On Becoming a Writer in the Middle of War
Hanan al-Shaykh on Arab Feminism, Pigeonholing Women Writers, and More
From an early age, Hanan al-Shaykh felt the urge to be different, to have her own opinion on and decisions in life. Both Hanan’s innate urge to be different and desire to challenge injustice and unfairness molded her into the rebel she is. Why did her brother stop her from going to sit in a café? Why did she have to don a scarf to cover her gorgeous hair every time she left the house? Why were the women of the family giving different reasons for doing same thing depending on who they were speaking to? Where did all these confusing attitudes, even rules, about human relationships come from? What were they about?
At age 12, Hanan started writing stories and keeping diaries, as a way of being sure of her own existence. Soon, it just became part of her normal day to write, even when her normal day was living in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war. If she couldn’t write, that would be a problem. She always makes sure, even today, that “[n]o matter what happens, I have something to talk about, to write about.”
Hanan is sometimes described by publishers and critics as “controversial,” but that is because of a tendency to pigeonhole women writers, especially those from the Arab world, grading them for the topics of their works, not to mention the “taboos” they are supposedly breaking. “I always feel I need to be very truthful when I write,” she told me in our interview.
She does not, however, deliberately write in order to challenge taboos. As a woman passionate about language, life, and literature, and as someone who escaped from the civil war that engulfed her country, her strength has been to lay bare everything that society tries to hide—and not merely as something provocative. Edward Said, writing about her novel Women of Sand and Myrrh, was surely recognizing her quiet but rebellious passion for authorial freedom when he described it as “a complex and demanding story of women in the Gulf,” and “both breathtakingly frank and technically difficult, taking on such experiences as homosexuality and patriarchy with unexpected power.” The Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher, writing about the same book, admires her “microscopic eye which picks up tiny details and creates from them an exiting world, full of emotion and interest.”
In this interview, she talks about being influenced by writers like Tayeb Salih and Sonallah Ibrahim and realizing, from their works, that it was all right to write about poverty, about the way life was, without being “held back or embarrassed about writing on anything”. Hanan also mentions the relatively little-known-but-pioneering Lebanese writer, Layla Baalbakki, whose 1958 novel Ana Ahya (I Live), published by Yusuf al-Khal’s Shi’r magazine press with Baalbakki’s help and only recently translated into English) must have inspired so many women of that era.
Hanan al-Shaykh was growing up in Lebanon and beginning to write during that same era, which represented an explosion of literary ideas and changes in the attitudes of her society. Even without the Internet and social media, many literary and social trends crossed oceans and were taken up by more progressive writers. And, in the same way students and writers from Britain and America used to go to Paris and Tangiers in those days to find literary inspiration, Cairo was the mecca for intelligent literary young Arabs, Hanan among them—as that is where the great writers then were.
With the outbreak of civil war in Beirut in the mid-1970s, the fractures and tensions in Lebanese society became even more exposed. Her novels set during that time are both published in English translation—The Story of Zahra (1986), now regarded as a classic and continuously in print, and Beirut Blues (1996), the heartfelt reflection on a Beirut destroyed by the war. Both show her insistence on following her own path, not siding with one or the other of the many sides in the war.
Reviewing Beirut Blues in The Independent in 1995, Salman Rushdie wrote that it was “a lament for a broken city in a broken world,” ending with the call: “It should be read by everyone who cares about the truths behind the clichéd Beirut of the TV news; and by everyone who cares about the more enduring, and universal, truths of the heart.”
Those last words encapsulate the essence of Hanan al-Shaykh as a writer—a writer of life as it is.
Early days and Boarding School
Margaret Obank: I read somewhere that you are from Arnoun in South Lebanon.
Hanan al-Shaykh: My father was from Arnoun, and my mother from Nabatieh. But I was born in Beirut, as my father went to Beirut when he was fourteen years old and my mother when she was eight.
MO: How old were you when you moved to Cairo? Was that to continue your studies?
HAS: I was eighteen then, and actually, yes, to continue my studies, but also to be on my own. I didn’t want to live with my parents, with my father.
MO: Was that the first time you were living independently?
HAS: I had made my father send me to boarding school, the Evangelical School in Sidon, and it was very expensive for him, poor man. Everyone had a story why they were in this boarding school—they came from other villages or towns around in the south and couldn’t go to Beirut to study. I was the only Beiruti who went to Sidon to be in this school. I hated living at home with my father, though I loved him very much. But he was very pious and used to pray day and night and cry and everything. I didn’t like that. And my mother left home when I was five and a half years old.
MO: How old were you when you went to that boarding school? Did you like it?
HAS: I was fifteen, and I loved it. My roommate was Leila Khaled [Khaled became famous in the 1970s as a Palestinian guerrilla fighter & hijacker]. She was much older than me. She was graduating while I was in a lower class. This school was unlike any other—it had “cottages,” and there was a “mother” for each cottage. You called her Mother. In each cottage there were about six girls, and each two shared a room. Leila had said “I want Hanan” because I didn’t study or anything and she loved the fact I was telling stories all the time. I used to go to Beirut with her once every two or three weeks, supposedly to visit my father, but I would just go with her and we would walk around and spend the day together.
MO: You wrote a novel very early on, when you were quite young, didn’t you? It’s not translated, is it?
HAS: Yes, it was when I was in Egypt, when I was nineteen. It was how I got my job in Lebanon. I submitted it to An-Nahar newspaper, which also had a publishing house, and when the editor read it he thought I should join the paper. It’s called Intihar Rajul Mayit (Suicide of a Dead Man, 1970).
MO: Why has it never been translated?
HAS: I don’t think it’s a good novel. I was nineteen. I cared only for its style, you know, the style at that time of existentialism and boredom.
MO: I’m sure people would be interested in a translation, with an introduction putting it in context.
HAS: Maybe, I don’t know. Anyway, I wrote it, but at first I showed it to Ghassan Kanafani, who was working at Al-Muharrar newspaper then. I wanted to call it Al-Rajul allahi la Ya’raf al-Dahsha (The Man Who doesn’t Know Surprise) and when Ghassan read it he said, “oh, Hanan!” You know, Ghassan always looked surprised, even when he looked at himself in the mirror. “What’s this you’re writing about?” he said to me. He gave me some notes and I took them away, and then I showed my novel to Ounsi el-Hajj—and he also gave me some notes. And so I just finished it and it was published by An-Nahar. Then I wrote another novel called Faras al-Shaytan (The Devil’s Horse). It was published in 1975, by An-Nahar again.
On a Journey of Writing
MO: When you got married and your life stabilized and so on, did your style of writing change? Was it less direct and less impulsive than when you first started writing?
HAS: Yes, because it depends on the age. I feel like I was and still am on a journey, so each place or episode makes you change in style, in the approach of the novel, or what you want to write about, the subject. For example, my first novel, Intihar Rajul Mayit (Suicide of a Dead Man)—this was fascinating, I was fascinated by the language and . . . and how to express the nothingness of a feeling but with elaborate style. Existentialist style in a way, as well. With Faras al-Shaytan I felt that I shouldn’t be very affected by what I was writing, what I was reading, and what the trend was around me. I should really write from the heart.
I started writing that book because I felt I was, as it were, in a prison, in that household with my father and everything. It was all mainly about religion, about the Shia community, and why it was having a negative effect on me—for instance, my grandmother and her friends—they were always crying and lamenting and weeping, and then there was also my father’s prayers, and things like that. So how was this girl going to look back at herself and try to free herself from all these things around her? This is what I did in Faras al-Shaytan, so that she took her freedom and she did what she wanted and. . . .
MO: And in more recent times?
HAS: Well, then there’s The Story of Zahra. That was completely different because I was angry about the war in Lebanon. I was angry that I had to flee, and usually when you go to a new place you’ll start thinking of the place you’ve left. Immediately, I was thinking of the traditions and why we were having this war. It was because, I was thinking, because deep down we are . . . we are still immersed in religion and that’s why the war happened. Christian, Muslim, all the different beliefs, they’re like political parties, and this is what I wanted to say, in a way, to take revenge. I wanted to show them that they’re all wrong, and that they have to change. And I wanted to take part in the war that was against the civil war.
And so this is when I wrote The Story of Zahra. And I didn’t care, I mean to say, in Faras al-Shaytan I started not caring about the dialogue; it just had to be from the heart. I didn’t want to write dialogue in a classical way, in modern standard Arabic, because that’s not the way people would talk. My grandmother would say, for instance, “oh, I was so scared—as if my heart had put on a wooden cloak.” This is how they used to talk and express themselves. I always feel I need to be very truthful when I write; that’s why my dialogues, and some of my monologues, are very colloquial and straightforward.
MO: What about getting it published—because you couldn’t find a publisher at the beginning, didn’t you and a friend publish it yourselves?
HAS: Yes, that’s right. I paid to publish it, with my friend Najah Taher. She’s an artist and a painter and she does all the book covers of my works, even now. She’s a long-standing friend, who I met even before I wrote my first novel.
MO: I read the English edition of The Story of Zahra again a few days ago—it is just amazing. The structure is very interesting, and all those scenes, with the sniper. . . .Did it sell well in the bookshops? How was it received?
HAS: In Lebanon, yes. I couldn’t believe it, but as soon as I sent copies to all the newspapers and magazines, I have to say that everyone loved it. And then I sent copies to Egypt, as well—many friends of mine helped me send them to Egypt, to writers there. So, yes, I was very happy that I wrote The Story of Zahra. But it did annoy many people, as well. First of all, those who believed in the war couldn’t believe that I condemned the whole way of the war. People wanted me to say where I stood—was I with this group or that group, was I with the Christians—I am a Shia, so was I with this, and those, and whatever. But I didn’t have a side; I was condemning the war as war, as a whole. For example, I made Zahra’s brother like a thief, a robber, and I remember a friend of mine, who was very committed to Yasser Arafat and the Left, said: “These people—you think these people are robbers? Many of them died, they gave their lives to this war, and you call them ‘robbers’?” I told her: “Yes, there were many robbers inside as well. They used to go into houses and take whatever they wanted. They used to loot.” In every war, many soldiers do that.
Also, there were some who didn’t like the explicitness of the sexuality. They thought it was too much, and some said it was pornographic. I didn’t think so, and don’t think so now, because even the sex between Zahra and the sniper was kind of dark, in a way; it wasn’t, how can I say, beautifully written, or. . . .
MO: It wasn’t erotic. Perhaps you could say a bit graphic?
HAS: That’s right—it wasn’t erotic. Maybe a bit graphic, as you say, but not erotic. Anyway, I wanted to write it. I was obsessed by snipers, and I was so scared—maybe that’s why I left Beirut. I couldn’t believe that there was someone who was a sniper, who would just sit and say “I’m waiting to kill someone.” He was targeting any innocent person because that’s what a sniper does: you control a street or a road and you aim to kill anyone. And I would think, how could the sniper choose to kill this person or that person, and I became really obsessed with snipers and sniping. I remember my daughter was five months old and every time I went to buy milk or whatever, I would tell my helper that if I was caught by a sniper she had to do this, call that person. I became really obsessed, and maybe it was because of the snipers that I left Lebanon.
MO: Hanan, of all of the people that have played a role in terms of shaping your writing from an editorial point of view, whether it’s Catherine when you are working together on translations, or Ounsi El Hajj when you were just starting out, or Ghassan Kanafani when he was giving you comments, who has shaped your writing the most? And who do you always keep at the front of your mind when you are writing, in terms of comments and constructive feedback?
HAS: Every editor I work with.
MO: No one in particular stands out?
HAS: My friend Najah, yes. Yes, Najah Taher.
MO: Hanan, do you write by hand or on a computer?
MO: Are there writers you feel indebted to? Those you have tried to emulate?
HAS: Yes, Sonallah Ibrahim. Actually, all the Egyptian writers who pushed me, who believed in my writing. They were very, very helpful.
MO: What about writers who influenced you stylistically?
HAS: I loved the style of Tayeb Salih, and when I read Season of Migration to the North and all his works, I thought that it was all right to talk about poverty, to talk about the way life was, and not to be held back or embarrassed about writing on anything. Also, there’s Layla Baalbaki, after reading Ana Ahya (I Live). By the way, Layla taught me in school—before she wrote Ana Ahya. I was in Beirut; I had been sent to the Higher Girls’ College. It was a Muslim school and she used to teach geography there. When you saw her walking, you would think: “Oh, who is that unusual person.” Striking, but in a very, very unusual way. So when I read Ana Ahya, I just loved her style, I loved everything about her, and also her short stories. I used to read Al-Hiwar magazine of Tawfiq Sayegh and Shi’r magazine of Yusuf al-Khal. When I was young, 17 and 18, I was reading all those literary magazines, and reading Naguib Mahfouz, Yahya Haqqi—everything Egyptian authors wrote, I read!
MO: Did non-Arab writers interest you at all? You read extensively in English, I think, don’t you?
HAS: You mean nowadays? I read Arab authors and non-Arabs . . . Yes.
MO: Have they influenced your work at all?
HAS: Yes, and I think especially Alberto Moravia. Who hasn’t been influenced by him?
MO: Yes, he has been translated a lot into Arabic.
HAS: I loved the way he wrote, and he could definitely write about boredom. I like to write about boredom as well. It’s all right to write about things you feel. It doesn’t need to be a big subject.
MO: Do you read French writers too?
HAS: All from translation as I don’t read French. Of course, I have read Colette and Françoise Sagan, and Proust. I think every single Arab who is interested in literature will have read Proust—and maybe Victor Hugo. All in translation. I read Jane Eyre in translation and loved it. That’s why, when I wrote The Story of Zahra, I was keen to say that Zahra was not beautiful; she had acne.
MO: Going back to Arab writers, you mentioned Ana Ahya, and when I read your books I always think of Lina from Ana Ahya and also of Leila from Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door.
HAS: I love Latifa al-Zayyat. I really liked her so much, loved her writing, loved her personally too. And of contemporary writers, I like Salwa Bakr a lot. I love her short stories. And Radwa Ashour. And Alifa Rifaat was so welcoming. I loved her work. We were together in that festival and she gave an interview to a magazine, maybe Sabah al-Khair or Akher Sa’a, I don’t know which.
MO: The only time I was reminded of Alifa Rifaat’s writing was in The Occasional Virgin; that was because in Distant View of a Minaret there’s a famous moment when she’s having sex with her husband and she’s really bored so she’s got time to notice that there’s a spider on the ceiling . . . and in The Occasional Virgin there’s the scene where Huda is taking revenge on Hisham by having sex with him and using a “strawberry” to trick him into believing she’s a virgin.
HAS: Oh yes, the “strawberry.”
MO: Is that a common thing?
HAS: Now, yes. I got the idea after I saw it in Singapore, in pharmacies everywhere. They’re for Muslim girls. There was a magazine in Singapore, I have the issue, that has five pages telling girls not to be scared, now you are . . . liberated if you’re not a virgin. It’s a bestseller in Egypt.
MO: I think it’s from China. Everyone was talking about it for a while.
HAS: China, yes.
MO: And about The Occasional Virgin itself, in Egypt and the Arab world, I think it’s done really well. It’s been received really well in the Arab world. Is it based on a true story, something that happened?
HAS: Yes, there was something that happened one day when I was walking in Hyde Park. I love walking. Sometimes I walk 16 or 18 kilometres. I am obsessed by walking. That day I was coming home and crossing the park, and I heard a man and a Sheikh arguing. I think the man was either from Sudan or Somalia, and I couldn’t but interfere, intervene. I started arguing with the Sheikh, and then many people gathered around us and started asking me questions. And the Sheikh was asking in Arabic: “Where’s this Chinese woman come from?” The Occasional Virgin got very good reviews in the Arab world, yes.
Well, I need to ask my publisher in Lebanon if and where I am still banned or not. A Saudi-Arabian friend told me all my books are in the government bookstore in Riyadh.
MO: Do you ever find your books have been pirated and put on the internet without permission?
HAS: Oh yes. Do you know where I read Portnoy’s Complaint? In Saudi Arabia, also Henry Miller.
MO: In Arabic translation? How did you get them? Were they circulating underground?
HAS: No, in English. When it’s in English they don’t understand what the book’s about.
MO: They think it’s about a medical complaint, so it’s a medical textbook! That’s true; they don’t even mind magazines in English, so long as they’re not in Arabic.
Banipal’s 64th issue, “A Rebel Named al-Shaykh,” is out now.