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Hanan al-Shaykh (b. 1945)


Lebanese novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, one of the leading contemporary women writers in the Arab world. Hanan al-Shaykh's works deal with women's role in society, the relationship between the sexes, and the institution of marriage. Before turning to writing fiction, Al-Shaykh worked as a journalist in Beirut. Her novels, written in Arabic, have been translated into several languages, including English, French, Dutch, German, Danish, Italian, Korean, Spanish, and Polish.

"At that time Lebanese coins had a hole in the centre. I threaded some into a bracelet and, each time my hand brushed against a table, their jingling sound promised me maturity, control, freedom; promised me that I could cope with the neighbourhood children's taunts about my absent mother. The voice helped me to seduce them. I was like a magician: I told stories and did funny imitations. I could make them laugh." (from The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story, 2005, translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen)

Hanan Al-Shaykh was born in Beirut and brought up in Ras al-Naba, a conservative and unfashionable sector of the town. Her mother, Kamila, was illiterate and married off at an early age. Rebellious and strongwilled, she eventually left her family to live with her lover, Muhammad. A few years after they married, Muhammad died in a car crash. "I can count the times I saw her as a child," al-Shayk wrote in The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story (2005). "When I did, it was as though she was a wild, chaotic neighbour. She had no authority over me." Al-Shaykh father, who worked long days at a jointly owned textile shop, was a devout Shia Muslim. Though he was forced out by his partner, he refused to bring the case to court, saying "God is my lawyer". 

Al-Shaykh first attended Alamillah traditional Muslim girls' primary school and then the more sophisticated Ahliyyah School for Girls. She started to write, as she once said, to release her anger and frustration towards her father and brother, because they were able to restrict her freedom. Her teachers included Layla Baalbaki, whose novel Ana ahya (1958, I Am Alive), banned by the authorities, became a landmark in Lebanese women's fiction. In Saida her roommate in the boarding school was Leila Khaled, who later joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and became the first woman to hijack a plane. By the age of 16, al-Shaykh had already published essays in the newspaper al-Nahar. Between the years 1963 and 1966 she studied at the American College for Girls in Cairo.

While in Cairo, al-Shaykh had a love affair with a well-known and married Egyptian novelist, twice of her age. Back in Beirut she worked in television and as a journalist for Al-Hasna', a women's magazine, and then for al-Nahar from 1968 to 1975. During the four years al-Shaykh lived in Egypt, she made her debut as a writer with Intihar rajul mayyit, which was published in 1970. It has nothing in common with a typical first novel – instead of being autobiographical it is narrated by a middle-aged man. Through the narrator's obsessive desire for a young girl, al-Shaykh examines power relations between the sexes and patriarchal control.

Against the wishes of his father, al-Shaykh married a Christian man, and moved to Saudi Arabia, where her husband worked as a construction engineer. Her next novel, Faras al-shaitan (1971), was written when she lived in the Arabian Peninsula. It included biographical elements related to her extremely religious father, aspects of her own love story, and her subsequent marriage. The narration moves freely in time, and depicts the personal development of the heroine, Sarah, against the background of southern Lebanon. In 1976 al-Shaykh left Lebanon for London because of the civil war. Her home street in Beirut had been turned into a no-man's-land. Until 1982, she lived in Saudi Arabia and then settled permanently in London. She has frequently visited Lebanon and spent summers at Antibes in the south of France.

Al-Shaykh first came to international attention with Hikayat Zahrah (1980, The Story of Zahra), written in London. Because no publisher in Lebanon accepted the novel, she published it first at her own expense. The story operates on many different levels and uses many voices, but in the center is a bewildered and directionless young woman, Zahrah, who finds in the Lebanese Civil War an opportunity to escape oppression. Zahrah's family sends her to Africa to recover from two abortions and a nervous breakdown. She stays with her lecherous uncle, once active in Lebanese politics. To avoid his sexual advances she marries one of his associates. The marriage is loveless and she returns to devastated Beirut – as torn as herself. Chaos transforms her and she falls in love for the first time. But her lover is a sniper who shoots innocent passersby, and the pregnant Zahrah, who carries his own child, becomes one of his targets. The Story of Zahra was banned in most Arab countries. Some of her Lebanese readers rejected the book because it "gives a very wrong impression about Arab culture." Boston Sunday Globe praised it as "an original, moving and powerfully written novel, vividly illuminating the personal human tragedy of war and madness."

In the short story 'The Persian Carpet' al-Shaykh examined the effect of divorce on the children. The narrator and her sister visit their remarried mother. She notices a Persian carpet on the floor of the new home. It had disappeared from the old family house and her mother had accused an old man who used to repair cane chairs in the quarter. The daughter's relationship with her mother is shattered. "Again I looked at my mother and she interpreted my gaze as being one of tender longing, so she put her arms round me, saying: 'You must come every other day, you must spend the whole of Friday at my place.' I remained motionless, wishing that I could remove her arms from around me and sink my teeth into that white forearm. I wished that the moment of meeting could be undone and re-enacted, that she could again open the door and I could stand there – as I should have done – with my eyes staring down at the floor and my forehead in a frown." (from 'The Persian Carpet')

Misk al-ghazal (1989, Women of Sand and Myrrh) was chosen as one of the 50 Best Books of 1992 by Publishers Weekly. Set primarily in an expatriate community in an anonymous Middle-Eastern country, the story tells of four women, each from her own perspective. Two of the women, Nur and Tamr, are Arabs from the unnamed country in question, one is Lebanese, and the fourth is American. Each woman has chosen a different path that reveals their struggle with the patriarchal order. Suha has a degree in Management Studies from the American University of Beirut. She feels disillusioned: "this wasn't the desert that I'd seen from the aircraft, nor the one I'd read about or imagined myself". Suha longs for the freedoms she had in Beirut and has a lesbian relationship; Tamr's success in opening a beauty shop is not easy; Nur is not allowed to travel alone; and the unhappily married Suzanne has a multitude of affairs. "The elaborate network of first-person narrative, in which the text allows the four women to speak in turn giving voice to the voiceless, reflects in its structure the compartmentalization of women and their struggle to break out of all forms of social confinement. The very structure of the novel in which each section conveys a sense of independence while at the same time being an integral part of the whole reflects the degree of sophistication in the authors feminist vision." (Sabry Hafez in Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier, 1993) The book was banned in several Middle Eastern countries.

Barid Bayrut (1992, Beirut Blues), a novel of correspondence, celebrated the resilience of the human spirit in the middle of the Lebanese Civil War. It consisted of ten letters "written" by Asmahan, a Muslim woman, and addressed either to specific persons, both living and dead, or places. The letters perhaps never reach their destination, but through them Asmahan has a small hope of transferring signs of culture over present devastation. Al-Shaykh's story collection, I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops, was came out in English in 1998. In her short-stories al-Shaykh has criticized patriarchal notions of how Arab women should behave, but they also praise Arab cultures that give women a measure of power to negotiate their own realities. In 'A Season of Madness' a woman tries to gain her freedom by becoming mad, while her husband continues to live his life as normal. Only in London (2000) explores in comic light the lives of people caught between the ways of East and West. Lamis, a recently divorced Iraqi woman, has an affair with Nicholas, an Englishman who is an expert in Arabic and eastern antiquities. Another pair is Amira, a prostitute from Morocco, and Samir, a gay Lebanese. The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story (2005) was a family history about miserable marriage, survival, and love in a traditional patriarchal society. Toward the end of the story, al-Shaykh says: "My mother wrote this book. She is the one who spread her wings. I just blew the wind that took her on her long journey back in time."

For further reading: The Arabic Novel by Roger Allen (1982); War's Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War by Miriam Cooke (1987); Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East by Evelyne Accad (1990); 'The Fiction of Hanan al-Shaykh, Reluctant Feminist' by Charles Larson, in Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma, 1 Winter (1991); Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); Arab Women Novelists by Joseph Zeidan (1995); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Writing Self, Writing Nation: Imagined Geographies in the Fiction of Hanan al-Shaykh,' by Ann Marie Adams, in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 20, no. 2 (2001); The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, edited by Michael Sollars, Arbolina Llamas Jennings  (2008)

Selected works:

  • Intihar rajul mayyit, 1970 (Suicide of a Dead Man)
  • Faras al-shaytan, 1975 (The Devil's Horse)
  • Hikayat Zahrah, 1980 - The Story of Zahra (translated by Peter Ford, 1994)
  • Wardat al-sahra: qisas qasirah, 1982
  • 'The Persian Carpet' in Arabic Short Stories, 1983 (translated by Denys Johnson-Davies)
  • Misk al-ghazal, 1988 - Women of Sand and Myrrh (translated by Catherine Cobham, 1992)
  • Barid Bayrut: riwayah, 1992 - Beirut Blues: A Novel (translated by Catherine Cobham, 1995)
  • Aknusu al-shams an al-sutuh, 1994 - I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops: Stories (translated by Catherine Cobham, 1994)
  • Dark Afternoon Tea, 1995 (play)
  • Paper Husband, 1997 (play)
  • Innaha Landan ya 'azizi: riwayah, 2001 - Only in London (translated by Catherine Cobham, 2000)
  • Hikayati sharhun yatul: riwayah, 2005 - The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story (translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen, 2009)
  • One Thousand and One Nights: A New Re-Imagining, 2011

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