularly vertiginous pair of jewel-encrusted turquoise mules. "I think high heels should be banned," said Alameddine.
Still, the most interesting part came after the reading itself, with a question-and-answer session. Perhaps because readings are so uncommon, the audience seemed entirely uninhibited, asking questions and offering comments you would never hear from a crowd in, say New York, where literary encounters follow an unofficial protocol. Two middle-aged women gave Alameddine an account of exactly how they read his book, where and at what pace. A young man asked the author to curse more, since the language of his fiction is so profane. A young woman asked him about his use of structure and style. A local writer begged to know how he could get his own books published.
Other questions led Alameddine deep into the writing process - his need to carefully construct a novel's infrastructure due to his initial training in mathematics and engineering, his search for narrative voice and the horror of editing a 13,000-page manuscript down to a 500-page book. And then came the most serious discussion of the day when it was revealed that The Hakawati - originally written in English - is slated for imminent translation into twelve languages and not one of them is Arabic. Gasps all around, hands to cheeks and plaintive laments of "Why? Why?" from the audience.
"Censorship," said Alameddine with a tilt of his head and a shift of his shoulder, as if to say, "But of course, my dears, are you surprised?" "My novels are considered subversive politically and sexually," said Alameddine. "I don't know if you know this", he added mischievously, "but we Arabs do not have sex."