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Storyteller in Syria Offers Tale of 2 Nations

Mideast: As the Arab country strives to modernize with satellite TV and the Net, it also tries to keep alive a centuries-old tradition.

July 13, 2001|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAMASCUS, Syria — Wisham Hamadiah was sitting in a 300-year-old cafe in the ancient part of this city, gently puffing tobacco from a water pipe and sipping sweet tea from a glass, while anxiously waiting for the show to begin.

Growing up in Kuwait, the 18-year-old Syrian had only heard about the once-revered storytellers, called hakawati, who for centuries mesmerized Arab audiences with tales spun from legend and faith. Now he was about to witness the man billed as the last great hakawati.

Finally, Rasheed Hallack took his place on a raised seat at the front of the room and started to read, his booming voice filling the cafe.

A few minutes later, Hamadiah walked out.

"I don't understand what he is saying," he said with a shrug. "I live in Kuwait, so maybe I don't understand Damascene Arabic."

Syria is a country searching for itself--eager to join the modern world but intent on holding on to its past. This dilemma is shared by much of the Arab community in both politics and culture, but at the moment it is especially apparent in Syria, as the state tries to reinvent itself after decades of authoritarian rule under the late President Hafez Assad.

The difficulty in reconciling the two is evident at the Nawfara Cafe.

The story goes like this: For centuries, hakawati performed in the cafe, located at the foot of the 1,300-year-old Great Omayyad Mosque. Hallack grew up on the narrow winding streets of the Old City and would go with his father to listen. When the hakawati took a break and put down his book, Hallack would rush up to read the story for himself.

Years after the hakawati disappeared--some believe that people simply lost interest in them, while others say Assad outlawed them as part of a modernization campaign--the cafe owner asked Hallack to help resume the tradition.

"I gave him other names, but he said, 'No, we want you,' " Hallack said before a recent performance.

Every night since that day 10 years ago, Hallack has donned a red fez and climbed onto a throne-like chair before packed houses.

"Human beings always want something new, and now something old is new," he said.

But in reality, Hallack has become more of a tourist curiosity and marketing gimmick than a cultural icon. He can hardly compete with satellite television and the Internet. Most nights, after the muezzins have called the faithful to sunset prayer and as Hallack climbs onto the stained and faded wooden chair, lifting a metal stick that looks like a large letter opener, the cafe is filled with a few local old-timers and tourists. In fact, Hallack said, "I am quite famous in Germany."

Damascenes do crowd outside the cafe, where they sit on wooden chairs packed on the worn stone stairs and around the small fountain from which the cafe takes its name. But they are well out of earshot of the hakawati inside and, judging from the comments on a recent night, there is little interest in what he is saying.

"Maybe they were trying to revive an old tradition, but this is for tourism," said Mohammed Abed, 35, who said he has visited the cafe every day for the last 11 years. He said he has been inside only five times and was bored and unimpressed.

The same night, Hallack talked about his life and work. He said his repertoire consists of two main stories, each of which takes a year to complete. This night he was continuing the tale of the Saracen King Bibars, who fought the Crusaders all the way to Jerusalem, where he secured the Muslim hold on the Holy City.

Hallack said he is 55 years old, though that is what he told another journalist three years ago. And he said his work pays a reasonable salary, though he leaned over and added, "When the owner asks for money, give him 100 pounds [about $2] and give me the rest." He said his work is almost sacred and must begin and end each day at the same time. But moments before he was to go on, a German journalist entered and asked for an interview. The audience had to wait.

Ibrahim Khadr, 40, didn't mind. He took a seat in the front and said he wants his six children to someday listen to a hakawati.

"It is important so that we keep the old tradition alive," Khadr said. "My father used to come here, and my grandfather too."

That idea was not getting through to the youths in the back. Three 16-year-olds sat drinking sodas and smoking water pipes as Hallack spoke with the German reporter.

"It's a day off today, and everybody comes here," said Jalal Mustafa. "This is the place to hang out."

His friends nodded in unison and then ran out together as soon as Hallack started to read.

"There are lots of people who like this stuff," Mustafa said. "We don't."

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