An Evening with the Hakawati

Tuesday, August 16, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

The last of the hakawatis, Abu Shadi, spins his tales at al-Nawfara coffeehouse as locals listen closely.
As my remaining days in Damascus wane, I'm trying to make sure I see as much as possible of what the city has to offer. So yesterday evening Julian and I walked through the Old City's alleyways to al-Nawfara coffeehouse, a famous cafe behind the Ummayad Mosque. Al-Nawfara is known as the last site in Syria where a hakawati (الحكواتي) holds court. The hakawati, or traditional storyteller, carries in his mind centuries of folk tales and fables dating from well before the establishment of Islam in Syria over a millennium ago.

Abu Shadi (أبو شادي) is the current hakawati, and the last of his kind. Each evening, he sits in a throne-like chair at the center of al-Nawfara's halogen-lit inner room, recounting tales about the Rashidun Caliphs, the Thousand and One Nights, or the glorious victories of the Sultan Baybars, and more. The pre-Islamic saga of Antar and Abla is also a favorite, and one he recounted on this
evening.

Julian and I watched while sipping tea amid a small crowd of locals, who puffed slowly at their argileh pipes between nips at their Turkish coffees, as the hakawati wove his tales. He wore a traditional costume and flourished his sword in the air, frequently clashing it down upon the table (which seemed to have been placed at his side for this express purpose) for emphasis throughout each story. Of course, neither Julian nor I managed to understand many of the words, but the experience was an unforgettable one I am happy to have known, as it will not last forever.

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