New Internationalist

The NI Interview

Issue 274

The NI Interview
Hanan al-Shaykh
Richard Swift talks with an engaging Lebanese novelist, part of a wave of
outspoken women writers emerging in the Arab world.

Hanan al-Shaykh Hanan al-Shaykh sighs wearily when I ask her about public appearances like the one she is about to do at the Toronto Authors’ Festival. ‘I do too many, but I think it is important that the Arab world gets represented by more voices than that of Yasser Arafat.’ Hanan is a small dark woman with lively eyes and a quiet voice. Her shyness is in sharp contrast to the vivid, blunt prose she uses to explore how women survive in contemporary Arab society and the wars that periodically engulf it. Words obviously mean a lot to Hanan. As we talk she pauses to make sure she has chosen the right one – all her writing is done in Arabic, the language with which she is most comfortable.

Hanan identifies two types of war in her native Lebanon. Both feature in her most recent fiction – in The Story of Zahra and in her new novel Beirut Blues. ‘One is the civil war,’ she says, ‘the other is the war against the old customs and taboos’. While the men fight the civil war, women bear the responsibility of maintaining the family. It’s this experience, says Hanan, that’s sparked a remarkable explosion of writing by women. ‘An American scholar found 44 women novelists whose work reflecting this war experience has appeared in print since the conflict started.’

I remark to Hanan that I found parts of Beirut Blues quite humorous. She seems pleasantly surprised and the hint of a slightly mischievous smile plays at the corners of her mouth. ‘I like that. My mother was a great comedian, always mimicking and imitating people. I am like her but it never used to show in my work. Now I am older I feel I can be humorous.’ Hanan’s humour is decidedly black – in one incident in Beirut Blues an unexploded bomb crashes through the wall of the Beirut apartment of the main character and her grandmother. They immediately grab it and decide it should be cooked for supper.

But Hanan is anything but amused when we get to the state of fictional writing and publishing in the Arab world. ‘It is not at all in healthy shape,’ she claims. ‘To write frankly is bound to create problems.’ As an example she mentions The Ring of the Dove, a book by an eleventh-century Arab philosopher now being censored in Egypt – one of the Arab world’s more liberal regimes. She goes on to discuss a contemporary Egyptian novelist recently censored by his publisher. ‘I know him, he isn’t all that daring. When it came to love-making he would just put down periods [full stops], sometimes a whole paragraph of them. When I heard he’d been censored I phoned and asked if they had removed the periods.’

Hanan herself has had some run-ins with the censors, particularly in the conservative Gulf States. She was forced to publish The Story of Zahra herself after it was turned down by nine Lebanese publishers who found its bluntness about rape and lost virginity gave the ‘wrong impression’ of the Arab family. ‘It was a very direct and angry book.’ Hanan remarks dryly that the publishers soon came around after good reviews and healthy sales. Her books continue to sell well in the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq.

Hanan resists the temptation to sensationalize the impact of fundamentalist Islam and is sceptical of Western views that equate Islam with a militant and aggressive fundamentalism. ‘When I hear of this threatening notion of Islam that harks back to when the Moors invaded Spain I can’t help but laugh. What we have in the Arab world today are defeated countries mostly ruled by dictators. We used to have a past, but not any more. Even if we want to make war we must depend on the West. So I don’t understand this great fear of the fundamentalists.’

Hanan is not frightened of how Lebanon’s fundamentalists view her work. ‘Mostly they do not read and are not aware of literature. These isolated fundamentalists and pro-Iranian factions have not actually changed the situation in Lebanon. Anyway, I never attack religion. I am not interested in it.’

Hanan’s novels portray the pain of the divorce between the Christian East and Muslim West of a city which was traditionally the open door of the Middle East. ‘I am a Shi’a and I married a Christian 27 years ago. It wasn’t a big problem. My father was upset for a few days and that was it.’ She has high hopes for the re-emergence of a tolerant cosmopolitan Beirut. And she points to some positive signs like the newly integrated school system.

But for the moment she lives in London and is starting to turn her literary attention to the experience of Arab immigrants in Britain. Her comedy Dark Afternoon Tea has already been staged and reinforces the commitment to humour in her writing. ‘Humour,’ she believes, ‘makes everything and everybody naked’.

Hanan al-Shaykh’s most recent novel Beirut Blues is published by Bantam.

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