Hanan al-Shaykh: The Rebel Shehrazade

(photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Hussein Bin Hamza

Published Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh liberated herself from male domination at an early age, allowing her to produce a number of controversial novels that have won her international recognition.

Hanan al-Shaykh (b. 1943) lived a confused childhood. Her mother left the family to live with her lover. Her father spent the whole day at his shop. Thus, she found herself lonely and abandoned with many aunts, uncles, and neighbors.

Not everything was unpleasant about her loneliness, for it brought with it a margin of freedom and rebellion. The absence of her father minimized the role of male authority in her life, so she learned to be strong and quarrelsome. She and her sister suffered from their parents’ neglect to the point that they were labeled as “the two girls who were abandoned by their mother.”

At school, she excelled in writing. She used to look forward to geography class to be in the presence of her female teacher with her loose hair and confident presence. The teacher was Laila Baalbaki, whose first novel Ana Ahya (I Survive) would become a landmark in Beirut’s culture and emerging modernity.

As a girl Shaykh would travel from the Ras al-Nabeh area, where her family resided, to downtown Beirut and Hamra’s cafes. In the window of Antoine Bookstore, she came across the first copy of Ana Ahya as she was delivering lunch to her father in the Sursock market. The book encouraged her to seek a life similar to that of the novel’s heroine.

Later on, she would admit to her religious father that she often put her hijab in her bag, not on her head. She realized – just like her mother – that she had a calling to leave her strict environment. Thus, she began publishing her writings in An-nahar newspaper. “Raghida Dergham and I used to go to the newspaper offices, hand over our texts to the receptionist, and read them in the paper a few days later,” she remembers.

Shaykh saved some money from articles and reports on culture in Al-Sayyad magazine in an attempt to persuade her father to permit her to complete her high school years in Egypt. She made an agreement with the magazine to write from Cairo and her father provided her with the names of some Egyptian writers there. In Egypt, she finished high school and studied journalism for two years while publishing some articles in Rose al-Youssef magazine along the way.

At the age of 19 Shaykh was taken with the novels of Naguib Mahfouz and Yahya Haqqi. But Ihsan Abdel Quddous was the one who she fell in love with at that time. She wrote her first novel Intihar Rajol Mayyit (Suicide of a Dead Man) in Egypt, under the influence of existentialism. Shaykh returned to Beirut to enter a competition organized by Dar Annahar in 1968 and although she did not win she was content that the winner was Jordanian poet Tayseer Soboul.

Shaykh decided not return to Cairo to continue her studies. While continuing her contributions to Annahar she worked for al-Hasnaa magazine, but did not abandon the novel, the first of which she released in 1970. After getting married and moving to Saudi Arabia, where her husband worked, Shaykh wrote her second novel Faras al-Shaytan (The Devil’s Horse).

The novel, containing bits and pieces of a biography, was released on the eve of the Lebanese civil war. Egyptian critic Ghali Shokr praised the novel and considered it “a new voice that complements the efforts of Ghassan Kanafani, Halim Barakat, and Laila Baalbaki in addressing reality in new narrative methods.”

The civil war kept Shaykh and her two little girls away from Lebanon. Going on to write her third novel, Hikayat Zahra (Zahra’s Story) in London, placed her name at the forefront of the Lebanese novel scene. The story took her back to her childhood. Mixing her past with the war-torn present, the story is told through the relationship between the leading female character and a sniper.

“That was an emotional settlement with my primary environment. I put my life in Hamra and the Horseshoe Cafe aside. Female leading characters of novels at the time were modern and daring women. I chose a simple woman similar to the women of my childhood,” she says. The novel was a real turning point in her career, for “her two previous novels seemed like mere writing exercises than novels.”

Nonetheless, she “did not find any publishers for the novel, and so my painter friend, Najah Taher, published it at her own expense.” The novel was then selected to be translated into French by the Arab World Institute in Paris. She then received an award from Elle magazine and was showered with praise. Critic Salim Naseeb praised her “courage in creating a different narrative of the war.”

Shaykh released her fourth novel Misk al-Ghazal (Scent of a Gazelle), in which she resumed the narration of her Gulf surroundings, which she had begun in her second novel. Thus, homosexuality was added to the sex and rape that were already present. The novel was translated into English, and received both praise and criticism. Shaykh dismisses accusations that she writes with a Western audience in mind.

“I write what I like and I excel at it. I did not invent sex or homosexuality, and I do not think about writing on exotic topics that would arouse the curiosity of Western readers,” she says. She admits, however, that some of the works can be read in an exotic way but points out that “many authors, whose works have been translated, did not receive similar recognition, even though they were full of sex.”

Her long stay in London liberated her from the negative impact of such accusations. Thus, she released Bareed Beirut (Mail from Beirut), which Salman Rushdi praised in the Independent newspaper. The novel was chosen among the 50 most important books released in the US that year. She also wrote two plays in English, directed by Tim Sabel, which were performed in European and American theaters.

Her last two works relating to Lebanese issues were the Okanis al-Shams An al-Sotouh (I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops) series and the novel Imraatan Ala Shatee al-Bahr (Two Women at the Seashore). She then released Innaha London Ya Azizi (Only in London), which combined elements of East and West. But her subjects did not change much, for the characters of Arab prostitute and homosexual were still present, in addition to a relationship between the female lead character and a British man. She was later liberated from such characters in Hikayati Sharhon Yatoul (My Mother’s Story), in which she narrated the story of her mother.

Shaykh’s last novel brought her back to her local setting, but her stay in London, which reinforced her literary presence abroad, only weakened it in Lebanon and the Arab world. But this image does not bother her. Does she have any complaints? Smiling, she answers: “I have no complaints, and I don’t feel sidelined. I am an older name, and there are new names that deserve to be recognized. I am not greedy and I do not wish to take both what is mine and what is theirs.”

But Shaykh still has plenty more to come. She says that she was busy writing a new novel when director Sabel asked her to write the script for Alf Layla Wa Layla (One Thousand and One Nights). She assumed she would be able to complete the play and resume writing her novel, but Alf Layla Wa Layla occupied all her time. Thus, the new novel was postponed while the play and its Arab actors toured several festivals.

While fans awaited the release of her new book Sahibat al-Dar, Scheherazade (Scheherazade, Owner of the Home), comprising 20 stories, coincided with the ongoing Beirut Arab International Book Fair, unfortunately a health condition prevented the “new Scheherazade,” as some call her in the West, from attending the book signing.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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