by Yasmine El-Geressi
Hanan al-Shaykh is an award-winning journalist, novelist and playwright, and one of the Arab world’s most acclaimed contemporary writers. She was born and raised in a conservative part of Beirut called Ras al-naba where she went to a traditional Muslim primary school for girls before moving to Cairo to receive her education at the American College. She was a successful journalist in Beirut, then later lived in Saudi Arabia, before moving to London in 1982. Her short stories and novels feature primarily female characters in the face of conservative religious traditions set against the backdrop of political tensions and instability of the Lebanese civil war while examining relationships between the sexes, power struggles and patriarchal control.
Al-Shaykh is the author of the collection I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops and her novels include The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh, Beirut Blues and Only in London, shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and an acclaimed memoir about her mother’s life, The Locust and the Bird.
She has written two plays, Dark Afternoon Tea and Paper Husband and published One Thousand and One Nights, an adaptation of some of the stories from the legendary Alf Layla Wa Layla – the Arabian Nights. Her latest work, The Occasional Virgin, was published by Bloomsbury in 2018. The frank and fearless novel follows the tumultuous lives and sometimes shocking choices of women successful in their careers but unlucky in love. It was named an Observer Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into twenty-eight languages.
Could you talk to us about your latest novel ‘The Occasional Virgin’ and the characters Huda and Yvonne? What provoked you to write this book? I read that you were inspired by an encounter at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park in London.
The book is made up of two sections. The first section is ‘Imra’ataan ala shati’ el bahr’ (Two Women by the Sea) which was published in 2003. It is about the sea and two friends, Huda, a theatre director that lives in Toronto, and Yvonne who owns an advertising company and lives in London. They both met in Lebanon at a festival for Lebanese women with successful careers outside of Lebanon and became very attached to each other. They felt they didn’t belong to Lebanon anymore as they left when they were 17 or 18 years old and made their lives outside of the country. They decided to go to an Italian Riviera for a vacation and while they were there they went into the sea to swim and as soon as they plunged into the water, all of their memories from their childhood, especially their families, religion, traditions, floated to the surface. In a way, this made them very sad about their childhood and their womanhood. Although they became very successful in their careers, they felt an inner sadness which made them unable to commit to a family or a man and they didn’t have children although they are 30 something. The book was published in Lebanon and it was translated into German and got good reviews.
Then a few years ago, I was walking in Speakers Corner in Hyde Park and I started listening to the debate and I found myself arguing about religion and I felt that my two characters, Huda and Yvonne were with me as they talked about religion and unresolved issues in ‘Imra’ataan ala shati’ el bahr.’ So when I came back home I immediately started writing a second episode of the book as if they met again in London.
Sometimes when I hear people talk about religion in the way that they did at Speakers Corner or at religious talks and speeches, my mind doesn’t grasp or digest what I am hearing so that is why sometimes I wrote in a farcical style and I was sometimes absurd in what I wrote. It is because it was too much for me and I wanted the book to stay fictional and imaginative.
I like the way that I wrote this book because young people thought that it was written by a younger person. Readers might feel when they are reading that it is funny and that’s because sometimes I didn’t want to be serious about what I hear. I don’t relate to what I hear about tradition, so in a way I treat it like something to laugh with or at.
How did you begin your career as a writer?
I went to Egypt when I was 17 and a half years old to discover myself away from home and away from my parents. I was following the novels and characters by writers that I loved like Naguib Mahfouz, Yahya Haqqi and Yusuf Idris. Egypt during the mid-60s was the Arab country where all students from across the all of the Arab wanted to study. I spent 3 or 4 years there and I loved it. I fell in love with an Egyptian writer and while I was a student I wrote my first novel called ‘Intihaar Ragol Mayit’ (The suicide of a dead man). I went back to Lebanon when I was in the third year of my studies at the American college and I was offered a job as a journalist because of my novel which was only a manuscript. I stayed in Lebanon and didn’t complete my studies.
How did your years as a journalist influence your work as a writer?
It made me more curious and it made me more interested in women’s issues. In a way, I was competing with the male journalists in Lebanon. For example, I told my editor that I want to stay overnight with the fisherman and write about their work and I stayed with them in a tiny boat overnight. I also interviewed the last official executioner in Lebanon.
Can you point to a period in your life where your interest in advancing women’s freedoms was born?
I think it started at an early age. When I think back at my life, I feel that no one really looked after me. I was on my own because my mother left home when I was around 5 and a half years old and I had a horrible step mother. My father had a tiny shop in downtown Beirut and at an age at 10 or 11 I would be sent on my own to walk for 40 minutes to the Souks and bazaars to get my father his lunch and I would walk from one market to another and discover things. In a way, I was recreating myself. My childhood was so different. I was on my own all the time and lived without a mother at home. There was an issue because my mother was the one who divorced my father and it was known everywhere so my sister and I were known as the daughters of the women who divorced her husband. I started writing when I was 13 or 14 years old. I would write tiny compositions and articles and I would take them to al-Nahar newspaper and they would publish them in their weekly page for students. So I think being alone and discovering things on my own during my childhood made me want to become a writer.
Why have you shied away from the title Arab feminist writer?
It is because I am a novelist and I feel that being labeled in such a way is cliché. Everyone who has a brain or half a brain would consider themselves a feminist. It shouldn’t be an issue, it should be a must. For example, all the female characters in Naguib Mahfouz’s novels were so strong or the underdog and he was exposing them by writing about them like in his book ‘Bidaya wa Nihaya’ (A beginning and an End). Mahfouz cared for women, as did Tayeb Salih, Yahya Haqqi and Yusuf Idris. Women were important in their fiction so it is not a novelty. At the same time I got tired of hearing the Arab Lebanese woman feminist all the time. I don’t only have one title, I have four. We are equal and we should be equal. You don’t say white male writer, so why should we refer to women writers in this way.
Do you find that in the West there is sometimes more of a focus on who you are as an Arab woman writer and the courage that it takes to portray ‘taboo’ topics, rather than the literary qualities and the content of your work?
Absolutely. When I published my third novel, ‘Hekayat Zahraa’ (The Story of Zahraa), which was the first novel of mine to be translated, in France they wrote that the author is a Shia Muslim and she knows about the Shia community. At the beginning I really didn’t care, I was so happy that I was translated and published, especially that the Arab World Institute also supported me. I was the only woman among ten men to be translated. The book won prizes and then it was translated into English. In a way, it was something for them for a Shia Muslim girl to write what I was writing but now I am irritated with that and I told my French publisher that you have to remove this description from my biography. I don’t want you to write Muslim, I don’t want you to write Shia, I don’t want you to write anything, just an author.
It is interesting that some of the issues that run through your work that are labelled as taboos weren’t always considered as such in Arabic literature.
Yes, they are not taboos, you are right. It is the way I write them maybe. I am direct and I don’t camouflage things. When you think of ‘1001 Nights’ and old classics like ‘Tawq al-Hamama’ (The Ring of the Dove), they were talking about these issues in the 18th Century or even before. When I wrote ‘The Story of Zahraa’ – which they are right to describe as daring because it is very explicit – I was homeless as I had left Lebanon due to the civil war and I wanted to take revenge because of what happened to Beirut and to Lebanon. I was so scared of the sniper and I fled. When I was writing it I didn’t think that I was going to publish it, I just wanted to take revenge and write about the war in the way that I want to write about the war so I made the girl have a relationship with a sniper and I talked about her mother’s relationship with another man and an uncle who made advances to his niece. I didn’t care. I used crude and raw language. I didn’t care for it to be literarily beautiful and poetic. I was in London and I wrote the whole book in 9 months. When I finished it I decided to publish it and 9 publishers turned it down. They said it can’t be published because of the way I talked about the relationship between the girl and the sniper and the uncle and what he was trying to do to her. I then published it with a friend of mine in Beirut during the war.
What kind of the reactions did you get?
I got the best reactions, especially in Egypt because the most important writer at that time, the new wave writer, was Sonallah Ibrahim who wrote ‘Tilka al-râ’ihah’ (That Smell). Everyone welcomed and wrote about my novel and it was sold out in a few months. When I took the novel to Rozal Youssef magazine in Egypt they loved it but said that I have to cut out some of the explicit content and I said to them I won’t even cut one word.
Do Western critics and readers pick up on different themes and aspects, versus Arab readers?
Yes, I will give you the last example. I wrote a book about the life of my mother called ‘The Locust and the Bird.’ My mother had an affair and everyone in the neighborhood knew about it and eventually my father did too because her lover’s brother told him that your wife is having an affair with my brother and you better do something. My mother left home and married her lover and she wanted me to write her story. I remember my editor waking me up at night after she had finished the manuscript and she said ‘Hanan, I’m really surprised… how come your mother wasn’t killed as she is Muslim and everyone knew about her love affair?’ I said to her we don’t just go and kill people in Beirut.
But in Lebanon they were astonished, not because my mother had an affair, not because she left home, but they said ‘you wrote that you were very poor, and that you come from a poor origin, it is amazing that you are so proud and so courageous.’
My book ‘The Story of Zahra’ was banned in many Arab countries and that helped my name a lot when it got published in the West. In the West they had no idea about Arab writers and Arab woman writers; they were astonished that we existed. I remember meeting as editor at the financial times at a party after I had just published the book and when I told him that I come from the Arab world and that I have published a book, he said ‘I didn’t know that there were books written by Arab women.’ I couldn’t believe it, he is an editor!
Do you feel freer in any way when writing from outside of the Arab world?
No, but sometimes I feel like I have lost something because I don’t like to write about the Arab world as I am not there. Usually as I writer I get inspired by things around me, by everyday life, so that is why I write about Arabs who are living in the West like in ‘Only in London’ and in my latest book ‘The Occasional Virgin’ which is about two Lebanese women that live abroad, one in Toronto and one in England. I also wrote various short stories and two plays that were staged about Arabs in London. Even when I wanted to write about the war in Lebanon, I wrote it as letters written by someone living in Lebanon to her friend who is abroad. The subject of being self-exiled was important and so I wrote about it in my book ‘Beirut Blues’. That is why I regret in a way that I am not living in the Arab world because it is difficult for me to just have a book based in an Arab country while I am not there. I feel that I am pretending or I am being false.
If you had £100 million pounds to spend on the development of literature in the Arab world, where would you spend it?
I would spend it in schools. I would concentrate on giving children lots of books to read. I would also provide them with different methods on how they should relate to different texts. I would encourage them to write and I would also have many prizes if they write in Arabic. I would also try to make grammar easier for them because I remember I used to hate it, it was so complicated. I would concentrate on that and get intelligent teachers to change it slightly to make it more accessible to children. I would also commission children’s book writers so that they would write more for children because reading is extremely important. I remember reading Kamel el Kilani’s retelling of some of the 1001 nights’ stories when I was young and they were so enjoyable but we can’t always go back to our heritage, we must write about now, about what is happening in the Arab streets and about children and how they live and think. Things have to be modernized and become more contemporary.
What are you currently reading?
I am reading the most beautiful novel called Death in Spring by a Catalonian writer called Mercè Rodoreda who was born in 1908 during the period of the Franco dictatorship when the Catalan language was prohibited. I am also reading an amazing book by Palestinian writer Adania Shibli called “Tafaseel Thanwy.”